Letter to the Editor

Setting state priorities

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

In the roughest economy since the Great Depression, there is legitimate concern about the fiscal health of our state. Some state senators are warning that there may be a huge decrease in state aid to schools for the following year. Their argument is that other state agencies have had to make cuts in their budgets and it is now time for schools to "feel the pain." This sentiment has been repeated over and over in discussions with some policy-makers.

Feel the pain? Really? Which parent wants their child's education to be shortchanged enough for them to feel pain? Most parents would go into debt, take another job, or make major changes in their lifestyle to avoid an adverse effect on the education -- and the future -- of their children. If our policy-makers do not understand this, they miss the point of priorities.

Now at Risk

In the Nebraska Hall of Fame in the Capitol Building in Lincoln, there is a bust of Gov. Robert W. Furnas, who also served as first president of the Nebraska State Teachers Association.

Furnas helped write the first school law while in the Nebraska Territorial Legislature, started the first school board in the state, and served as president of the first Board of Regents for the University of Nebraska. He understood the value of education for this state. His priority was education. Now that priority is at risk.

Some are suggesting that, considering the economy, a cut of more than $100 million in state aid to our schools would be a reasonable number. After looking at effects of cuts to our schools and colleges, the question is whether any cut is reasonable. Incredibly, those who would allow schools ... and students ... to "feel the pain" must believe that a cut in state support for our schools would not have any real effect on students.

Loss of Teaching Jobs

The largest single expenditure in any school budget is the cost of teaching staff. That is exactly as it should be. For our children, teachers are the most important ingredient in any school. And cuts in school funding threaten the jobs of dedicated and qualified teachers. Cuts in state aid mean students will feel the effects. The pain of cuts for students will be the result of the inability of schools and colleges to attract highly qualified teachers. It also means the loss of teaching positions and resulting increased class sizes or the outright elimination of classes that students need. Up-to-date text books, teaching materials, and the maintenance and repair of clean and safe buildings are just some of the other effects on student learning.

Message Spread

In 1932, during the Great Depression, Nebraska legislators proposed both an income tax and a sales tax -- just to bolster support for our schools. They understood priorities ... even in a depression.

This is the message that every parent, grandparent, teacher, school bus driver, real estate agent, or packing-house worker ... everyone who cares about students of any age ... must spread: This is the worst possible time to cut back on funding for our schools and colleges. Equalizing pain is not good judgment in any public policy. Spreading the pain of our economy to the education and future of our children is not fair or equal -- it is both educational and economic nonsense.

These are tough economic times. But tough times do not mean that we change our priorities. It is exactly the time we keep those priorities safe. Our economic, social, and ethical priority should always be the sound education of young people. If we can't find other places to cut spending, it simply means that education is not a genuine priority. Don't mince words with this message. And don't neglect to say it. Letting our students "feel the pain" is not the legacy we want to leave for our children. And it is not the future we want for them ... or for this state.

-- Craig R. Christiansen is Executive Director of the Nebraska State Education Association Founded in 1867, the NSEA has nearly 28,000 members across the state.

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