DAVID SAFIER: Beware the cycle of ignorance - Tucson Local Media: Editorials

DAVID SAFIER: Beware the cycle of ignorance

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Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:00 am

“We’re eating our seed corn.”

That’s what a fellow teacher said to me in the mid-1980s. A few years earlier, Oregon, where I was teaching, had passed a property tax limitation law, and schools were beginning to feel the pain.

New teachers were warned they may not be rehired. Budgets for textbooks and educational materials were slashed. Principals stared at the floor as they refused teacher requests for a few dollars to fund worthwhile classroom projects.

“Seed corn” refers to the sacks of kernels farmers store away for the next planting season. They know if they eat or sell the seed, even for the best of reasons, they put their futures in peril.

If we eat our educational seed corn by cutting school funding still further – we’re already 49th in the nation – we’ll be balancing the state budget by placing our children’s futures, and therefore the future of Arizona, in jeopardy. Yet that’s what the Republican-majority state legislature looks like it’s planning to do. It’s a jaw-droppingly foolish idea.

If we continue to slash our already meager education budgets whenever we run low on state funds, we’ll to launch into a self-perpetuating Cycle of Ignorance.

Here’s how the Cycle of Ignorance works. It begins with the drastic underfunding of K-12 schools. Students who might otherwise succeed, if teachers had the time and resources to help them, will end up failing and dropping out. It will be difficult or impossible for them to find work that pays a living wage, so they will become financial burdens on the state. Too many of them will end up in our costly prison system. What we “saved” on the front end by shorting their educations will be spent many times over, both in state funds and in the deplorable loss of human potential.

Lots of students who don’t drop out will sleepwalk through class and end up with little to show for their years in school but a high school diploma. These graduates are only slightly better off than the drop outs and often have similar futures.

Many students, of course, will graduate high school with the ability and desire to continue their educations. But unaffordable college tuition combined with limits on enrollment will cut their dreams short. Most likely, they’ll end up earning less than they would have with more education. They’ll pay far less taxes over their lifetimes, so state revenues will continue to fall.

Out-of-state businesses that require a highly educated workforce won’t even consider Arizona when they think about relocating. They know they won’t find the skilled workers they need, and they’ll shudder at the thought of sending their own children to Arizona schools. Some of our best in-state businesses will make the same calculation and flee. The result will be fewer high paying jobs – there goes more income tax revenue – and fewer businesses paying taxes as well. Our tax base will shrink as our budget problems increase.

That’s our likely future if we slash our K-12 and higher education budgets even further than they’ve already been cut. Too many adults will be on welfare or in prisons, while too many others will be in low paying, dead end jobs. Too few job-creating, tax paying businesses will set up shop in Arizona.

Our quality of life will be significantly worsened, and we won’t have the most vital raw material needed for a sustained economic recovery: well-educated workers. All these problems will mean our tax revenues will continue to dwindle, so we will be forced to … I’ll bet you saw this coming … make even more cuts in education.

And so the Cycle of Ignorance perpetuates itself, spiraling downward every time it goes full circle. And it begins with the ignorance of anyone in government – elected official or bureaucrat – who believes we can cut school funding without dire consequences.

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