MAKING THE GRADE: What does it cost to educate a child?

By Daily News • Last Updated 10:26 am on Thursday, February 13, 2014

Making the Grade | Janet Ralph

One of the pleasures of writing this column comes when I meet someone who has read it and expresses appreciation for it. The only thing that makes that better is when someone offers a suggestion for a topic that they would like to see discussed in a future column. That occurred this week when it was suggested that there was an article in a Sunday paper that I should write about.

I believe that the article to which this person referred was in regard to legislation that a lawmaker, Rep. Brandon Dillon, has introduced that would require a study to determine the true cost of educating a child in a Michigan public school classroom. It happens that I had also read a similar article by Julie Mack who covers K-12 education and writes a column for the Kalamazoo Gazette.

At first blush, the response to this idea would seem to be “Of course. Why wouldn’t that be a logical place to start our thinking about funding of our public schools?” I would agree except that is too simple. I would suggest we first step back and acknowledge that there are, of course, business practices involved, but education is not a business.

Educating a child is not like cooking a hamburger, building a house, or selling a product. I have often said that fast food restaurants would not stay in business long if they had to rely on having people drop off whatever meat they have on hand each morning. The product of consistent quality that we expect to find from day to day and store to store is the result of carefully purchased raw material prepared in an identical way every day and every place. Our children are not like that.

So my first response to this well intended legislation is that we have to begin by recognizing that this is not a simple question. There is no single model of school or community or child. The first step has to be to ask what outcome do we want?  My vision of a quality school is one that includes the basics plus numerous opportunities for children to experience the fine arts and physical education as well as other opportunities that help them broaden their horizon and interests. Having that vision is easy. But first of all we have to acknowledge that children come with different levels of learning and experiences and with different needs. Then we can talk about what model of school helps us achieve that vision and ask what is the cost involved?

One example is special education, in my opinion one of the greatest additions to public schools that we have seen. There are children with a wide variety of physical, mental or emotional needs that must be addressed before we can expect them to master even the most basic skills. And addressing this is costly. Although both the state and federal government have stepped up to this issue and passed requirements for local schools, the added cost to

Pre-kindergarten education has never been fully funded. Funds for these programs are regularly taken from basic school funding.

Just as children are different, families are different. Some have adequate resources and education to provide rich experiences for their children. Others struggle with limited resources and experiences, or perhaps with illness or other challenges that make it difficult for them to support their growing child.

And communities are different, too. Some are affluent with many resources. The amount of money raised by property taxes for schools varies from community to community.

So let’s begin by acknowledging that there are no simple answers to this problem. I applaud Rep. Dillon for his interest and concern and for this first effort. Done properly and studied carefully, this could be a great step in the right direction. But unless it is well thought out, unless it involves the parents and educators close to the situation and unless it recognizes the complexity of the problem, it will just be another good idea that has no or very little impact on moving us toward a solution. Unless it informs and draws in the entire community, it will not get us closer to a solution that we can all support. It will take sufficient time and effort to create legislation that will give us the results we need and want.

I will pursue this topic in a future column because this is a good idea but there is much to be considered.


Janet Ralph is president of the Greenville Public Schools Board of Education.

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