Living in Society Social Commentary

Supporting Education

Big Grove Township School #1
Big Grove Township School #1

There is a piece to be written about education and how it is supported in Iowa, although not the one that comes to mind.

It is a timely topic because the way our K-12 schools receive government funding includes what is called “State Supplemental Aid,” or as some slow to cultural adaptation legislators call it, “allowable growth.” The legislature is supposed to set the amount of SSA within 30 days of the presentation of the governor’s budget. They don’t always do that.

We know, with some certainty, that the bulk of a child’s education is not about school time. In fact, children do better in formal schools if they have a broader context of learning that includes family time, formal outside activities, and other social constructs to engage them. It’s not just me saying this.

“One in every five students drops out of high school and roughly 1.2 million students fail to graduate from high school each year,” reported the United Way in a 2012 issue brief titled, “Out-of-School Time.”

“Local United Ways and their partners must ensure that children and youth from birth through young adulthood have meaningful supports and opportunities across all settings (e.g., families, schools, communities).”

Education begins at home, and includes the society in which we live. The Iowa K-12 schools are a subset of that, and one doesn’t have to be a home schooler to appreciate it.

For some, it never gets far from there. Family life becomes an unending series of coaching, sharing, counseling, correction and stimulus moments injected, intentionally or not, into the arc of a child’s life. School becomes one more thing.

In our family, going to school was positive. Not only did we purchase special clothing and gear, and update our immunizations, the prospect of learning with other neighborhood children provided a broadening experience—one we couldn’t replicate at home.

There was some stress and uncertainty, and we didn’t agree with everything the schools taught, or the social environment they created, but the overall impact was positive. We learned how to get along in a diverse society, and that was and remains important. That applies to my own schooling and to my perceptions of our daughter’s time in K-12.

The other day I encountered a very young child in a stroller looking toward a conversation between the presumed mother and a store clerk. Silent and intent, the soon to be toddler took it all in. What unscripted learning took place? What observations did the child have and from what framework? The child focused on speech coming from the boisterous one. It was a look of wonder that is hard to forget.

Enter my Catholic upbringing and the concept of “free will.”

The question of free will ranks among the most important philosophical problems. The view adopted in response to it will determine a man’s position in regard to the most momentous issues that present themselves to the human mind.

On the one hand, does man possess genuine moral freedom, power of real choice, true ability to determine the course of his thoughts and volitions, to decide which motives shall prevail within his mind, to modify and mold his own character?

Or, on the other, are man’s thoughts and volitions, his character and external actions, all merely the inevitable outcome of his circumstances? Are they all inexorably predetermined in every detail along rigid lines by events of the past, over which he himself has had no sort of control? This is the real import of the free-will problem.

The progressive view is that life is not predetermined by circumstances of family or acculturation. Environmental factors may come into play, but every American can have the opportunity to share in the American dream, and the role of government is to give people a hand up in what often is a struggle toward an equitable and secure life in society. Public school funding is an important way governments do that.

This gets lost in the public debate on school funding. The Iowa House Republicans view setting SSA as a negotiation. They passed a bill—along party lines—to set the figure at 1.25 percent. This was a starting point, they said, intentionally set very low, and in line with the governor’s budget.

The Senate is expected to pass a bill setting the figure between four and six percent. One doesn’t have to be Jeane Dixon to see a settlement around three percent.

Interested parties will advocate for an SSA number and the process will be ugly. The schools will uniformly say it is not enough and cut budgets in response to the final amount. That will be ugly too.

School funding is one more reason elections matter and people should get involved in the political process. That they don’t is a problem our K-12 school system helped create. There is no bigger indictment than yesterday’s Des Moines Register headline, “only 23 percent of millennials can name their state’s senators.”

In our community, people remember attending the one-room schoolhouse Big Grove Township School #1, now called the Stone Academy. It closed recently, in 1953. Whenever there is talk at the legion or at public events about the school, an old timer or two will say, “I went there,” and recap who else did.

There is no going back to the one-room school house, and that’s a good thing. Living in Iowa, our schools have great facilities and well educated teachers and administrators. Yet something is missing.

As a society, we spend a lot on education. Details for Iowa can be found in the 2014 Annual Condition of Education Report. It’s not about the money, it’s about our priorities.

What is missing is a sense of connection. People may be connected to a local community the way a Stone Academy graduate is, but many won’t live here that long. They don’t want that type of connection.

It is not for me to say what people want, or how they get there, except to say I have hope that as a society we recognize we are not in the world alone. The interdependence of societies, cultures and resources on this blue-green sphere is becoming increasingly important. Education can and must play a role in bringing this outlook to the fore.

For the most part we tolerate diverse views. However, relativism has proven to be a false path toward resolving conflict and isolation. There is no right answer, just a notion that when we support education, it means a lot more than government budgets to support public schools. It means a type of engagement the creates hope for more than the success of an individual at the expense of community.

We are a long way from that type of sustainability, and it is unclear that education, in schools, at home and in society, is getting the job done.

That’s why I believe we should support education more than financially and more than we have.