by Ken Gorrell,
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
“But I’d only need one hundred of you.”
That line silenced the crowd of teachers listening to a high-tech titan talk about the future of public education. I wish I could find the article, but I remember reading a few years ago about an education conference where somebody – perhaps Bill Gates or some Silicon Valley sultan – elicited cheers from a group of teachers by telling them how important education was to the future of America, how valuable good teachers were to education, how teachers should be paid six-figures…Then he hit them right between the eyes with the reality of technology: “But I’d only need one hundred of you.”
I thought of that line when reading about the shameful tactic employed by the Laconia school board and teachers’ union to push through a budget-busting labor contract. The board negotiated the contract knowing it would require breaking the faith voters had placed in the fiscally-responsible tax cap a decade ago. School Board member Mike Persson threatened city councilors with election opposition if they failed to pay the ransom required to ensure a “fairly smooth election cycle.”
The monetary demands were couched in terms of “investing in the future” of Laconia, but as with all such taxpayer “investment” promises, no one was willing to make definitive guarantees for returns on that investment. Persson asserted to the Daily Sun that “The main driver behind middle class families locating to a city is the perception of the public schools’ quality and the availability of strong co-curricular programming.” A bold statement. Has anyone been so rude as to ask him for his data, his proof? What about other possible drivers of community appeal: crime rates; housing availability and affordability; job availability within a reasonable commute; cost of living; tax rates?
Instead, citizens were promised the magic beans of making the city more attractive to middle-class families by dumping more tax money into their schools. They were told that increased taxes (not particularly attractive to taxpaying families) would right past wrongs by giving teachers competitive pay, sure to attract and retain the best of them. Except, of course, no one would promise that outcome, either. That contract is simply part of the bid-up cycle used by all districts to justify pay, benefit, and retirement packages that are outstripping the ability of many communities to afford.
Has anybody in authority in the Laconia school district explored options beyond “more money”? Sure, board member Persson employed the usual emotive tactic of threatening to close an elementary school and losing programs, but isn’t there somebody on that board with vision and fiscal sense? Breaking the tax cap is like opening a vein to a vampire. The sucking won’t stop.
There are alternatives. I’ve written about this before, but it bears repeating: Twenty-three states educate their students for less than $10,000 per pupil per year. In NH, the average is more than $14,000. Somebody on the Laconia school board with the least bit of intellectual curiosity should ask how Florida, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado can achieve better education results than we can at less than three-quarters our cost. Each of those states ranks higher than NH in the 2017 US News & World Report Best High School Rankings, so their lower costs are not coming at the expense of a good education.
What about technology? We’ve been told for years that technology in the classroom would work wonders. It hasn’t. That’s because, unlike in the private sector, public schools have added tech without fundamentally changing how they do business.
Which brings us back to that education conference. The speaker explained to the quieted teachers that technology could now do for teaching what it has done for almost every other profession: Improve productivity and product or service quality while reducing personnel requirements. The Internet can give every student access to a world-class, tailored education at a price even struggling cities like Laconia could afford…if we are willing to change how we do business.
The best teachers and award-winning curricula, tailored to each student, could be brought to every classroom in the state via the Internet. Instead of a hundred school districts competing to attract middle-of-the-road graduates from teacher colleges or to retain tenured teachers whose salaries are based not on evaluated quality but degrees attained and time served, each district could select from world-class instructional materials taught by the technologist’s “one hundred of you.”
Certainly by 5th grade, most students are comfortable using the technologies necessary to bring about this change in classroom instruction. The stumbling block isn’t the kids, it’s the adults. It’s the entrenched interests and the small-thinkers. The time for tolerating this status quo has passed. Laconia taxpayers would do well to hold tight to their tax cap and tell school board members to put on their thinking caps.
Ken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org