In politics, nothing is more certain than this: When revenues lag and budget cuts loom, superintendents and school boards will immediately advertise the impending loss of an alarming number of teaching positions.
Nothing could be more certain to stimulate public response. Parents will picture their daughters' beloved third-grade teacher — or those special teachers who keep their sons involved in high school — staring blankly at a pink slip. PTA presidents and teacher-union spokespeople will deplore the prospect of larger class sizes. Protest groups will appear outside school board offices, with adorable children holding hand-painted signs.
It's wonderful theater. The emotions of parents and schoolchildren, not to mention teachers, are quite genuine, but education officials are playing a cynical game.
There are plenty of places to make cuts without dismissing a single teacher. But you can't generate a public outcry over reducing central office staff, tightening up on the use of copiers or postponing new technology purchases or textbook adoptions.
Just mention teacher layoffs and you generate the sort of support you need to fight other government agencies for that dwindling taxpayer dollar. And news media, particularly the well-coifed TV types, are all too happy to add fuel to the fire.
Every government agency plays this game, but few do it as well as the school folks, and for good reason: No one wants to see teachers getting fired.
I offer these observations as one who's taught history at three public high schools, been an administrator in another and served as the head of a small state agency in tough budgetary times. From this varied experience, I've learned one thing for certain: In a bureaucracy — governmental or corporate — every agency or division has evolved techniques to avoid actual reductions in size, power or potential for future expansion.
One such technique is to add nonessential personnel and functions during good economic times: the budgetary equivalent of a bear putting on fat before hibernating, or a camel drinking water before a long desert trek.
This process, a natural adaptation to such meat-ax absurdities as across-the-board budget cuts, has a certain logic. When coffers are flush and legislative scrutiny is lax, you add fat. When times are hard — or the anti-tax crowd is temporarily in charge — you reluctantly yield some of the excess, without ever touching core functions or essential bureaucratic power.
Games like these have been going on for so long it's difficult to imagine that they'll ever change. But perhaps we have reached the point when change has become possible.
The economic crisis will gradually ease, but it will be a long time, possibly an eternity, before Americans again enjoy the sort of expansive economy that characterized the Clinton and Bush years.
Simply stated, the world has changed. For decades, Americans have enjoyed a global economy in which they were important — not as producers or investors — but as borrowers and consumers. That economic order is over, and Americans will have to choose between the two roles in the next global economy. We can either struggle along as impoverished has-beens or return to the virtues that characterized the first two centuries of our national existence: thrift and industry.
In rediscovering those old virtues, our schools must play a leading role. They'll have to prepare our children for a far more competitive world while evolving to retrain middle-aged and older workers, even retirees, whose livelihoods have disappeared.
Moreover, in a century of tight budgets, our schools will have to learn to prioritize — a concept alien to the whole ethic of 20th-century educational thought. Our schools will have to begin calculating where to invest scarce resources and where to cut their losses.
In part, this will require that our schools admit that they cannot serve every human need. They cannot educate those who, by their own choice, refuse to learn. Nor can they do much to help those who, by repeated misconduct, interfere with the education of their classmates. They cannot always make up for parental incompetence and neglect. They cannot, in every case, educate those with disabilities so profound as to make them essentially uneducable.
If our nation is to thrive in the 21st century, we'll have to learn what the world's rising powers have long understood: Education is an investment that must produce societal returns. When resources are limited, they must first be invested in those students who have the potential to become productive adults.
Currently, we're not free to make that choice. A thousand-and-one federal mandates compel state and local educational authorities to make unsound decisions about how to spend taxpayer dollars. And the biggest losers, as always, are the average kids who struggle in anonymity in our oversized and overcrowded schools.
I once worked as an assistant principal in a rural Virginia high school. We employed two teacher's aides to serve the needs of one child, whose cruel combination of physical and mental disabilities rendered her unable to benefit from an actual high-school education.
Day after day, I dealt with the disciplinary problems of students of average ability who were gradually falling behind — often because they'd become stuck on some point of algebra or plain geometry. And I couldn't help thinking how much good might be done by reassigning those two teacher's aides to help average students with their math.
There was a time when American educators believed we could save them all. We no longer live in such times. Some children will be left behind, or America will fall behind.
If Virginia's General Assembly wants to do something serious about improving education in tight budgetary times, it can begin here by impaneling a special committee to inquire into one fundamental question:
Does Virginia truly benefit from accepting federal educational aid — or would it be more cost-effective to reject that aid and the federal mandates that accompany it? S
'Rick Gray, a local actor, blogger and beekeeper, served as secretary of the commonwealth from 1978 to 1981. He also taught history at Midlothian High School, the Appomattox Regional Governor's School and elsewhere.
Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.