Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Educational Fat

In his state-of-the-state address Monday evening, Governor Beshear made much of the fact that the state is broke in the worst sense of that word – financial kaput! Senate President Williams insists that the problem is manageable but the governor apparently believes drastic measures are in order and, indeed, campaigned on that notion, with his priority for fixing the brokenness being the inculcation of (gasp) gaming, not the horserace or bingo types, but serious gambling a la casinos – the “big boy” stuff.

Mentioned already by the state’s education gurus of both high and low esteem is the fact that budget cuts will simply gut educational programs on every level. Every Kentuckian is supposed to suffer both shock and awe at such a revelation, but the predictable response is probably the usual yawn…business as usual. In 1990, citizens were told that public education was broke and that only the greatest tax increase in the state’s history, not withstanding the huge pork connected to it, would suffice to fix it. The result of the reform act: If anything, education is in worse shape today than it was then.

Notwithstanding all the good intentions of honorable people, government enterprise is consistently damned by both incompetence and corruption, honorable people often outnumbered by the dishonorable and/or the incompetent. The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 featured corruption on a huge scale with its “earmarks,” as well as incompetence on an even larger scale with its legislative mandates regarding pedagogy, something totally outside the abilities of the legislators even to comprehend, much less enact. Thankfully, much of the act has been rescinded and much more should also be cut out of it.

Instead of just acceding to the education gurus in their demands for more money, perhaps it would be wise to determine how well they use the funds already available. In a help-wanted advertisement in the Lexington Herald-Leader of last fall, there was this job description advanced by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System: System Director, Office of Cultural Diversity. Job description: Provides leadership and support for new and existing initiatives relating to diversity and cultural matters. Collaborates with colleges and others in the evaluation and implementation of diversity related initiatives.

The person filling this job was required to have a Master’s degree plus five years related leadership and administrative experience or equivalent. In other words, this was a relatively high-paying job, complete with office staff, myriad machines and all the rest.

What is an office of cultural diversity, especially in a two-year, junior-college/industrial-trades milieu, which has to do with academic or skill-related achievement? Since this office was concerned with diversity-related initiatives (whatever they are), there was no indication that it had anything to do with either academics or skills. The point: Tens of thousands of dollars are soaked up by this enterprise described as involving diversity and culture, both of which are quite well defined in the dictionary and seem hardly worthy of treatment on the college level.

If cultural diversity is accounted as an academic matter, it reminds of the craze some two-three decades ago to establish college/university departments of women’s studies and African-American studies, with graduates in those fields empowered to do little more than become teachers in those fields, thus continuing the craze…and possibly knowing a good thing when they see it. As a practical matter, how do experts in either field impact the society other than with pronouncements?

In short, until the education establishment on all levels gets its house in order – especially by cutting unnecessary, even silly programs – citizens have a right to scream, “Just eat cake.” This is true all down the line. Do most public schools actually need assistant principals? As a cost-cutting measure, can they get along without a multiplicity of counselors? Does a high school need an athletic director? Should administrative offices be overstaffed with people owning a lot of titles but doing little or overlapping work? Should a superintendent make a quarter-million while a beginning teacher might pull in $30,000?

Shouldn’t intercollegiate athletic programs that lose gobs of money be trimmed? Should a girls’ basketball team or a men’s soccer team fly all over the country at great expense (airlines/hotels are expensive)? Why can’t they compete in a small area where (gasp) a bus and no overnights will do? Should the head of KCTCS make well over $600,000 a year while students struggle with tuition?

Should there even be a Council on Post-Secondary Education, with all the highly paid professionals involved? KERA has done nothing for the state in 18 years and it appears that little has changed in comparison with the rest of the country since the Council was brought on line some nine or so years ago. Check the statistics…the ones the politicians quote unceasingly as they run for office, the ones indicating how bad the state is educationally.

Admittedly, there are no answers here, but there are some questions/suggestions that the governor and legislators might address as they figure how to budget for the next biennium. The education departments are full of fat across the board, and they should have to wring it out instead of constantly adding to it with new pie-in-the-sky programs that cost millions.

As for the office of cultural diversity mentioned above, it likely is an enterprise whose sole purpose is recruiting African-American teachers and students. If so, the honest thing would be to call it what it is instead of something cultural keying on diversity, defined as “differing from one another: UNLIKE; composed of distinct or unlike elements or qualities.” Choosing anyone on the basis of diversity is demeaning to African Americans, women, and everyone else. Competence should be the test.

And so it goes.

Jim Clark

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