Education is a lifelong continuum, so it should not be broken into state funding fragments that are constantly set against one another, write guest columnists Bette Hyde, Gene Sharratt and Marty Brown.
AS the Legislature prepares to tackle school funding in the wake of the McCleary decision on the state’s basic education obligations, advocates for different education segments have made their pitches in the court of public opinion. Since we have administrative responsibility for some of those segments, you may be tempted to think that this is just one more attempt to grab a piece of the funding pie.
But you’d be wrong.
Too often our debate over education funding works on the squeaky-wheel principle. Whoever yells loudest, longest or last is rewarded with funding. But that’s how the game is played when education is sliced up into bite-sized pieces.
Our tendency to segment education is a false paradigm that was originally meant to establish administrative responsibilities. It has the unintended consequence of encouraging well-intentioned people to embrace these arbitrary silos and substitute them for reality.
Much of the debate over education funding, and the subsequent advocacy for different portions of the education community, misses the fundamental point. The truth is this: Education is a lifelong journey that begins at birth and doesn’t end until we draw our last breath.
Once we accept this fact, the question changes from “which piece of the educational system do we fund?” to “how do we build and maintain capacity for lifelong learning?”
Research shows that, in the first three years of life, a baby’s brain makes 700 new connections every second. And learning doesn’t end at graduation — it really never stops. Consider the adult who responds to a midlife crisis by turning a lifelong hobby into a second career. Or the retiree who learns a new language before traveling to exotic foreign countries.
Rather than a series of silos, education is really a series of building blocks stacked sequentially on the foundation of prior learning. Each block depends on the block below for strength and stability; each block in turn provides support for new blocks yet to come.
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Let’s take this building block analogy a bit further.
Today’s toddler, observing how blocks stack upon each other, becomes tomorrow’s structural engineer. How does he or she get there? First by the spark of curiosity about balance and gravity that begins in preschool, followed by the fundamentals of mathematics in elementary school, conceptual math in high school, applied math in college and then continuing education throughout his or her professional career. Perhaps, after retirement, she’ll begin a new career as a community-college instructor helping to train the next generation.
Reduced funding at any of those levels guarantees a shaky foundation that will have an adverse effect on the student’s ability to reach his or her full potential, and society’s ability to reap the benefits of that potential. Who knows at what age a child will have that flash of insight that will lead to profound change? And who knows what prior learning set the stage for that insight?
The challenge is to look at this not as education providers, but holistically from the student’s perspective. How can you hunger for knowledge when you’re hungry? How can you focus on learning when you can’t see the blackboard? If conventional education represents the bricks, then social services represent the mortar and are vital to stability, school readiness and success.
The state Constitution’s requirement for “ample provision for the education of all children” is clear. Early education, K-12, higher education, continuing education and social services are all important. We must stop pitting them against each other based on our flawed construct of administrative silos. We all understand the funding challenges faced by the Legislature, but we have to avoid short-term gimmicks and quick fixes. Olympia must take a sustainable, comprehensive approach that builds a strong foundation for lifelong learning.