Thursday, May 17, 2012

Enemies all around us

Trying to make advances in education in New Paltz is about as futile as the attempts of the Danaïdes to fill a tub with water to wash their sins away.  In fact, as this week's budget vote shows, even trying to minimize the cuts to education is mostly unacceptable.

Putting it another way, trying to ensure that New Paltz remains affordable for the people who live here and wish to use real estate as an investment in this community is damned near impossible.  In fact, as this week's budget vote shows, we very nearly saw an unacceptably large tax hike get shoved down our throats.

Two sides of the same coin, and it's the same old coin, despite the extra wrinkles thrown in by the tax cap.  Education is part of the long-term planning we make as a society, but that doesn't mean diddly to someone who is fighting to fend off foreclosure or only bought that house because they were told that rental income is "passive" in some alternate reality.

It's a crappy system.  New York State has abdicated its obligation under its own constitution to provide education, shifting it, as our spineless legislators always do, onto the local municipalities and taxpayers.  But even if the state did its job, that would not make the ballooning costs magically stop ballooning.

This anti-budget message went viral on Facebook.
What I think I'm seeing is related to the so-called anti-intellectualism movement, and might actually help me explain why that idea isn't entirely without merit.

This week's budget proposal exceeded the tax cap, and only 60% of those bold budgets got passed statewide, while something near 99% of the budgets within the cap requirements were approved.  Just as they did with the middle school renovation, the board worked really hard on explaining why they needed this money, how important it is, and what bad things would happen if this didn't pass.

And that's where the problem begins.  I don't think people are actually opposed to education, nor do I think people are really offended by intellectual pursuits, but boy do they hate snobbery.

Now I'm more educated that many Americans, and much less so than many New Paltz residents, and from where I stand it seems that each degree a person earns beyond the first has a chance of injecting some snobbery into their attitude.  The way it's expressed is through an unspoken message, "My idea is correct.  I know more than you do about this subject, so obviously if you disagree with me it's because you don't understand what I am saying.  There is no valid reason for you to disagree other than your own ignorance.  I shall try to explain this in small words your uneducated brain can understand, because once you do you will bow to my superior intellect."

The problem is, there are other points of view, and this approach dismisses those views as ignorant.  Given the amount of time that the board spends researching these subjects, it's understandable that they and their supporters (which include me) believe that this budget was the best possible option.  But to approach the problem as if you already have dismissed all of the arguments and this should be a foregone conclusion forgets one fact:

Their vote does not depend upon your knowledge.

Do I think it's sad that Highland's budget was defeated by people who can't spell?  I sure do.  But it wasn't defeated by people without education, it was defeated by people who vote.  The voters have the power to deny you what you want, and as Robert McNamara notes in The Fog of War, the best way to deal with that dynamic is to empathize with the enemy.  (I'm using "enemy" loosely here to describe the people who have the power to deny, in this case the school district voters.)

How much empathy was shown for the naysayers?  Did we:

  • imagine the fear of someone on a fixed income who sees a tax increase which is twice the Social Security hike for the year?
  • ask for their help in lobbying for a new way to fund education?
  • talk to them about why we insist on negotiating multi-year contracts with the unions, which tie the hands of future boards by making up to 75% of the school budget contractual and thus untouchable?
  • work with them to find ways the community can help make up for the quality programs that are being cut?
New Paltz sees itself as a battleground, and thus it is.  There will always be people without children living here, and people who only use properties to make money, and their views will always be exercised in the voting booth.  It may not be fair that this is the only local budget subject to such scrutiny, it's the system until we can get it changed, so maybe it's time to start empathizing with the enemy rather than just drawing new battle lines.


Steve Greenfield said...

Oh, wow. In my zeal for truth, I forgot that you are actually one of those lay people who DOES tell the Fire Chief he's wrong on firematic things. How sloppy of me. My bad. Sorry.

Lucky as all hell for firefighters, and the endangered people they serve, that unlike school districts, the Fire Chief is under no obligation to listen to you and pretend your opinion is as valid as anyone's, and certainly doesn't need your approval to engage in known best practices -- snob that he is.

Martin McPhillips said...

Some quotes from Terence:

"Education is part of the long-term planning we make as a society..."

If I may be allowed an anecdote. I have a very good friend who is now teaching in a NYC school (after years teaching in rural West Virginia; she's from Long Island) and from her account the long-term plan should also include expanded morgues and prisons.

"Now I'm more educated tha[n] many Americans, and much less so than many New Paltz residents..."

More or less "educated" ain't got nothin' to do with it. Yes, we want a doctor to have come out of a good medical school, for sure, but then I once had to stop a good doctor from a good medical school from killing someone right in front of me. So, it's important to be an "educated" consumer as well.

"Their vote does not depend upon your knowledge."

Ah, the "knowledge problem!" Yes, but you can barely touch it via one of these annual budget plebiscites. "No" is always going to carry the most knowledge in terms of the "knowledge problem" when it comes to funding what we call public education. That's because "No" is the only possible path to creative destruction at this point. Bureaucracies are rock hard and only pulling the plug on them backs them down and breaks them down. But you would need a long series of "No," and not just on budgets, to actually get somewhere close to ending these brutal encarcerations, not to mention any easing back on the rents charged to pay for them.

Martin McPhillips said...

First, let me correct my above mis-spelling of "incarceration."

Then, five things that radically cut the costs of public education:

1. Here you reduce class size to one, just the student and Sal Khan (who is an excellent teacher). Great thing here is that if you hit the replay button, Sal starts over and does it again. It's free. Great teaching; great savings. (Would, of course, require action from Albany.)

2. End teacher tenure and instead offer long- and short-term contracts to individual teachers. That would require Albany to change the laws pertaining to public employee unions. (Never going to happen? The Berlin Wall wasn't going to come down either.)

3. Start using adjuncts the way universities do to cut instructional costs. Offer the best adjunct instructors regular teacher contracts. (Requires action from Albany.)

4. M.I.T. has been offering its courses online and for free for a long time now. This and the Khan Academy are only two of the best known online sources. There's a lot to choose from, from all over the place. M.I.T. is now offering online degrees too. And don't forget Rosetta Stone, which sells its courses, for anyone who is interested in languages.

5. iPads. Kindles. Nooks. It is so over for public schools. The only thing left is the babysitting function, and the unions and the state education bureaucrats who serve them.

The above still assumes something like the traditional curriculum, but that is an unnecessary a-few-sizes-fit-all constraint. Some kids will be better served by getting out into the world earlier as apprentices for various trades or for any sort of work. Going way back, Ivan Illich radically questioned the value of public education (and schooling in general) in his "Deschooling Society." It's interesting mainly as a thought provoking (though a tad convoluted) sideways look at the whole thing. It's available online here:

I hesitated to mention Illich because it has been so long since I glanced at his work, and he is so one-of-a-kind, that I can't vouch for his real overall value. But I pass it on with the advisory that it is indeed radical and might merit a skimming. I first re-published the New York Review of Books abridged (I think) version in the SUNY New Paltz student newspaper (The Oracle) in Spring 1971. So there's some sentimental attachment with that, though no one seemed to know what to think of it back then.

Steve Greenfield said...

By posting my follow-up without my actual first comment, you've created a non-sequitor. I'm not surprised, given the moderator. I suppose there's only so much pointing out how wrong you are that you can take.

There is nothing wrong with board members and superintendents telling you there is much you don't know about why the budget looks the way it does. It's no different from the director of NASA telling you that, or the coach of a major college football team, or the chief of your fire department. Because Albany gave you this vote, you think that means your view is as valid as the people who are actually expert on law a curriculum. That's not a problem just for you, and it's the reason why we shouldn't have either a public vote on this or a local property tax to pay for it. But you keep insisting that what you say about public education is valid, and it's not. Deal with it.

Most residents who don't have kids in school HAD kids in school. They took other people's tax money when that was covering their own kids, or themselves, but now they don't want to be those other people. Normal? Sure. But justifiable? No way. You can't go through life being a taker -- well, you can, but if that's your attitude, don't ask for my respect, which is what your whole ridiculous commentary is demanding.

Ed law is hundreds of pages long. Mandates and curricular elements are thousands of pages long. Then there are the construction requirements, the food service requirements, the phys ed requirements, the number of cubic yards per hour of air that has to move through the space because of health codes, and you should become painfully aware that public education is in the hands of experts for every bit as good reasons as NASA. It is not that the experts are snobs. It's that they're experts. There's no reason they should pretend you know what you're talking about when you display so aggressively that you don't. Just because someone acts like you don't know what you're talking about doesn't mean they're not right about that. Because of the degree of expertise required, in almost every case, they are. Be honest with yourself, as they are with you.

TPW said...

I recall seeing two comments and approving them both simultaneously. I cannot find the original one now.

There is no need for me to take your words out of context or interpret them in any way; I prefer to allow anyone who chooses to read them to draw their own conclusions.

I am more than happy to delete comments which insult people, since name-calling from behind the shelter of a computer monitor is the very definition of craven. However, I'm more tolerant when the insults are lobbed at me, so I approved your last comment, even though you did not see the need to back up your claim about my intent with anything stronger (or less passive-aggressive) than "given the moderator."

To help us move past this, I am prepared to do the following:

1-I am removing restrictions on comments. It's been quite some time since people have really had a chance to show how ugly they are in their comments. Let's see who, if anyone, has grown up. (Sorry, still no anonymous ones allowed.)

2-I am offering you a spot blogging here. You are articulate, think your arguments through, highly abrasive, and even when I agree with you I'm told that I am wrong . . . by you, Mr. Greenfield. I can think of no one better qualified to offer an alternative point of view.

The first will be accomplished immediately. The second awaits your assent.

Martin McPhillips said...

"I am removing restrictions on comments. It's been quite some time since people have really had a chance to show how ugly they are in their comments."

My computer clock reads 12:03 a.m., so it has really only been about three and a quarter hours.