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Front Page » Opinion » Education Fund Cuts Threaten Communitys Economic Future

Education Fund Cuts Threaten Communitys Economic Future

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Written by on December 11, 2008

As the economy recedes, an insidious erosion intensifies: education funding cuts will leave hundreds of thousands ill-prepared for jobs.

A year of sub-par education scars forever — what wasn’t learned then may never be. A decade of sub-par education cripples both pupils and the society that depends on them. Once lost, that slice of training is almost impossible to regain.

Job losses, foreclosed homes and stock and realty declines will someday end. Jobs will grow. Workers will find homes. Investments will soar.

But the loss in attending deficient schools and universities persists.

That specter underlay visits last week by the chancellor of the state universities, Mark Rosenberg, and the superintendent of Miami-Dade’s schools, Alberto Carvalho, to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

We require well-educated citizens to grow high-paid sectors like bio-tech and communications, knowledge-based industries that can bulk up our economy and help us excel. Miami-Dade’s development group, the Beacon Council, is targeting that sort of workforce.

But Dr. Rosenberg showed the chamber disquieting graphs correlating income and education. Florida is only average in US per-capita income, just above $25,000, and also about average in adults with a bachelor degree, fewer than 25%.

Miami-Dade is even worse. Per-capita income well under $25,000 is far below state average, and fewer than 25% of adults hold bachelor degrees.

Those figures don’t prove cause. Are Miami-Dade incomes low because of low education, or is education low because of low incomes? It’s probably a bit of both, plus floods of immigrants who face language and other barriers to both education and income.

But no doubt draconian education cuts could irrevocably damage a generation. That potentiality was the 800-pound gorilla glowering at the podium with Dr. Rosenberg and Mr. Carvalho last week.

Mr. Carvalho cited not only $289 million already cut from his $6 billion budget this year but a probable mid-year $65 million cut — as severe as cutting $100 million in September. That cut, he fears, might eviscerate music and arts for the schools’ 385,655 students.

He’s not alone in pain. Nationally, the highest category of state spending is public education, with higher education third. Across the nation, districts have cut overtime, frozen or cut teacher pay, dipped into reserves — all before the past few shocking months.

But more cuts loom, as do demands. The Legislature in spring will almost surely slash spending everywhere as falling tax income in a declining economy reduces revenues.

And next school year, by law, boards statewide must operate virtual Internet schools for every grade and further shrink class sizes, raising costs.

Even worse, state tax revenue is shriveling ever faster. Over the next four years, legislators now expect to have to trim $31 billion more than they’d anticipated as recently as last month.

Painful as all may be, Mr. Carvalho sounded optimistic: "Bad economic times give us the opportunity to push the refresh button and reinvent ourselves as a leaner, meaner operation."

He cited a recent shift of 440 teachers from headquarters into classrooms. If he now tallied remaining headquarters workers — a spokesman, incredibly, says nobody tracks that number — it might help be still leaner and meaner.

And he could look to Washington, DC, where an innovative 38-year-old superintendent proposes raises of up to $40,000 a year if teachers yield tenure rights, allowing the schools to eject poor educators. Better teachers would receive more, poorer ones would be out.

To chamber applause, Mr. Carvalho called for building respect for high-end vocational training for pupils who aren’t college bound. Students, he said correctly, need to see a viable "reality between playing ball [as a career] and becoming a doctor or attorney."

His other key point: the schools must "build bridges and mend fences across our community."

That call to jointly reinforce education as the cornerstone of our economy and quality of life paralleled Dr. Rosenberg’s plea. In the verbiage of political science, his specialty, Dr. Rosenberg called for an Iron Triangle to enhance education.

That triangle, he explained, would unite educators, legislators and business, because "the business community needs a greater sense of urgency about education."

After real estate’s collapse, he said, "we need a new investment strategy, and that strategy has to focus on human capital to complete in the knowledge economy."

The Greater Miami Chamber has embraced that aim. Mr. Carvalho and Dr. Rosenberg are on a chamber team trying to ratchet up education as the economy slides, a daunting chore. The group includes presidents Eduardo Padron of Miami Dade College, Msgr. Franklyn Casale of St. Thomas University and Mitch Maidique of Florida International University, who were present.

Dr. Rosenberg, who heads 11 universities enrolling 304,000 and spending $8.5 billion, noted that a third of that cash comes from the state, whose share is shrinking.

"With these budget cuts," he lamented, "we are going to slide backwards."

It always does. During the 2001 recession, states’ higher education spending fell $650 per student. This time could be much worse.

As the economy slides, woes extend to the mightiest. In just four recent months, Harvard lost $8 billion of a $36 billion endowment. Every university’s endowment is in decline.

The result: less aid for students and more difficulty in admitting all students even as a stagnant economy drives more people out of the workforce and into college classrooms.

High tuition from out-of-state and foreign students, a historic fund pool, is also threatened. In a global recession, that pool may evaporate.

Dr. Rosenberg asked the chamber to back Gov. Charlie Crist’s bid to let state universities raise tuition 15%. That would fund aid to poorer students but impede other families hammered by the economy.

Meanwhile, as credit tightens everywhere, student loans dry up and after-class jobs diminish.

This plethora of education problems makes Dr. Rosenberg’s Iron Triangle intriguing. His plea, however, may play better with business than in Tallahassee.

Business knows how much we’d suffer if an already imperiled educational system further weakened. Implications for both citizenship and economics are frightening.

Getting lawmakers to shift focus from fundraising and reelection to education is harder. They may know it’s right, but they need a strong push from the businesses that fill their reelection accounts.

Even with goading from business, government will be hard-pressed to maintain, let alone upgrade, education. It’s truly rock-and-hard-place time.

But without a push by business for education funding, local and state economies may be destined for long-term downward spirals that would make today’s recession seem tame.