Staking the Claim for Education
IF the "education president" will not provide from above, state education will have to seek help from the people below.
Such is the spirit that moves former U.S. Senator and current Head of the Massachusetts Board of Regents of Higher Education Paul Tsongas to consider pushing for a referendum, which would be on the state ballot in November 1990, requiring Massachusetts to set aside 7 percent of its annual budget for education. The farsighted Tsongas plan deserves to be on the ballot and transferred into law.
The referendum would earmark seven percent of the annual state budget for primary, secondary, and higher education. One of Tsongas' goals is to win back for public primary and secondary education some of the funds eliminated by another populist revenue control referendum, Proposition 2 1/2, which limited taxes on local property taxes.
TSONGAS sees two reasons why the state's voters will rally around a budget entitlement for public education. Some will respond from a commitment to social justice, equal opportunity, and the need for a enlightened society. Tsongas says that while he supports this perspective, "it only reaches 50 percent of the voters."
The more galvanizing reason is economic performance in an age when a skilled labor force is increasingly important. Tsongas would like to refocus the debate over education funding towards the issue of international economic competition.
"Human beings will do anything to survive," says Tsongas. "If the economic situation deteriorates every day...people will become more and more concerned. I think if the referendum were to run now we would do very well." Tsongas believes that by 1990, public perception of the link between our nation's education system and our ability to compete in the international marketplace will be even more apparent, translating into further support for the referendum.
TSONGAS' referendum is a timely one, since more funding for state public education is desperately needed. Twenty percent of Boston's high school students find the educational experience so unsatisfying that they drop out. According to the latest round of national tests, those Massachusetts students who do stay in secondary school are steadily declining in math and science competence.
Just as these challenges become more urgent, state and local resources with which to meet them are being cut off. Although Proposition 2 1/2 initially drained funding away from peripheral programs such as elective courses and extra-curriculars in many public schools, administrators have begun to cut deeper.
Because of the current state fiscal crisis, the Education Reform Act of 1985 may not be fully funded next year. Hundreds of schools across the state, mainly the sorely lacking, inner-city public high schools, will lose badly needed revenue for special projects and equipment purchases.
In a state which takes pride in the level of education of its citizens, such lack of support for public secondary schools and universities is a disgrace. But the people of Massachusetts are currently bearing not only the embarrassment, but the economic consequences of their neglect of public education.
As one manifestation of this neglect, a group of Massachusetts biomedical firms are contemplating leaving the state because of the shortage of adequately skilled workers here. Companies such as these are not short of scientists and top researchers. They are lacking competent, literate rank-and-file employees, he said.
When businesses find the skills of Massachusetts people sub-par, the state's economy is clearly in trouble. With little natural resources, the Bay State has long relied on the quality of its citizens, especially in the university laden Boston area to attract commerce.
Although Tsongas is working for a solution for Massachusetts, the problem of an increasingly unqualified work force and low productivity is national in scope. The United States trade deficit remains high, even with the fall of the dollar.
ALTHOUGH few would contest Tsongas' goal of increasing this country's economic competitiveness, some criticize the referendum as a means of achieving it. "The referendum is unsound, and for a sophisticated politician like Paul, remarkably simplistic," says State Rep. Stephen W. Doran (D-Lexington). He termed the referendum, which would automatically set the annual level of education expenditure, "an anti-government approach to government."
This point, which is made by many liberal legislators in the State House, is well-taken. Referenda which set arbitrary figures and remove professional lawmakers from the allocation process can be unwieldy and constricting.
Another objection to setting aside a specific portion of the state budget for education is that such a step might set off a general melee among government social programs to stake out their own funding claims.
Yet the merits of the education funding referendum and the context in which it is being proposed far outweigh these potential problems.
ALTHOUGH the proposed referendum, like all such measures, would be rigid and inflexible, it would not introduce any pernicious new element into the state budget process. The money that would be gained back for education was initially lost though Proposition 2 1/2, an equally, if not more, inflexible measure that capped local property taxes and severely limited towns' revenue options. Tsongas' referendum would merely fight fire with fire.
And fears that giving education entitlement status would prompt a squabble over funding levels for social programs seem unfounded, since the state already guarantees spending levels for important programs such as Social Security and veterans benefits.
Is education any less vital than these programs? In fact, it seems more fundamental to the state's well-being, since a skilled workforce generates the tax revenue that makes the other programs possible in the first place.
Tsongas has a proven track record with state-level referenda, having successfully mobilized citizens behind a non-binding building moratorium on Cape Cod last year. Massachusetts will be better off if he can achieve similar success with this progressive and pragmatic funding initiative. Populist referenda can be simplistic and constricting. But in this case the end justifies the means.