Sen. Regala at a recent visit to a 27th District school
Our difficult budget situation has created a challenge for me when it comes to K–12 Education.
I strongly believe that a strong education is critical to a child’s success in life. That is even more true as we progress into a global, technology—centered future. Our children must be prepared to understand and use new technology, to think in new ways, to have a broader understanding of the world they live in, and to communicate effectively with a wide variety of people. This challenges our education system to change and our teachers to re-think how they impart these new skills and knowledge to their students.
Wanting to be a part of helping students learn and prepare for their future is why I spent 17 years volunteering in one of our district schools where children faced many everyday challenges that impeded their achievement in school. It is why I spent six years as a tutor for children struggling with reading.
So when it comes to education reform—I care deeply that we do it and get it right. While I have do not serve on the Education Committee, I try to follow education issues as much as possible—analyzing the various proposals against the elements I believe are essential. This past year several of my colleagues from both sides of the aisle and from both chambers worked together to develop proposals to make major reforms to our education system. I strongly applaud their work and thinking. Two current bills before the Legislature reflect that effort: SB 6048 and HB 2261.
The bills have many good elements in common—albeit with some variations. Both contain a prototypical school model to be used to allocate state funds for education. Both establish working groups to develop recommendations on important issues. The State Board of Education will look at the issue of accountability; the Professional Standards Board will look at teacher performance and certification; and the Office of Financial Management will look at the issues of teacher compensation and local levy support for schools.
The biggest difference in the bills presents the biggest challenge in my mind. HB 2261 redefines basic Education to include all-day kindergarten, increased instructional time in high school, highly capable education, enhanced special education and transportation. All of these are important factors in an education system designed to ensure every child reaches their best potential. The problem is with the timing of expanding the definition of basic education during this fiscal crisis. Since education is the paramount duty in our state, anything defined as basic education must be funded. There is already a lawsuit that the state is not adequately funding basic education. And during this fiscal crisis, the 40% of our budget that is basic education is off-limits from reductions. I certainly don’t disagree with that.
However, I am concerned that expanding the definition before our economy turns around means we will have less ability to deal with the other factors that impede a child’s ability to learn. Recent research across the nation has identified adverse childhood experiences as strong barriers to future success. Things like: emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; emotional or physical neglect; parents with mental illness or substance abuse problems; domestic violence; divorce or separation from a parent due to the parent’s incarceration. And we all know that children who are homeless or struggling with health issues also struggle to keep up in school.
So when I look at the fiscal implications of these bills, I am asking myself:
Do I gamble and assume our economy will turn around by 2011 so we can afford the new higher costs of basic education?
Or, do I oppose expanding the definition at this time and hope that by next year we will have a better idea of our future and what we can afford?
The future of all of our children is at stake. We must provide a strong basic educational system but we must not ignore addressing the challenges and barriers that so many of our children face. That really would leave children behind.