Paying the cost of education

At the recent Souhegan Cooperative School District Deliberative Session, an age-old conflict between the cost of education and the philosophy of education arose, and certainly not for the last time.

Even though district officials had already made $608,000 worth of cuts from teacher, paraprofessional and administrator positions, one of the rather few attendees at the Deliberative Session proposed an amendment to cut the district’s budget bottom line by 3 percent, arguing that spending had risen during the last seven years while enrollment declined. And she advanced the argument that she had gone to schools with 30-35 children in her classes and “did fine.”

The amendment failed, perhaps in part because another member of the audience argued that a high teacher-student ratio burdens teachers.

This divide has been with us for a very long time, and both arguments have merit. Certainly it is true that many students who went to schools with large numbers of kids per class did very well. Students who attended one-room schoolhouses way back when also did very well.

But not all of them. Some students, even those who try very hard, need the kind of extra attention that only smaller class sizes will allow teachers to provide. How are we to help them if, say, they could get that help in a class of 23 students but not in one with 33? Are we to somehow set them apart for more help later? Later when? After school when the students and teachers have other things to do?

It is also true that some students do poorly in smaller classes, just as some students did poorly in one-room schoolhouses.

The problem, if we can be forgiven for using that word, with education is that one size does not fit all and no one system or class size is right for every kid. All district administrators can do is what is possible given budgetary constraints and their necessarily limited knowledge of each individual kid. Try as they might, no teacher, no counselor, can know all of the inner workings of the student mind, nor all of the particular needs of those minds.

The thing that disturbs us every year, though, is the idea that our school systems absolutely have to find a way to do a great job with less money. And think about it this way: Say the Souhegan budget was sliced by an additional 3 percent this year. What about next year? Cut more positions, then slice it again?

Where would budget cutting stop?

We are not proponents of spending for the sake of spending, but neither are school district employees. They understand that their non-student constituents, the taxpayers, often have problems making ends meet and paying the taxes needed to operate the schools and the towns. We are certain they take that into consideration.

But their primary focus must always be the needs of their students and, unfortunately, good education costs money, good teachers deserve decent salaries, and somebody has to pay. That somebody is us, and the way we pay is through the unforgiving property tax. That might be the place to look for relief, rather than looking toward increased class sizes.