With education, like most things, you get what you pay for

Brookline TAB, April 14, 2008

One thing I learned in my days on the School Committee was that if you’re going to make an omelet, you’re going to have to break some eggs — meaning, to do what you need to do, you can’t please everyone. Last week I read in the TAB that Brookline Public Schools is at the very top in per-pupil expenditure, and the implication of the article was that this is probably not a good thing. I found myself sighing, and thinking, “Here we go again.”

In the name of being prudent, careful, cautious and conservative, we draw comparisons to other towns, but the truth is, this is apples to oranges. What is a “comparable” town, anyway? Are we like Cambridge, who, though similar in some ways, spends 50 percent more than Brookline per pupil, according to the state Department of Education? And yet, how many people do you know move to Cambridge for the schools? Or are we somehow like Eastham, who spends in a similar range to Brookline, but is utterly different in size and make-up? Do we want to be like those in Newton, whose per-pupil expenditure is comparable, but who have difficulty designing cost-efficient new buildings?

No. We are Brookline. We live here because the schools are excellent, because the property values hold, because our location can’t be beat, and because our population is diverse and interesting. All of these benefits are connected to each other, as surely as Brookline was once a part of Boston. Your property values hold because your schools are perceived as excellent. Your schools are excellent because they offer a curriculum that is both broad and deep. The curriculum and professional development are comprehensive because they take into account the diverse body of learners and cultures. The diversity drives the curriculum. And we want it that way.

Furthermore, we have done due diligence as a town looking into all of our expenditures. The Override Study Committee, an independent body of citizens from a diverse spectrum of experiences and beliefs, came out months ago with their recommendation to raise taxes to address the structural deficit, building and equipment maintenance, rising energy and health-care costs. Not only that: There have been numerous public forums where school and town personnel have demonstrated the many different ways in which cuts from the state and federal government in the last six years or so have taken their toll on our budget.

Yet, against the backdrop of so many constraints and difficulties, Brookline has managed to offer a competitive and comprehensive education to its students, consummate with the challenges and demands of today’s working world and with government mandates. Brookline has managed with cuts and heavy costs, by trimming wherever possible, and by considerable sacrifice: reduction in staff across the schools, resistance to program expansions, painful and difficult contract negotiations and deferral of certain building projects, to name a few.

The per-pupil expenditure is high, no question. But the fact remains that you get what you pay for. It costs money to educate kids; it is a complex world out there, and they need to master quite a bit more than we had to when we went to school. We’d all love to think that not so much has changed, that kids are kids and school is school. But that is simply not true. We all understand how much more competitive the world is today; that English is not the only language you need to know and that certain skills are expected of every child. We also see how today’s classroom is more of a melting pot, in terms of learning styles and issues, international diversity and also socio-economic disparities.

For all of our hard-earned dollars, we get math specialists at all the schools, aides in most of the kindergartens to assist with the burgeoning enrollment numbers, a high school whose course offerings look like college classes. And we get more special needs taken into account in Brookline classrooms than ever before.

Is there room for improvement? Of course there is. Is every child’s every need met, even with all this money spent? No, of course not. But how do Brookline kids do once they are out in the world? They do extremely well. Even in these days of slow economy and the worst federal education funding in history, Brookline has a school system to be proud of.

But that does not come cheap. We have to invest in the things we believe in. At some point, we have to stop walking on eggshells. Let’s look at the facts, take a deep breath, and do what is necessary to stay at the top.