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Which organ system can you do without?

I ask my anatomy students to discuss which organ system they believe is most important. They make a lot of impassioned arguments, discussing various physiological functions and their importance to the whole.

The question itself was never the point; and as many soon realize it’s not even answerable, because our distinctions between systems are largely arbitrary. My motives are noble, but a similar strategy can be used to distract people’s attention and misdirect blame.

A recent poll conducted by the Kansas Chamber of Commerce suggests that people think public schools spend too much money on “non-instructional” expenses, and not enough “in the classroom.” Is the Chamber’s poll valid? Or, perhaps it mirrors similar polls by the Kansas Policy Institute – conducted with a poorly-hidden agenda and rigged to elicit the desired response.

One poll question begins with a claim that “only 55 cents on every dollar” of public school funding is spent on instruction. The question itself creates bias against public schools. But look what else this question does: it labels some public school expenditures as “instruction” and others not. The poll also implies by assumption that “instructional” expenses are more important than “non-instructional” ones.

So, what organ do you think is most important?

Teachers, like me, cost money. Clearly the money spent on teachers’ salaries counts as “instructional” spending; but what about other expenses? Who decides what counts as “instruction”? And are those expenses really more essential to the overall functioning of public schools?

When I arrived at my school this morning, I had a paved place to park. I walked a concrete sidewalk from the parking lot to the school doors. None of this infrastructure comes free, but it allows me – a teacher – to get to my classroom where I provide instruction.

The outside temperature was 34 degrees; inside my school, a comfortable 65 degrees. The heat inside the building doesn’t simply fall out of the sky - it costs money. Not only was my school warm, it was also lighted. I arrive before sunrise in winter, so I find both light and heat absolutely essential to my ability to instruct my students. Yet, others call these expenses “non-instructional.”

In my room (which I find clean, thanks to my district’s “non-instructional spending” on custodial salaries) I prepare lesson materials printed on “non-instructional cost” paper, using a “non-instructional cost” copy machine, operated by a “non-instructional cost” print room employee.

And, I make great use of my new SmartBoard – a large “non-instructional” capital outlay expense. And the computer infrastructure that runs such technological wonders? Also a “non-instructional” expense. If this technology isn’t working; I call the district technology department, where highly-skilled “non-instructional” professionals work unseen to provide the tools teachers use.

Shortly before my first students arrive; I meander across the hall where I tend to other important non-instructional business. In a small but essential room, I find running water – handy for sending unwanted materials on their way and for subsequent hand washing.

Does the Chamber of Commerce consider indoor plumbing too costly or extravagant for public schools? Maybe so, but I don’t. (They didn’t ask me, though. I’m only a teacher).

I might be the only “instructional expense” inside my classroom but I couldn’t function without help from administrators, education support professionals, librarians, counselors, attendance secretaries, nurses, and many other colleagues who aren’t included as “instructional expenses.”

During my plan time, I check my mailbox – filled with essential communications delivered by “non-instructional” personnel. During lunch I might visit with school security officers or greet a few food service workers. Lunch and a safe building: more “non-instructional” expenses; though any teacher will tell you kids can’t learn when they’re hungry or scared.

At the end of the day, hundreds of students make their way onto buses for the ride home. The critics will tell you busing isn’t an “instructional” expense. To be fair, I’ve never had a school bus in my classroom. But I’ve never had much luck teaching kids who aren’t at school, either.

Labeling some public school expenses as more important than others is like saying your heart is your most important organ. True, you can’t live without your heart. But you can’t live without your liver, either. Or your kidneys. Or your skin. Neglect of any parts ultimately harms the whole – body or school.

Beware of those who fuss over how much is spent “in the classroom” and how much is not. The distinction is arbitrary at best, and critics of public education will invariably sort expenses to fit their agenda.

According to the State Department of Education, 62% of public school dollars are spent on instruction; not the 55% claimed by the Chamber of Commerce. In defending the figure of 55%, Chamber CEO Mike O’Neal said “If it’s under dispute, it’s because there is something wrong with the Department’s own definition of instruction.”

Now, we could debate whether the Chamber of Commerce or the Department of Education are more qualified to determine what is or is not “instruction.” And we could debate how the available funds should be spent. Those debates would suit the Chamber of Commerce just fine, in fact.

Critics like the Chamber of Commerce, the Kansas Policy Institute, and others seek only to draw attention away from the real issue: total funding of Kansas’ public schools is woefully insufficient.

And the critics love to misdirect blame. They would have you believe your schools have plenty of money; and that Kansas' nearly 300 local school districts are each creating their own unique, individual budget shortfalls through their own fiscal mismanagement.

If you buy that, go ahead and sell your liver to the highest bidder. As long as you keep your heart, you’ll be just fine.

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