The Radiolab podcast recently featured an episode entitled Playing God. It chronicled events during Hurricane Katrina when the shortages of supplies dictated that doctors make decisions about who should receive the medical resources that were available. They had no way out with their choices. They couldn't give a little bit to everyone or give some to one group one day and another group the next day. They were at a point where they had to decide who they would treat and who they would withhold treatment, a decision that would result in individuals being condemned to further illness and often death.
It was an incredibly powerful story that starting me thinking about the unthinkable. What would happen if the resources to educate our students reached this critical stage where there weren't enough resources to go around?
Some would argue that we are currently in this situation as we allow schools with plentiful local funding to splash resources on students in affluent zip codes while others survive with aged textbooks, lead in the water fountains, and class counts of 35-40 students.
But what if we were truly at that point where we would have to decide which students received an education and which wouldn't? It does seem far fetched as we all know that well intentioned educators would do their best with 50, 60, 70 students, no technology, no classroom, and no resources, and we know that parents would chip in until they were taking food out of their own mouths,. Even with all of the awful treatment of schools emerging from legislatures in many states, lawmakers wouldn't let schools approach bankruptcy right (Chicago, Detroit)?
So the true question of the day to ponder is which students would be the first to stop receiving a free and public education? I recognize that it is a difficult question, one without answers, and an impossible conversation to venture into without an incredibly safe set of allies to ponder a hypothetical of this nature.
Would the first be our high achieving students? Maybe someone could make the argument that they get enough support from home. How about our students that struggle to read? We know that the resources to shift those behind in reading to being on grade level are intense and expensive. What about our rural students? Transportation is so costly. What about our students at urban schools? They have lots of corporate resources, experiences, and opportunities within their cities. There are many other groups that we could question as well for the first to lose their opportunity for formal schooling.
With no answers, only more questions emerge. Is the solution always going to be to thin the resources out for everyone? Is the solution always going to be to provide an mediocre learning experience for everyone? Is the solution always going to be to use our old model of resource distribution to help schools survive?
We are approaching this time of shortage. No matter what the numbers around school funding may seem, appear to be, or be manipulated to showcase. Operating budgets are tight. Capital improvements are only possible in places where bonding capacity is available and will pass the voters, and even if we can solve the operating and capital issues, the reality is that the complexity of education is growing quickly and the budgets to provide for this aren't rising at the speed of the change.
Are you ready to make these choices? Are you ready to look at children and tell them a modern learning experience isn't available to them? Are you ready to tell parents that their children missed the cut on going to a school with the resources necessary to do things right? Some of us have already had to start having these conversations.
It is hard to imagine that it is true, but this stark reality is approaching in so many places.