Columns » Warwick Sabin

Double indemnity

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I can sympathize with state legislators who are opposing the substantial increases in school funding that have been proposed for the coming special session.

Not because I think we shouldn’t invest heavily in education. Any amount of money we can direct toward the public school system is badly needed, and it’s hard to imagine how we could overspend in that area, considering where Arkansas stands in quality measurements relative to other states.

But where would the money ultimately go? We already know that some school districts allocate more than a reasonable share of their budgets to athletic and administrative expenses while failing to provide a decent basic education. Even where schools are being responsible with their money, however, it’s rare to see a direct, immediate correlation between increased financial support and improved academic performance.

The reason, most likely, is that we are merely propping up an outdated system. We need to continue to prop it up — at least in the short term — because the alternative would be unacceptable backsliding. But we also need to seriously consider wholesale reform of the public school curriculum.

It’s a curriculum that has worked fine for the kinds of manufacturing and agricultural jobs that have been common in Arkansas for decades. But those jobs are beginning to leave, as industries reorganize, downsize or export them to other nations where wages are lower. Now the jobs that remain in the U.S. — especially in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors — require a higher degree of education, because that is our only competitive advantage in the global marketplace. So the high school diploma needs to mean more than it did before.

In many ways, what children learn in school and how they learn it has not fundamentally changed in half a century. Just as our health care system was designed for a different era, our approach to public education does not take into account the world we live in today. Both institutions have served us well until now, and we have become comfortable with them, so it is difficult to even imagine restructuring them. But that burden is falling upon us now, and we need to seize the initiative or risk falling further behind.

A solution may come with the realization that the connection between health care and education is more than theoretical. As the percentage of medically uninsured Americans grows, states are devoting ever-larger portions of their budgets to programs like Medicaid. In fiscal 2004, Arkansas allocated 21 percent of its general revenues to health and human services.

It’s absurd that states should have to spend so much on health care when the federal government is already so heavily invested. And the problem will only get worse — consuming even more of Arkansas’s budget — as the Baby Boom generation ages and makes unprecedented demands on the system.

On the other hand, education is to state government what national defense is to the federal government: It is its number-one priority and the service it is uniquely equipped to deliver. With this in mind, the money Arkansas is spending on health care — one-fifth of its taxes — would be better directed toward innovative, incremental reforms to its public school system.

The way to achieve this is through the creation of a simple health insurance plan provided by the federal government. It’s efficient and rational, because it diffuses risk and eliminates many systemic complications. It’s fairer to business, which is shouldering more costs as competitive pressures make that harder to do. And it’s practically a moral obligation as more Americans lose insurance, forcing them to forgo care while driving up health care rates for everyone.

The first step, of course, is acknowledging the need for a complete overhaul of the education and health care systems. In both areas, we’re wasting money each year by spending more for less. Over the last 10 years, our economy and society have changed drastically, but we keep doing things the same way.

At a time when education has never been more important to the future of our state, we should find ways to erase any doubt that it deserves a greater investment. A recommitment to public schools demands rethinking and reform, and that will only be possible after we remove the shackles of our inefficient and unsustainable health care system.

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