Thursday, August 23, 2007

This Education Brought To You By...

Every year it seems the educational system is forced to sit on pins and needles -- which the parents have to buy because schools cannot afford them anymore -- and wait for budget allocations to come down from on high. This puts schools at a horrible disadvantage, because how does one plan? For the worst? For the best? For a 40-60 split? Will there be time to hire qualified teachers if the money comes through in a last minute deal, or will it be the pink-slip polka?

It's no secret that the State of Michigan is in some serious financial trouble. Finger pointing aside -- and frankly, we'd all be out of fingers -- the end result is The Great Lakes State is faced with balancing a budget that is redder than a baboon's butt.

It may be presumptuous to speak for the universe, but I'll go out on a limb here and say I think everyone agrees that its best to spend within your means and that excessive, long-term debt is bad. And while the topic of fiscal responsibility isn't as exciting as poring over todays list of Who's-Who in Rehab, it's an important part of life and one that shouldn't be ignored. It comes down to being an adult.

Despite all those things we agree on, the devil is in the details and we-the-government spend an inordinate amount of time dancing with the devil. It seems so simple: Recognize and identify the problem, propose solutions and take action. The problem seems to be the constant bickering over who is going to lead, and will it be Tango or Rumba? The next you know, somebody has stepped on somebody else's toes, backs are turned, harsh words are spoken, long gloves are slapped across faces and it's pistols at 40 paces.

Well...maybe it's not quite that dramatic, but looking at all parties involved, all I can say is, "so much for being an adult."

Out of sheer desperation, school districts have had to come up with other sources of revenue. One popular choice was the installation of vending machines in public schools. A 2006 study from the State of Utah concluded

Utah's schools earned an estimated $3.25 to $3.75 million in vending revenues in fiscal year 2005.

Those would be numbers any financially-strapped school district would find hard to ignore. And just think, if Johnny is hungry, he can go to the vending machine and get an apple, which means Johnny has a healthy, nutritious snack and the school district can afford to have running water for another month. It's a real win-win situation, right? Maybe not so much. The Utah study also found

Beverage revenues from Pepsi and Coca-Cola were about 70 percent of schools’ vending revenue. Snack vending and occasionally milk or refrigerated foods (sandwiches, fruit) make up the remaining 30 percent.

Is anyone here surprised? We're sending our kids to school with a pocket full of quarters and expecting them to choose a Cheese sticks instead of Cheese Puffs? This revenue boosting experiment essentially uses kids as both guinea pigs and cash cows, but now, in light of poor dietary habits that are linked to rises in obesity, diabetes and a host of other health-related issues (that will have to be treated and paid for somewhere down the line), even the school districts are backing off. A little. A recent Lansing State Journal Article reported

The Ingham County School District recently announced a deal with Pepsi to bring "healthier" choices into school vending machines ... students are making healthier choices, too, has lessened the district's reliance on soft drink dollars.

"We've become more concerned with empty calories during the school day," Joel Raddatz (Williamston Community Schools' Superintendent) said. "As our kids become better informed and change their habits, they're just naturally not buying as much as they used to. If they're not buying it, the company is not making any money."

Notice they aren't getting rid of the machines. They are making adjustments to make them more profitable. Johnny had better keep those quarters handy.

The latest school district revenue boosting idea is school bus advertising. Not on the outside of the bus. On the inside.

"Every school district is looking at where they can generate new revenue," says Lansing School's director of transportation Nathan Rowen.

"You might see something from the Milk Producers of America telling you to drink milk, you might see something from the Navy or Army or Marines," Rowen says.

How, in this age of
fanatical zero-tolerance enforcement is it acceptable to expose children to advertisements for the Armed Forces while we turn around and suspend kids for pointing a chicken finger and saying bang? Evidently a fistful of dollars helps.

Budget deficits are a horrible problem. The state is suffering. The schools are suffering. But no matter how we-the-government decide to ultimately work things out, it shouldn't be at the expense of the children. We've already emptied all the quarters out of their pockets and filled them with junk food and soda pop. We shouldn't be filling their heads with the advertisements. This is an adult problem. It should be an adult solution.

Pass the waffles.

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