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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Warning Labels

Public school districts throughout New York recently were confronted by another state regulation that requires additional staffing, program development, and professional training. Like many of its legislated predecessors, it is a well-intentioned and educationally appropriate service for schools to implement. I am not identifying it because the issue isn’t the program, but rather the blunt speed and force of the process of its introduction and implementation. Most importantly, it represents yet another unfunded state mandate delivered at a time when schools continue to contend with fiscal constraints that have seen staff layoffs, and program reductions over the last five years.

On Thursday afternoon our regional group of superintendents met with the Deputy Commissioner of Education and had the opportunity to ask questions and raise concerns. Much of the discussion focused on this new requirement. After overcoming some initial reticence, I expressed my summative opinion on the many perspectives rendered on the subject by my colleagues by drawing an analogy to a non-educational concept.

I reminded those present of the frequent late night television advertisements promoting various drug medicines. Nearly half of the commercial itself is devoted to the purpose and value of the drug as a solution to what ails people, while the other half of the ad is used to warn people of the many potential side-effects of the medicine. For example, nausea, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, increased blood pressure, heart palpitations, thoughts of suicide and several other possible problems. The medical term is iatrogenic, according to, iatrogenic means “Due to the activity of a physician or therapy. For example, an iatrogenic illness is an illness that is caused by a medication or physician.” In more simplistic, non-medical terms, it refers to a solution to one issue or problem producing another, different issue or problem, like the medicine addressing your high cholesterol causing joint pain, blistering skin, loss of appetite, darkened urine…  

An example outside of medicine would be the development of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, which used the Nile River to produce hydroelectric power and meet an energy need for millions of people. However, the Aswan Dam prevented the river from flooding, which resulted in the loss of nutrients within the floodwaters that usually fertilized the farm-fields that flanked the river and benefitted from the annual floods. That prompted a significant decrease in agricultural produce and a consequent rise in hunger. So, the solution to one problem inadvertently created another problem.

I concluded my remark by suggesting that the State Education Department should list the potential side-effects of every program or requirement they introduce as a mandate to public schools. I went further and echoed the concerns shared by my colleagues as a suitable identification of such a list and proceeded to voice a mock example based on the piece of legislation we had been examining at the meeting. With the luxury of time since the meeting I will offer a written proposal of more substance and merit than the one spontaneously generated and verbalized at the meeting.

The New York State Department of Education has now mandated the _______________ program. It is designed to advance instructional opportunities and leverage future success for all learners serviced by the new program (although there are no funds available from the state to implement the program and sufficiently train staff members).

Potential side-effects may include:

1.     The need for additional staff at a time of sustained fiscal retrenchment that may likely cause a commensurate staff reduction elsewhere in the district;

2.     The subsequent lack of funding will certainly alienate other stakeholders and further threaten already vulnerable, and valuable, non-mandated instructional programs;

3.     This strangulation of non-mandated programs (see above) will further diminish the role and impact of the local control exercised by the community through policies developed by their elected representatives on the school board by leaving the school with little more than a state based curriculum;

4.     The need for specifically certified staff at a time when there are already insufficient numbers of available teachers in the certification area for the present program loads and number of learners;

5.     The stress on the supply and demand imbalance mentioned above will prompt competitive and  inflated market sensitive salaries which will cause additional financial problems for schools;

6.     An expanded erosion of credibility for the State Department of Education through an even wider rift separating the ideals of the state agency and the realities of the public schools;

7.     Finally, it should be noted that a possible side-effect facing school superintendents is a heightened level of anxiety, increased nausea, and a sense of political impotence that may lead to early retirement and the loss of many experienced school district leaders across New York.

All legislation should be accompanied by warning labels.

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