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Back to school

08/31/07 7:55AM By Olin Robison

(HOST) It's back to school time, and commentator Olin Robison thinks we should expect to pay the bill.

(ROBISON) I have long thought that Labor Day is the real New Year in American culture.  It is the time when, psychologically at least, everything changes.  Summer and vacations are over.  It is time to get back to work.  And, of course, it is also time for the young to go back to school.  Many schools are, of course, already well underway before Labor Day.
The time was when most  schools began the new school year right after Labor Day.  But no longer.  The starting date for more and more places has crept back into August, which has been made possible, especially in the American South, by the coming of air-conditioning.
Many people do not realize that these early starts came about as more and more schools - we should say high schools and colleges here - wanted to end the school year early so their students would have a better shot at good summer jobs.  On the other hand, most State governments mandate a certain number of school days each year - 180 actual school days is the national norm - and the only way to achieve an early finish was and is an early start.
Americans have a deep and abiding belief in the benefits of a good education.  It really is the great American secular religion.  It is a belief that is shared by rich and poor, by liberals and conservatives;  in fact, by just about everyone.
It is a belief that is so deeply rooted in our culture that access to a good education is generally seen as a right.  Oddly enough, this was largely a 20th century development.  This simply was not true in the 19th century.  It is now widely seen as the ladder up;  as the way out of poverty.  There is a deep belief that the availability of public education should be seen as a public good.  Sure, individuals profit from it, but so does the larger society.
Unfortunately, more and more communities are reluctant to foot the bill.  School budgets have become political footballs and all too frequently are voted down.  There is a contradictory sense that, while education is a public good and ought to be excellent in quality, at the same time it ought not to cost much.  There is an anomaly here: whereas Americans generally believe that you get what you pay for, that concept does not seem to apply to education.  The phenomenon is likely to grow, as the US population grows older, and older Americans on fixed incomes show reluctance to vote additional taxes on themselves.
Teaching school was once regarded in America as a high calling, and teachers were held in very high regard in most communities.  Less so today
It strikes me as a bit odd that even as education has been simultaneously elevated in public perception to the status of a "right" rather than a "privilege"; there is at the same time a growing belief that taxes - all taxes - are really bad.  There is a disconnect  here that is more likely to grow than not.
But, dear friends, education at all levels is a service industry.  It is labor intensive.  Unlike technology, it is not always easy to make it more efficient and therefore more cost effective.  We can provide a good quality education for our kids and our grandkids only if we are willing to pay for it.
And teachers, to paraphrase a passage from the Bible, are worthy of good pay.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.
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