Public education a public concern [Editorial]

Generally speaking, the general public should be a lot more interested in the formulation of a budget for the school system than attendance at public hearings on the subject would seem to indicate.

From a philosophical standpoint, public education is a foundation of representative democracy. The populace cannot be expected to make informed decisions about public policy unless everyone has a baseline of general knowledge that includes the ability to read, write, do basic math, understand scientific principles and have a sense of history.

It is in everyone's interest to have a level of confidence that everyone else is up to this baseline of knowledge, so it is in everyone's interest that the public schools are functioning well enough to impart a kernel of the wisdom of the ages to each new generation.

From a practical standpoint, public education is among the most costly endeavors undertaken by local governments. In Harford County, the public school system's operating budget is nearly as large as that of the county as a whole, with the county paying for roughly half of the school system's annual expenses and the state covering most of the balance. (The federal government, despite having a Department of Education, contributes very little to educating the populous, but that's a subject for another day.)

This week, in anticipation of beginning to come up with an operating budget that covers essentially the 2014-15 academic year, Harford County Public Schools did something it hasn't done: it launched something of a public relations blitz in an effort to get people to attend public sessions on devising that budget, which is likely to be somewhere in excess of the $427 million it's authorized to spend this year.

It remains to be seen if the total is reasonable. The schools, like every other enterprise, have seen increased energy costs over the past several years. Likewise, the cost of providing health insurance to school system employees has far outstripped inflation, a problem that has plagued governments and businesses.

Enrollment in the county's public schools, however, has declined steadily, though slowly, for a decade.

It's an open question as to whether schools are funded at a level that is too high, too low or just right. The business of a government entity, be it the school system or any other agency, however, using the apparatus of government to prompt action on the part of the general public is a bit suspect.

Still, the school system probably should never have had to send out notices to get people focused on issues relating to managing public education. The public should be paying attention to such issues to start with.

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