IBJOpinion

MARCUS: High school principals as economic drivers

Morton Marcus
May 14, 2011
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Morton Marcus

From time to time, I am asked: “What is the best investment for Indiana’s economic development”? The answer: our high-school-age young men and women.

High schools already exist. No new structures or organizations are needed. By and large, they are staffed with experts at reaching young people. Mostly, they lack the mission, the authority and the resources to enable children to become responsible adults.

The local high school does not see itself, nor is it seen, as the community’s most important economic development instrument. Yet high schools, their students and their programs can set the tone for life in many communities.

A failing high school has high delinquency rates, its students on the streets edging toward disruptive and potentially illegal behavior. Often, citizens perceive these truants and dropouts as threats to their person and property. Even if not visible, unsupervised young people may test the boundaries of civilized behavior, potentially inflicting irreparable harm on themselves and others.

Some insist that high schools are virtually impotent if they do not have the support of the parents. Others claim the issues of behavior must be addressed in earlier grades. Finally, there’s a belief that most students lack the essential aspiration for education, for a life enriched by knowledge and competence. These arguments are valid yet exist as convenient excuses for doing little, for avoiding the distinct responsibilities and opportunities of high schools.

To be effective, a high school must have a clear mission based on its individual circumstances. The state and the school district must leave creating the mission and the means to accomplish the mission to the individual school. This requires principals who have the vision, the will and the authority to mold programs that will work in their schools.

In too many cases, today’s principals shuttle among the superintendents, teachers, parents and students attempting to maintain calm. They are intermediaries, not leaders. Principals must be educated and empowered to be leaders, not just administrators.

Aggressive programs to prepare young people for adult responsibilities will require additional resources. Over the past three decades, Indiana school corporations have been reduced to dependencies of the state. The state sets standards, dictates curriculum, denies adequate funding and licenses unprepared teachers.

Where will the money come from to support more innovation in our schools? One source could be the local Economic Development Income Tax. But the money should be used to supplement specific programs and not dumped into the schools’ general funds. In effect, those local officials who control the allocation of EDIT monies should buy specific services from the schools.

For example, most schools have cut back or eliminated education in art, music and theater. The results go beyond the education of students. In many communities, high school programs provide entertainment and social enrichment for all citizens, whether or not they have children in school.

High schools can offer education for adults in vocational and technical skills, math, science and foreign languages. Sadly, while neglecting high schools, Indiana has built a totally separate, overweight and often ineffective system called Ivy Tech Community College.

High school students serve as role models for their younger siblings and neighbors. So, too, adults attending high school classes transform the school’s atmosphere, adding a more serious element to an adolescent environment.

A good high school acts as a magnet, draws new citizens to town, and retains those already living there. A good high school instills community pride yet currently remains an undervalued asset in Indiana.•

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Marcus taught economics for more than 30 years at Indiana University and is the former director of IU’s Business Research Center. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mmarcus@ibj.com.

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