Ralph Massullo: Special to the Chronicle

When I was growing up my mother seemed to always know exactly what was needed to solve any problem in our lives. Her advice and orders were usually succinct and direct. We complied and things got better. Interestingly, I still can’t figure out what that horrible tasting Cod Liver Oil actually did that was beneficial, but that’s another story.

Today, we face a myriad of challenging issues in our community, state and nation. Real wages have been stagnate; our young people can’t find enough good paying jobs; the poverty rate hasn’t improved significantly in the past 50 years; health care costs continue their meteoric rise; and our environment and infrastructure is in dire need of restoration and improvement. Finding solutions to these problems are complex; however, the key to solving all of them is education. Education is critical if we want to prepare our youths for the future. It is perhaps the most important task a society has if it intends to perpetuate itself, and there is no more admirable profession than to be an educator of our youths. We need to better enable them to do their jobs and compensate them adequately.

Citrus County schools, both public and private, rank among the best in the state. This is due in part to the outstanding efforts of our superintendent, administrators, school board members, staff, principals, teachers, aids, food service workers, facility/maintenance and transportation workers, and parents. This is also exceptional considering that more than 60 percent of our public school children qualify for free or reduced lunch and breakfast, our district has fewer students than many, and given our tax base, needs to operate more economically than most. They do a great job under our current education system, and if we are going to better solve our issues additional improvements and reforms are necessary. Improving our education system will require difficult and often not politically correct cultural and functional alterations.

Culturally, we all need to do a better job as parents in raising our children. Dr. Ben Spock’s ideology of accommodating children’s feelings and catering to their preferences instead of stressing the importance of self-denial and respect for authority is flawed and shows a lack of understanding of our human nature. We need to stop codling our children. We do them no favors by telling them they are “special” and building up their self-esteem without good reason. This leads to an entitled attitude, self-centeredness and apathy. Hard work, concentrated study, self-sacrifice, responsibility, postponing gratification and humility are often foreign to our children because we have sheltered them. They often go out into the world unprepared for the problems they will undoubtedly face, even with their own formal education, because we have kept them from those painful but necessary growth experiences. Children are a serious responsibility, first to their parents (fathers and mothers) and then to the society at large.

Our country has no more powerful enemy than the apathy of its citizens. It leads us to be indifferent, self-centered and robs us of the volition to act altruistically. It will be difficult changing this paradigm since many of us today are products of that same flawed ideology, but change it we must, both in our homes and in our schools.

Functionally, if we want a world class education system for our children, we need to legislatively reduce the burdensome rules and regulations that we have put on our educators and the system in which they operate. Bureaucracy in all levels of government has grown from a necessary evil to an out of control, difficult to tame, monster. Many of our laws are too long and complex to be easily understood or often lack the flexibility to operate in a wise and effective manner, e.g. the inability of assessing performance of two different schools sharing the same building, or waving one portion of the physical education requirement for students participating in athletics, but requiring the other when the two are basically integral, or inconsistent grade advancement and assessment standards, just to name a few. We need to give more authority to the local educators to determine curriculum and teachers should be the first line of assessing student’s performance and not the current quasi standardized assessment methods that are actually compromising learning. “Common core” type national programs do not work and we need to eliminate them. We need to empower principals and support them locally through continuing education on how to be better at their jobs and real leaders in their schools. We need universal school choice and all schools should be on equal footing regarding requirements and standards. We need more vocational and life skills training in our schools and a non-college prep path to graduation for those individuals who may not be immediately college bound. We need to emphasize and explain careers early in the education process and expose middle and high school students to different career paths perhaps even through apprenticeship/internship programs and other public-private partnerships. Our technology is ever advancing and we need a skilled workforce to meet the needs of those new, more sophisticated jobs as well as the more traditional trades that have lost popularity.

We also need to fund education adequately. It is the best investment we can make for the future of our society. Currently, our country spends more per capita on education than any nation on earth yet we are ranked only 17th. Very often it’s not the amount of money we spend as much as how that money is being wisely appropriated. In 2015, county-run school districts in Florida had access to $3.2 billion in capital funding. Some of those districts over spent on construction to the tune of $1.2 billion in excess of the cap over a period of nine years while others who may have planned well had shortages. Often other monies are designated and restricted for a particular use that may not be appropriate and could be better used elsewhere. We should give local school officials more discretion and latitude on how they budget and use their funds and hold them responsible for that task. Therefore we need to elect local school officials who are not only great educators but also savvy and experienced in managing monies and contracts, and the individuals accessing them, in an effective and efficient manner. Currently in Citrus County we are debating the relevance of impact fees and whether we should have a voter approved sales tax surcharge to help fund some local school district plans. This decision process should involve careful planning and budgeting; cost analyses and controls; and most importantly, clear communication and cooperation between all local relevant officials who are responsible to citizens and taxpayers. Somewhere between the “tax and spend” far left and “no new taxes ever” far right is a place where things work. Our country’s founders called that place “America.”

Accomplishing these objectives will require all of us working together. We need competent, compassionate, and trustworthy leaders who are dedicated to prioritizing issues and devising sensible solutions. Otherwise we’ll be discussing what bathrooms we should be using until our climate stops changing. It will not be an easy task, but the rewards will be tremendous for our children and subsequent generations. Suffice it to say the best predictor of the success of our education system are not numeric scores on some standardized assessment tests; but rather, a reduced unemployment rate, a decrease in crime, an increased standard of living, decreased poverty, and a healthier society with the associated flattening of the health care cost curve. So let’s take education and make it better, it’s just what this doctor’s mother would have ordered.

Dr. Ralph Massullo is a Citrus County dermatologist.