Guest Column

No Room for Bargain Basement Schools

by Gary A. Burton

The other day I overheard a man complaining about the lack of quality merchandise in a discount outlet store. His comments struck me as funny because everything in the store was marked “seconds,” “returned” or “discontinued stock.” Still, this individual was lamenting there was nothing to be found that pleased him. I assume he considered the price to be right but considered the quality of the items to be unacceptable. I almost asked him why he was shopping for first-rate products in a store that carried only second-rate merchandise. I like shopping in stores that feature discounted goods because I sometimes find great buys. Who's to know or care if I want to wear irregular socks? Buying less-than-fashionable sneakers to wear on the weekends is fine with me. The same is true of purchasing store-brand products rather than higher-priced, nationally advertised goods. If the quality is comparable, why pay the higher price? Of course, when I've had to purchase a large household appliance or an automobile, I've shopped around for the best buy in terms of both price and quality. I certainly wouldn't buy a refrigerator or a car marked "defective" just to save money. Sales Galore Truth be told, I don't do a lot of shopping. It's not my favorite thing. When I do shop, I look for bargains. I'm just naturally drawn to the sales table in the back of the store. I readily admit I don't like to pay full price for most things, especially when they might go on sale the next week. Experience has taught me that eventually almost everything in America goes on sale. If you are lucky or patient, you usually can get exactly what you want for 40 percent, 50 percent, maybe even 75 percent off the regular price. Okay, sometimes you can't get exactly what you want, but you can usually get close to what you want for considerably less money. Unlike some people, I don't mind buying things during the off-season, such as bathing suits in October and ski pants in April. I like to think that I’m a savvy shopper, practicing good money management. My wife doesn't always approve of my shopping habits, and for this reason she is very specific when she sends me to the store with a list of needed items. With this in mind, can you imagine a school system that would deliberately offer its students only a second-rate education? It's not that far-fetched. After all, we have discount outlet stores for secondhand merchandise so why not discount outlet schools for an inferior education? I wonder who would send children to these schools. Recent news coverage suggests some communities around the country are considering just that, reducing their educational offerings and turning their schools into educational discount centers. Private schools typically cost more than public schools and claim to provide students a superior education. I assume private school parents seek this superior education and willingly pay for it. What parent would send their children to any school, public or private, that promised a second-rate education, even if the price was greatly reduced? Product Quality The concept of discount outlet schools worries me, but it does have a certain appeal. Think of all the tax dollars that could be saved. On the other hand, I'm not convinced that reducing a school district's budget by 10, 15 or 20 percent or eliminating certain school programs just to prevent tax increases is such a smart buy for the general public. It certainly wouldn't be for the children who attend those schools. Like the shopper looking for quality merchandise in a bargain basement store, I don't think you'll find a first-rate education in a second-rate school. It just doesn't work that way. I like to save money as much as anyone, but perhaps with some products you can't or shouldn't compromise on quality. Education is such a product. As a strong supporter of public schooling, I believe money spent on our children’s education is usually money well spent. I'll admit many schools could be made more efficient and run more effectively. The same can be said of most businesses, state government and the U.S. military. Like most people who pay taxes, I want to control unnecessary spending and keep public expenses in check. However, I don't think most citizens want discount outlets for schools providing second-rate instruction. Smart consumers realize our public schools must be of first-rate quality. As a nation we can't afford anything less. Gary Burton is superintendent of the Wayland Public Schools, P.O. Box 408, Wayland, MA 01778. E-mail: