Perhaps you’ve heard of this hypothetical problem in ethics. A runaway train is racing down the track toward a group of five people tied to the tracks, unable to escape. There is a side track, and you are standing some distance away by a lever that, once flipped, will divert the train to its other route. Unfortunately, on the detour, the train will run over a single person who is tied to the tracks and helpless to escape. What should you do?
I’ve been thinking about this problem as I contemplate the education cuts in Oklahoma. Those cuts are like the train and public education is being held prisoner on the tracks. Even if there were a switch to divert the train, someone is still in its path.
Our superintendent sent out a survey last week asking for input on how our district should handle the half million dollars in cuts that we face next year. Increase class size? Cut transportation? Cut athletics? Scale back central office, counseling, and library services? Cut fine arts offerings? Go to a four day week? Trying to rank the possibilities from least to most onerous was difficult. If I flip the lever, the train simply runs over someone else.
When I introduce my debaters to the concept of value/criteria in Lincoln-Douglas debate, I try to explain to my students how we make decisions in life based on what we value. For example, if we have to choose between a hamburger and a salad for lunch, we might choose one if we value taste and the other if we value our arteries. As I looked at the list of possible budget cuts, I had to think carefully about what I value. I am a fine arts teacher, and I want our speech and drama program to continue. However, if we go to a four day week, the least paid workers in our district are the ones who will bear the burden and it will impose another cost on families who have to find day care for their children who would normally be in school five days a week. Students deserve a library and the chance to read good literature. But if we prioritize the library over smaller class sizes, will students be able to practice and get feedback on the skills that make them literate, critical thinkers once teachers are overburdened?
Former students ask me how they can help. I have no answer. I don’t know that there is anything we can do as the train bears down on our schools. I want to think that if we can weather this round of budget cuts until the election, the electorate will choose leaders who will make more responsible decisions and help us rebuild public education.
Is there light at the end of the tunnel for Oklahoma public education? Right now, the correct answer is either “No, because budget cuts have forced us to unscrew the lightbulb” or “Yes, but it’s the headlight on the train.”