A Question of Value

By Craig R. Christiansen, Executive Director
Nebraska State Education Association

When I graduated from high school, my friend and I opened an antique store.  We didn’t know very much about business and we naturally made many mistakes.  One of the mistakes I made was trying to convince customers that the objects they were interested in were worth the price.   The more I tried to convince them, the less inclined they were to buy.

When I later studied economics in graduate school, I learned two important concepts. First, at its foundation, economics is the study of how people make decisions. One of their most important decisions is what they buy and how much they are willing to pay.  Decisions are based on value and price.  Economists tell us that value is not the same thing as price. My second learning was that value to the buyers cannot be equal to the price if buyers are expected to buy.  People generally buy when they believe the value of what they buy is greater than the price they pay.


Defining Value

The mistake I made in my first attempt at business is that I tried to explain cost to potential buyers.  They knew the price — what I needed to focus on was value.  When people pay for something, whether services, goods, investments, or taxes, their first question is not one of price — it is a question of value. 

Taxpayers are asked to make major investments in our public school systems...to “buy” our schools for each community. Citizens need to know the value of what they are buying with their tax dollars. Any public institution or agency that cannot...or does not...clearly demonstrate or articulate its public value will probably lose its public support.

So, how do we define value? Value is the benefit that people get from services or products that they buy.  It is subjective. The value for the taxpayer is not how schools define public education as a benefit; it is how the taxpayer defines it. What value do they receive from good public schools?

Why should anyone care about explaining the value of public education? Look at those states that have lost their public support for paying the cost of their schools.  It can happen overnight, unless we begin to intentionally and routinely articulate the value of public education to our friends and neighbors.  The failure to have value conversations with parents, the community, or the general public is one of the primary reasons for the loss of support in some communities. 


An Easy Task

We know that our communities value good education. The question is how well do we help our neighbors understand the value that our local schools create? It is important to remember the economic principle: value must be greater than price...or there are no buyers.

I believe in the public school system and the value it brings to every community.  But I also remember the lesson of my first attempt at business.  When I failed to demonstrate that value was greater than the asking price, customers didn’t buy.  It was that simple. 

It should be an easy task.  Parents, grandparents, business owners — the general public — want the young people of their community to be prepared for college, for good jobs, and for productive lives as responsible adults. That is exactly the mission of the public school system.  If you believe in that mission, don’t count on the automatic support of a community that is not invited to join in the celebration of its schools’ success.  The conversation begins with the explanation of the benefits and value public schools bring.  Are you having those conversations?  This is not a job only for principals or superintendents or teachers, these conversations are the responsibility of everyone who wants the continued support...the payment...for our public school system.  It’s simple economics.  It’s a question of value.