Thursday, November 28, 2002


It's a paradox, but the things that appear to be negative for Nebraska education -- budget deficits, voter turndowns, assessment hubbubs -- all are actually very positive opportunities.

Over the next few weeks, Go Big Ed will be presenting some breakthrough ideas for how to navigate through these challenges and come out with a better, stronger education system.

We just can't afford to do things "the way we've always done them" any more. We need to turn to what works in the private sector. We need competition. We need quality control. We need to encourage good people to go into education. We need to work smarter.

Three words should guide us: cost-effective, creative and constructive.

It's time to rethink and reshape what we're doing in K-12 education, with a firm goal of providing equal opportunity to Nebraska's children and the very best preparation we can muster.

Send your suggestions and ideas for systemic change to me at swilliams1@cox.net and stay tuned.

Albert Einstein said it best: you can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created. So c'mon, Nebraska. Let's take it to the next level.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2002


In the aftermath of the failed OPS spending-lid override earlier this month, one claim left hanging is the OPS contention that they do not, indeed, overspend on administration.

In a Nov. 14 column, retired World-Herald publisher Harold W. Andersen quoted Superintendent John Mackiel as saying that OPS spends 1.5 percent of its operational budget on central administration.

That sounded terribly efficient. It gave readers the idea that the other 98.5 percent was going straight into the pockets of those hard-working teachers . . . which would be great. But this is Omaha . . . not Fairytale Land.

That 1.5 percent is an enormous understatement. It tallies costs for only central-office educrats. It leaves out a large number of other nonteaching school district administrators, including principals and their staffs.

OPS actually spends 15.1 percent of its operating budget on administration, which is more than the average of 55 similar large, urban school districts, according to the Common Core of Data of the National Center on Education Statistics of the U.S. Department of Education. Based on statistics provided to the Education Finance Statistics Center for fiscal year 1998, OPS' 15.1 percent on administration compares to 12.7 percent on average for the other 55 larger districts deemed to be OPS' peers.

The Omaha district also slightly underspent on core instruction compared to its peers, devoting 68.2 percent of its funds to teachers, student support such as health, attendance, guidance and speech, and staff support such as curricular development, in-staff training and educational media. The 55 other large districts devoted 69.5 percent to core academics.

The comparison showed that OPS enjoyed a more favorable student-to-teacher ratio of 16:1 compared to the peer districts' 17.8:1.

One of the most important factors in evaluating a district's performance is the educational attainment of the parents of its students. The better-educated your population, the easier it is to teach their kids. OPS has a better environment than its peer districts: 80.8 percent of the residents of OPS were reported to be high-school graduates, compared to 73.6 percent of the people who live in the peer districts.

The higher the household income, the easier the education job, and this is another measurement that appears favorable for OPS. Median income of all households within OPS was slightly higher than the peer districts, at $26,098 per household vs. $25,946.

OPS also had far fewer minority children enrolled -- 26.4 percent compared to 50.2 percent as an average of the other 55 districts -- and fewer children in poverty, 19.6 percent for OPS vs. 27.9 percent for the other districts.

To sum up: it looks as though OPS really does spend a little bit more than the going rate on administration, spends a little less than the going rate on actual instruction, and has a little bit easier education challenge than its peer districts.

Its actual spending on administration is 10 times higher than the 1.5 percent that might have been inferred from the World-Herald article.

Does this mean a whole bunch of OPS administrators ought to be drop-kicked from the top of the TAC building straight to the unemployment line?

Of course not.

We ought to send them in district-owned vehicles. They have ENOUGH of them, don't you know. :>)

Just kidding. I think competent administrators are vital for any school district and I don't think administrative staffing patterns in our schools are all that outrageous.

I just think we ought to lay all the cards out nicely on the table and start playing this game fair and square.

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We've been slapped awake recently by reports of ignorant, nearly-illiterate kids in our public schools:

-- The National Institute for Literacy estimates that 23 percent of Americans, almost 50 million people, are functionally illiterate despite attending school for years at increasing taxpayer expense.

-- The American Council of Life Insurance reports that three-quarters of Fortune 500 companies have to provide some level of remedial education for their workers.

-- District of Columbia schools have among the highest per-pupil costs in the country, yet 37 percent of the residents of D.C. read at or below the third-grade level, according to the D.C. State Education Agency as quoted by the Cato Institute.

-- National Geographic surveys of people ages 18 to 24 showed that three out of 10 could not find New Jersey or the Pacific Ocean on a map, and only one out of five could find Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan on a map.

-- More than 80 percent of 400 high school teachers surveyed would never assign a 5,000-word history research paper simply because students today are not capable of doing traditional research and can't organize and write such a paper. Why not? They can't read well enough to conduct the research and don't know how to write anything other than a knee-jerk reaction to a "prompt" or their own vague opinions and feelings. This is according to the Center for Survey Research and Analysis at the University of Connecticut, adding that colleges are being forced to teach freshmen the rudimentary skills of library use, too.

So . . .

Attention is turning more and more to how private schools and homeschools teach children. Those parents who feel they must continue to keep their children in public schools might think about starting to do some "afterschooling" -- do-it-yourself home education -- so that their kids can get at least some of what they're missing.

One good source of that is a free guide that will show high-school kids how to research, organize and write a good research paper. This comes from longtime Texas education advocate Donna Garner, an English teacher at a private Christian school in Temple, Texas, the Central Texas Christian School. She has posted on the internet two packets of information for English I and II, and English III and IV, that teachers and parents can download and use with kids.

The packets take students through the research and writing process explicitly and sequentially. Students are monitored every step of the way and there are methods worked in to ensure that the students are doing their own independent research and drawing quality conclusions.

Visit the school's website, http://www.ctcslions.com and find the "English research papers" listing in the red copy block at left.

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There's been a hubbub in Omaha lately over a report that the Omaha Public Schools was about to buy 1,000 computers for $1.9 million, or $1,900 apiece, which is considerably more expensive than computers used by working stiffs in the grownup world outside the Nonsense Industry, our public schools.

Just kidding: computers are not nonsense, not by a long shot. But they have significant direct and indirect costs to taxpayers, and this situation just points that out.

Actually, OPS has since clarified the proposed purchase. Turns out there are "about" 1,400 computers involved, most of them in the $700 to $1,000 range, although there were 22 laptops with $3,000 pricetags.

But the situation spotlights the big bucks going for technology these days, to the consternation of those who think it is foolish to be putting $3,000 laptops into the laps of students who can't even write a single declarative sentence without a boo-boo. What they need is LOW technology: paper, pencil and elbow grease.

Schools also have a rather sorry track record about explaining their technology purchases and practices to parents and the public. Years ago, when we had our children in an OPS school, we were told that they were having "computer class" three times a week. Our chests swelled with pride. Well, one day, I came in to class to bring cupcakes or whatever. I saw a classroom full of children, including my daughter, with photocopies of a computer keyboard on their desks. There were three -- count 'em -- three kids up front, sitting at actual computers, while the tech teacher taught them. Everybody else was just supposed to be following along on the photocopies. O . . . K. It was the dumbest thing I had ever seen. Turns out that's all they said they could afford. We were mad, thought that was deceptive after having been described as "computer class," wondered what ELSE they said they were teaching that was like that -- kids were studying "history papers" that turned out to be "yesterday's paper towels"?!? -- and that was one reason we left OPS.

So when you are evaluating that $1.9 million they say they are spending on "computers," make sure to find out two things: 1) how much of it is going to be used by students and how much by staff and 2) how tall the stack of BOOKS would be that that $1.9 million COULD have purchased and actually TAUGHT kids something.

According to OPS board member Dick Galusha, besides the computers, the bid includes a number of peripherals:

wireless labs for PC and Apples
bay carts
docking carts
Airport base stations
software PLUS
Graphic Artists Computers
Apple OSX Servers
Dell Servers
H.P. LaserJet Printers for Apples
H.P. LaserJet Printers for PCs
NEC VT650XGA LCD Projectors
Philips LC3131 SUGALCD Projectors
Dell server racks
Huntel for Mitel Super Set Inventory Communication
System for portables from Anixter
MicroWarehouse switches and media converters
Voice Messaging System from Gazelle

Are you beginning to see the hidden, indirect costs . . . and why $1.9 million in more spending, in public school, does not connect to $1.9 million worth of more learning for kids? That is, unless their music class is going to be studying "voice messaging."


For future reference: Galushua, chairperson of the OPS board's finance committee, urges the public to call the Board of Education office at 557-2101 or contact him at galusha@cox.net with specific concerns or questions about OPS finances. He also is pushing for putting all Board of Education business on www.ops.org, which now, like most school district websites, contains mostly worthless, sketchy information.

Gee: with all the millions taxpayers have invested in technology for OPS, you'd think posting solid financial information, including their checkbook, on the web would have occurred to them before this. Fiscal accountability, and all that.

Ohhh, welllll. :>)

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Parents who recognize that Six Traits Writing techniques are dumbing down the writing skills of our children will take heart from this note from a teacher in Iowa, who says education in this country "is currently so riddled with fluff that our kids aren't learning much."

The Six Traits writing techniques are a red flag of lousy reading instruction. You have to "systematize" writing if your students are such poor readers that they can't comprehend quality, grade-level literature and see for themselves what good writing is. Six Traits Writing proves that schools aren't teaching reading any more. That's outrageous, and teachers like this Iowan are getting fed up about it.

On the Six Traits, which teachers are required to assess in Iowa, she states: "I think it's worthless and a poor indicator of how our kids really read, especially when the teachers themselves 'grade' the work.

"Can't anyone see that teachers who are worried about their jobs might bump the numbers up a little bit? I got yelled at by (an educrat) last year because my numbers weren't very good. Well, I refuse to give good grades for poor writing or reading skills, so I graded them what I thought they were worth. Of course, everyone else's numbers were flourishing."

A word of encouragement to this teacher: keep doing what you're doing. You are right. Your students are lucky to have you.

A word to school administrators and state educrats who have foisted Six Traits on schools: shame on you. It stinks. You take more and more of our money to blow on boneheaded methods like Six Traits that don't even work, forcing teachers who lack this person's spunk to become phonies and to deny their students the skills they need. Meanwhile, parents and the public are left scratching their heads over the abject illiteracy of the coming generation. Get rid of Six Traits, and let teachers teach.

And a word to everybody else: have you supported the "tough teacher" in your child's life lately? You should. They're the jewels in the crown of K-12 education. Let's give thanks for them today and every day.

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Monday, November 25, 2002


Environmentalists often study frogs to see if they show any signs that pollution is running rampant in a given habitat. Amphibians are an early-warning system of trouble because they’re extra-sensitive to stimuli.

Well, writing is my habitat, and when it comes to evaluating writing instruction in public schools, I say: Ribbet! Warp!

As a writer, an education activist and a parent, I’ve sprouted three heads and five legs in recent years trying to get educators, administrators and parents to see what is going wrong with the way we’re teaching writing . . . or should I say, not teaching it.

Over the years, I’ve watched schools mutate their writing instruction with invented spelling, collaborative group writing, an emphasis on creativity over accuracy, “correction” by classmates instead of teachers, the abandonment of penmanship, and other well-intentioned but boneheaded “innovations” that are making student writing worse, not better.

The current fad, Six-Traits Writing, takes a process that should be a wonderful balance of perspiration and inspiration, and dumbs it down into a mechanized, standardized pile of goo.

Schools list the six things they’re teaching as:

1) ideas
2) organization
3) word choice
4) sentence fluency
5) voice
6) conventions

I list them as:

1) no spelling
2) no grammar
3) no punctuation
4) no sentence diagramming
5) no research techniques
6) no way can these kids write a decent paragraph, much less a cogent, solid, expository report

I should know. I’ve taught writing on the college level. I’ve seen the near-illiteracy of students upon whom we’ve spent nearly $100,000 apiece in 13 grades in public schools. All I can say is: oy.

The furor over the recently-released writing “assessments” from across the state here in Nebraska, as well as nationwide, exposes the controversy over writing assessments, and how silly and counter-productive they can be. But we can fix things.

Here’s a look at “Six Traits of Effective Writing Instruction” that I wish our schools would adopt:

1. School boards should pass new mission statements that direct a return to traditional academics instead of Outcome-Based Education. When educators caved in to OBE a few years ago, they took the focus off the “inputs,” or how and what students are to be taught, and onto the “outputs,” or how students should perform on various tasks as measured by costly, hard-to-score, subjective “assessments.” This had drastic implications for the quality of writing instruction, K-12.

2. School boards should get rid of “Total Quality Management” or “Continuous Progress” systems thinking from the classroom, and restore traditional concepts of teaching and assessment. TQM is fine for manufacturing but lousy for education because the “products”
are human beings. Just as widgets are continuously taken off an assembly line to be benchmarked and inspected for quality, student “progress” is being constantly checked and tweaked and measured . . . producing the educational equivalent of “analysis paralysis” that plagues many businesses. That’s what makes the new forms of subjective assessments such an expensive, time-consuming pain for educators now. They have unfortunately taken the emphasis off meeting kids’ needs and put it onto the educational process. It’s wrong, and it shows.

3. Schools should dump Six Traits Writing and put teachers back in charge of writing instruction. Right now, systems and numbers rule instead of teachers. With Six Traits Writing, a student’s score on the rubric, or scoring system, is the only thing that matters, not whether the writing is well-composed, reveals truth, touches the soul, or shows imagination and compassion and ingenuity and critical reasoning. Young writers need to be taught, not scored. Let teachers teach.

4. Principals should insist that each teacher in each subject, K-12, circle errors and demand that students rewrite their papers until they’re perfect, or darn near.

5. Teachers should insist that they be given the tools of the teaching trade, if the public expects them to turn out competent writers. That means an end to whole-language philosophies in the early grades and a return to systematic, intensive, explicit, multisensory phonics. Why? Because the best way to teach reading is with writing, and vice versa. The way most schools operate now, kids learn neither very well.

And last, but certainly not least:

6. The State Education Department should scrap these goofy, scatter-shot assessments. Then it should coordinate a sensible approach: Nebraska schools should all go back to giving their kids the same single, simple, familiar standardized test each year. It doesn’t matter if they want to switch from year to year and give the Iowa Basics, the Stanford, the CAT, whatever. As long as all Nebraska kids take the same test, it’ll be useful. Not a nationalized, government test such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress . . . but a solid, commercial, machine-scored, objective, inexpensive, truly standardized test.

The frog has roared. Ribbet! Warp!

We all want writing instruction that works. C’mon, schools. Hop to it.

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Omaha's Westside High School has produced three National Merit Semifinalists this year, a rather pale reflection of its former glory when you consider that Creighton Prep has 14, tiny little Duchesne has four, and so on.

As a proud Westside graduate, Class of 1973, I turned to my musty yearbook and saw on p. 162 that we had TEN National Merit Semifinalists and 19 . . . count 'em . . . 19 more kids recognized as National Merit Commended Students.

The last girl on the right . . . the really, really gorgeous one . . . NOT!!! . . . is, voila, moi. That's how I knew the numbers of nationally top-ranked scholars at Westside used to be much, much bigger, even when spending per pupil was much, much less than it is today.

So now you know that I'm OLD. You already probably know that I have serious problems with the Whole Language curriculum and instruction in District 66. I believe it has nuked itself, academically. These stats suggest that's true.

So will you join me in asking . . . wuzzup with DIS, Westside?

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A friend of mine who teaches at a local college called to say that he could provide a solid source of writing assessment for the State of Nebraska in one fell swoop, without parents, taxpayers and school systems having to spend a dime.

Just look at Nebraska kids' college papers . . . and then you will have a pretty good assessment of what kinds of writing instruction is NOT happening in our K-12 schools.

This friend recently issued some specific guidelines for a report from his students, and got back such incredibly bad papers that he made copies of them, concealing the names, of course, and circulated them in and out of the college, seeking to "show and tell" people of influence just how poorly college kids write today.

He would like to see the major media publish examples of student writing, as they are, and let voters and taxpayers "assess" for ourselves what is going on.

Otherwise, we are bound to have more of the same: professors trying to teach college students, at $300 per credit hour, the kinds of things that the kids should jolly well have learned at some point in their K-12 public educations in Nebraska, which are shortly going to be costing us $100,000-plus per pupil.

Now, don't despair completely. He said about half of the papers had errors and weaknesses, but deserved at least a "C." But now, despair. Here are examples of what was wrong with the rest:

-- So many typos and misspellings that the paper was basically "rubbish."

-- Plagiarism from Internet articles.

-- Quotations used with no sources of attribution.

-- Overwhelming amount of style errors involving bad punctuation, capitalization and grammar.

-- No evidence of creative, critical thinking, but just lists of concepts with no connections, transitions or conclusions.

-- One student included "Anonymous" in a list of references and apparently thought "Anonymous" was an academic journal.

Uff da!

So what do you say . . . shall we continue to accept these worthless, meaningless, upless and downless "assessments" from the education bureaucracy?

Or should we demand a look at the real thing?

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Friday, November 22, 2002


Here's what Omaha-area tax activist Joe Elster has to say about the salary puzzle in public schools:

"In reference to the Nov 22 Public Pulse letter by Andrew J. Melichar, he states that he is 'frustrated' with the anti-tax groups trying to help the board to run more effectively thus saving taxpayers money. I am not sure where the figures he quoted came from (and they may be accurate). Let us compare them to the OPS Budget and see where the waste is.

"Mr. Melichar states that teachers earn an average of $32,000 per year (he doesn't mention if this includes benefits). From the OPS budget total combined salaries for ALL employees is $212,517,633 plus benefits of $61,329,040. There are 6002.93 positions budgeted. When you do the math, it comes out to just over $45,000 per year per position.

"So if the TEACHERS average $32,000 per year then you can decide for yourself where the 'fat' is.

"When you take the total budgeted amount for Certificated, Full-Time, 10-month positions, and divide by the number of positions, the amount you get (not including benefits) is a little over $40,000. And this does not include over $4 million dollars in 'Extra Pay'.

"So, 'annoying' as it is, there are plenty of places to cut money from the budget while still maintaining a higher teacher salary.

(Figures from p. 56, http://www.ops.org/budget/budget.pdf)

Joseph Elster

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Thursday, November 21, 2002


The Nebraska State Education Association did not spend a dime on the Nebraska gubernatorial race earlier this month, but its political action committee sent $1,000 down to Florida to try to defeat Gov. Bush.

Duane Obermier, NSEA president, said the PAC dollars were sent at the request of the Florida teachers’ union, and that Nebraska union officials felt it was appropriate to respond to the request for help. “We are all colleagues nationwide,” Obermier said.

Nebraska, Georgia and Rhode Island teachers’ unions sent money to the Florida effort, which failed. The donation was revealed by the watchdog group, Education Intelligence Agency, http://www.eiaonline.com


First, longtime Nebraska tax-cutting guru Ed Jaksha of Omaha sounded the clarion call of school consolidation, or at least intelligent unification, in a World-Herald op-ed with a goal of cutting nonclassroom costs in Nebraska school districts where enrollment is declining or where nonclassroom school staff are employed in ratios that can’t be justified in today’s economy.

Then, longtime World-Herald publisher Harold Andersen, now a columnist, blasted Jaksha for spotlighting several rural Nebraska counties for school consolidation instead of the clump of districts right under their respective noses in Douglas and Sarpy Counties.

Jaksha tried to blast back, but had been published four times in six weeks, so the paper declined.

Here’s an excerpt from Jaksha’s reply:

“He (Andersen) challenges the idea that administrative costs could be reduced with consolidation of administrative entities and to return those cost savings to serve the needs of teachers’ salaries and other local school costs. My examples did not refer to Douglas County and other metro area school districts by design – those are another problem. As the idea of consolidation of City of Omaha and Douglas County moves ahead, the same approach may deserve consideration for OPS and the other metropolitan school districts, including those in Lancaster County.”

Jaksha also pointed out that besides its own operating budget, the OPS superintendent and board supervise the budget of Educational Service Unit #19. Tax money is regularly shuffled from the ESU to OPS operations, but those millions are practically invisible to the taxpaying public.

The operation of public radio station KIOS by OPS is another example of use of taxpayer dollars that the public knows little about, Jaksha wrote.

“The management of OPS and the Omaha School Board should be more open about their use of property, sales and income taxes routed to them via the generosity of property taxpayers and taxpayers across the state,” he said.


It’s really dumb to elect educators to school boards. They have little or no experience outside schools, they have a tendency to groupthink, they don’t always have the wattage necessary to grasp complex policy matters and multimillion dollar budgets, and most of all, they treat their own constituencies like children. If we criticize schools in any way or dissent even a skoch from their typically-unanimous decisions, they either downgrade us, quit calling on us, or send us to the corner to wear a duncecap.

Did you see the OPS board members “rapping the knuckles” of the tax watchdogs at the OPS meeting earlier this week? Uff da. It was ugly.

I think it has a lot to do with how educators are trained in teachers’ colleges . . . not at all the same thinking style as you get in business school, journalism school or any of a number of other disciplines. School boards are weird in that they’re usually stacked with insiders, in stark contrast to other kinds of boards, which are strengthened by having representation from all walks of life, all perspectives and insights. There are exceptions on school boards, of course – feisty free-thinkers who defy the typical meekness and compliance of the “people people” who generally go into education. But there aren’t very many of them.

The Wall Street Journal provides a better way. In an article Nov. 19, “Building a Board That’s Independent, Strong and Effective,” a case was made for stripping every board of directors of cronies, insiders and rubber stamps. This advice is in the wake of Enron and WorldCom scandals that may have been avoided if the boards had critical mass of independent outsiders, as a good board should, who would have blown the whistle or at least asked the tough questions about what was going on.

The article quoted management professors as saying that board members have to be able to challenge management, but typically, local school boards and even the Nebraska State Board of Education have demonstrated little or no ability or willingness to buck the superintendents and staff. Little or no debate takes place and few alternatives are discussed . . . in sharp contrast to how a good board should operate.

Next time you vote for school board, find out if each candidate was an education major, used to work in education, or is married to an educator. Then vote accordingly.


Tax watchdogs have criticized an international junket of Omaha Public Schools employees who went down to Mexico in March at taxpayer expense, producing visions of OPS teachers in bikinis on the beach at Cancun.

Well, it may not have been exactly like that. According to a letter from Susan Mayberger, supervisor of English as a Second Language for the Omaha district, OPS didn’t pay for the trip. It was funded through the State Migrant Education program as part of the Bi-National Teacher Exchange, so apparently state and federal tax dollars, rather than local taxes, funded the air fare, hotel accommodations and food.

The six OPS employees visited nine schools and an orphanage on the five-day visit, meeting with principals, teachers and parents, according to Ms. Mayberger. In exchange, Mexican teachers have come to Omaha to teach migrant students in summer school for three to six weeks over the past few years, she wrote.

Is this a necessary and reasonable expense, regardless of which tax source funded it? You be the judge: OPS had 149 migrant students in the 2000-01 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (http://wwwnces.ed.gov/pubs2002/100_largest/table_15_2.asp
The 149 tally was on the low end of the totals of migrant students reported by the nation’s 100 largest school districts; those in California, Texas, Florida and Colorado have many times more migrants than OPS.


Sexual assault on a child: can there be anything more outrageous? But the trial of a schoolbus driver from South Sarpy School District out of Springfield, Neb., that ended in a mistrial Monday is just one more sign of the times.

The jury deadlocked over whether to convict Jay E. Bruna, 33, because two jurors reportedly thought there were inconsistencies in the story told by the 12-year-old boy about being forced into oral sex in the bus after school. Bruna has denied molesting the boy; he faces a retrial.

This is every parent’s nightmare. I have a friend who wondered why her son was getting home from school so late and found out his schoolbus was wandering ‘way off the supposed route. Children were waiting on the bus while the bus driver ran inside a quick shop to go to the bathroom or stopped at garage sales and so forth. He was reprimanded, and it stopped. But it still sent chills up her spine for what might have happened “in loco parentis” – while this person had complete control over her child in her absence.

The specter of child sexual abuse is not only a crime and a litigation risk for schools, but brings up several cautions: 1) parents and educators should teach children to kick and scream and run, rather than submit to what they know is wrong 2) teach district staff never to be alone with a child to avoid the appearance of impropriety 3) those who hire school staff ought to know the signs of pedophilia 4) for the protection of children and bus drivers alike, it’s smart to mount videocameras on buses, even if they are operated only on a spot-check or as-needed basis.

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Wednesday, November 13, 2002


You know the communist slogan: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

So all the workers in one big, happy collective would basically work for the same subsistence wage, even though some were responsible for a valuable work product that really helped people . . . and others were about as productive as a husband in a post-feast stupor on Thanksgiving Night.

Meanwhile, if the central organizing committee –- a political group driven by political concerns -- decided that the collective needed seed corn more than the kiddies needed textbooks, well then, seed corn it was.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Hmm. Why is it, every time someone refers to “state aid to education,” I keep hearing that song they used to play when someone from the former USSR won at the Olympics?

Because more and more, the way we finance public education in Nebraska looks like the way they finance everything in communist countries.

The more the funding has come from sources far away from local control, the worse the schools have gotten. It’s the old reporter’s battle cry: “Follow the money.” Why? Because then you’ll see who’s holding the reins. And the farther away that source of power is, the more unfair things tend to become.

Last year, state tax aid to schools in Nebraska totaled $793 million, which was 30 percent of the state’s $2.6 billion budget. Instead of just figuring out how much money there is available in state tax funds for schools and divvying it up on a per-pupil basis statewide, there’s a tangled web of formulas, incentives and disincentives that makes every district’s piece of the pie a little different, per pupil . . . in some urban-rural comparisons, drastically so.

Now the state’s in a big budget crisis, so everybody’ll be clamoring for a bigger piece of the same size pie next legislative session. You can see it coming: the big, powerful, urban districts are going to elbow the smaller ones right off the bargaining table onto the ground, if we keep doing state aid the way we’ve been doing state aid.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

The way we figure up state aid just doesn’t match the classic model of capitalism, where the wealth is supposed to flow from person to person based on investment principles and payment rendered for value received.

Another key precept of capitalism is that the owner of the wealth has control over it and quite a bit of say-so over how that wealth is invested and employed.

One of the reasons I opposed the tax-lid override in the Omaha Public Schools even though I don’t live in OPS is that I’m technically very much a tax patron of OPS anyway. That’s because local property taxes within OPS, which used to pay for upwards of 80 percent of what was spent in the state’s largest school district, now are covering less than 45 percent of the cost. Other local taxes and fees, state aid, and federal tax dollars now fund more than half of school district operations. Every time I buy something from a business within OPS boundaries, or pay certain fees, or pay my state sales tax, or any kind of income tax, I am technically helping fund OPS.

Yet the elected OPS school board is making decisions on how that money is spent with no way for tax patrons like me to have any say-so about it. And even though their voters turned them down flat at the polls when they asked for more money earlier this month, now they’re going to go to the Legislature to try to get it, anyway.

“From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

Now, look. I know lots and lots of kids who go to school in OPS among the 43,039 they reported for the 2000-01 school year. And I know a couple of kids who go to school in the tiny McCool Junction district in east-central Nebraska, which boasts 151 students.

Here’s my question:

How come each kid in OPS got $2,183.27 in state aid to education . . . but each kid in McCool Junction got only $142.89?

(Figures are the most recent available online, according to 2000-01 annual financial reports posted by the Nebraska State Department of Education on http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm)

Now, think about it. Is each student within OPS really worth 15 times as much as each student in the rural district?

Oh, really?

Is each property taxpayer within McCool Junction really able to pay 15 times more per pupil in local funding than each property taxpayer within OPS?

You don’t say!

Is each student within OPS really 15 times needier, educationally speaking, than each student within McCool Junction?

No kidding!

But then again, you say, property valuation within OPS amounts to $292,783.84 per pupil, while those few kids in McCool Junction are backed by $567,147.66 worth of property apiece.

Aha! Those rich farmers can afford to pay plenty more in local property taxes than the city mice property owners in OPS.

But farmland is needed to make income for families and has nowhere near the liquidity of urban property. Farm prices are so lousy that it would be a gigantic kick in the pants to expect farmers to come up with still more in taxes, raising their cost of production far beyond market.

And it’s much harder to find and afford high-quality teachers and staff in the hinterlands than in urban settings. That’s expensive.

And there are far fewer community resources, far less infrastructure, cultural opportunities, and philanthropic patrons from whom to draw in the rural schools than in the urban ones, and yet those contributions from outside school districts often can make all the difference between an OK educational experience and a great one.

You know, the Russians have a word for situations like this: “Borscht.”

Heyyyy! We’re supposed to be the state where “the girls are the fairest and the boys are the squarest.” So what are we doing with this commie pinko school finance system?

I know. I know. I exaggerate. But not by much.

Here’s what true capitalists would do: since the purpose of education is providing equal opportunity to each Nebraska student, I hope our legislators will simply figure out how much tax money they have and divide it up evenly. State aid would be the same amount per pupil no matter where that pupil lives, city mouse or country mouse.

No muss, no fuss, no politickin’, no nonsense.

I’ll drink to that. And it won’t be vodka, either. It’ll be good old Nebraska corn liquor . . . served straight up, just like we ought to be serving all of Nebraska’s kids.

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Nebraska's third-largest school district couldn't help noticing the resounding "no" that voters in the state's largest district, the Omaha Public Schools, just answered to a request for more taxes.

But instead of taking a clue that the public can't take more taxes, the Millard Public Schools is going to go asking for more, anyway, with a telephone survey to Millard residents over the next few weeks.

That's disappointing to a longtime Millard school activist, Lisa Botkin. Three of her children have graduated from Millard schools and two attend there now. She wants the best for Millard schools, of course -- but she's also a mom. And moms are practical.

"Millard does not need to raise taxes and they do not need a phone survey," Mrs. Botkin says. "They need to think out of the box and get creative, and they need to do what businesses have done and are doing: a performance-based audit."

First, she calls for creativity in responding to the twin financial challenges of spent-out taxpayers and gigantic budget deficits in state tax funds. Districts should look to reorganizing and improving their own operations instead of trying to just get more money to keep what's already going, she said.

She said, for example, that the obvious solution to the declining enrollments in eastern Millard schools and bulging enrollments in western schools is not to build more buildings in the west, but to make the ones in the east more attractive to parents from the west so that they would transport their own children there voluntarily.

That would balance enrollments and save untold millions in ongoing extra transportation costs. Plus it would be great academically.

Mrs. Botkin envisions making Millard North Middle School into a Core Academy middle school, the traditional format that is so popular across the country but so rare in Nebraska. The Core Academy grade school is already operating in nearby Cather Elementary, and children at Montclair have been doing Montessori for years, so it would be a natural fit with the multisensory approach of Core.

A second idea from Mrs. Botkin is to make Central Middle School, also in a dwindling enrollment area, into a fine arts magnet middle school that would draw enrollment from all over, with transportation to and from school at parent expense.

Any additional staff training that would be required by these innovations would be available through Nebraska's lottery grants, which are intended to make possible innovative educational programs just like these, Mrs. Botkin said.

As for performance audits, which are like efficiency reviews, she said that common business practice has helped private-sector businesses streamline personnel and operations for years. They are forced to by the bottom line and the need to show a profit.

But school districts do not do them because the money supply has always been so reliable and they don't really have a measurable bottom line the way a private company does. Therefore schools tend to just add expense on top of expense without scrutinizing what makes sense to spend what, where. And therefore, schools are in sore need of performance audits.

Mrs. Botkin isn't talking about widespread reductions in force, going back to horse-and-buggy technology or anything like that. She just means giving the multimillions in the Millard budget what I call a "business bath."

You know: you don't let your child loll around in the tub for hours. You just wash those body parts most likely to be dirty. You know what they are.

It's the same thing with a school budget: there are certain places that are a little overfunded, where modest cuts or mere cost shifts could clean things up without a whole lot of effort. Yes, it may be painful for a few people in the short run, but in the long run, performance audits are great for the health and financial cleanliness of the whole organization.

Mrs. Botkin said she hopes that people will respond to the Millard district's phone calls with a respectful request that they explore all other options BEFORE they come looking to get more money out of the community. And that means she hopes people will demand creativity and performance audits.

Thinking out of the box, and a business bath: common-sense ideas. And I'll supply the rubber ducky for the business bath. Might as well have fun with it.

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There's a good book out that exposes the ripoff that "modern" education theories and philosophies in districts such as the Omaha Public Schools have carried out against both taxpayers and students, particularly disadvantaged ones.

It's called "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms" by Diane Ravitch (see more on www.amazon.com).

Most of the "reforms" that she blasts are exactly what are taking place in OPS and other school districts today and the cause of so much financial strain on taxpayers.

If OPS and state legislative officials would read this book, they would see how today's diluted and bloated public-school curriculum and instructional methods have actually blocked educational opportunity, not offered it. Since many educators were indoctrinated with "progressive" education techniques back in teachers' college, this book might expose what's wrong with them for the first time, to many of them. I'm convinced that most educators who are committed to the ineffective, expensive status quo are sincere and don't even realize they aren't providing what kids need in the way of education. Maybe this book could be a breakthrough for them.

I bet they would reverse course immediately away from seeking yet more taxpayer money to fund this mistaken path -- that which I indelicately call "throwing more money down a rathole" -- and instead would focus on what they need to do in order to do what we're paying them to do: meet children's academic needs.

Ms. Ravitch, a respected education advocate, blasts the kinds of social engineering and political indoctrination that have cost us so much in tax dollars diverted to education, and in declining academic achievement among our youth, especially those in the inner cities.

She calls for a return to a strict focus on academics and positive, pro-active character development in sports, art, music and other school programs that are developmental, civilizing and energizing for young people.

Ms. Ravitch says school districts have made three main mistakes:

1. They believe schools can fix any political or social problem.

2. They believe some kids don't need a high-quality education.

3. They believe knowledge isn't as important as activities and experiences.

Think what a return to a focus on a solid, demanding liberal-arts education could mean for kids of all demographic groups, but especially those who are now falling through the wide cracks of progressive education. And time's a-wasting.

The holidays are coming up. This book is available for as little as $4.50, used. How about buying a copy for a teacher, school-board member or education official you know?

It may not be what they expect . . . but those are often the best gifts of all.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2002


Eek! Eek! Eek! Nobody wants to use the "r" word -- "racism" -- in discussions about why children of color aren't doing as well as white children within the Omaha Public Schools.

But it's going to come up as people tussle with why massively expensive busing for racial-integration purposes failed, and what that should tell us about devoting more millions to inner-city schools now.

Despite years of pouring extra millions of dollars into busing, we now have as many or more minority students who are truant, in alternative schools, failing their standardized tests, struggling with poor grades and dropping out.

People also are asking why the millions poured into the new "academies" within inner-city OPS are so far producing only meager results. There are legions of inner-city kids revealing themselves on standardized tests to be functionally illiterate or nearly so, despite millions of extra dollars spent on them.

Is it possible that racism has clouded the real cause of academic underachievement among certain student groups within the state's largest school district?

Is it possible that more money won't solve it . . . but proper teaching methods will?

Is it possible that the answer is staring us in the face, and that inner-city and minority kids don't need more millions . . . but the equal opportunity for academic achievement that comes only with plain, old, simple, tried-and-true, effective reading instruction in the early grades?

Have we forgotten to "Keep It Simple, Stupid"?

I think so. I think that's why disadvantaged kids are struggling so much. Kids from families with moderate or high incomes have ways to compensate for ineffective curriculum and instruction to help develop them, outside of the classroom. Poor kids have only their schools. When they're good, poor kids will succeed, and have done so throughout American history. But when they're bad, poor kids show it first and most.

The high price of whole language, whole math, child-centered classrooms and other costly school "deforms" is being paid most of all by disadvantaged and minority kids who are denied a level playing field by not being taught to read, write, think and figure in those early grades.

But it's not that white people with money don't care. They do; I can promise you that. They want what's best for all kids from all demographic groups. They just don't think that has to come at an exorbitant cost, as shown by the 60%-40% vote in OPS last week against higher taxes. And they're right. Good education is NOT high-priced . . . even for those children with the most learning challenges.

I also think there is a strong undercurrent of racial tension going on in all of this, and it needs to be exposed, dealt with and put behind our community and our state, once and for all.

What other explanation is there besides racism for the fact that children of color whose families have the same incomes as children of the beige persuasion still do worse on standardized tests?

Are we racist, Omaha? Have we been denying equal opportunity to children of color and children from poverty?

Just a few minutes of studying what other inner-city educators have been doing, and the good results they've been getting, in books like "No Excuses" (www.noexcuses.org), and it becomes pretty apparent that OPS has been doing the wrong things for the right reasons . . . for years . . . and it's long past time for them to set a course for success that, paradoxically, will cost taxpayers less money, not more.

The possibility of widespread, systemic racism within Nebraska in general, and the Omaha Public Schools in particular, has to be included in the upcoming debate over what should happen with the hundreds of millions of dollars in state aid to education.

OPS is apparently getting ready to argue that because it has so many more low-income, minority and immigrant children, it deserves more money per pupil than other Nebraska districts.

But enter one of Nebraska's best-known black leaders . . . with a serious message.

Glenn Freeman is an Air Force veteran with 30 years of service who rose to assistant chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party and member of the State Equal Opportunity Commission, along with numerous other public-service positions. He's a black conservative and an elder in society -- someone to be listened to.

The dangers of throwing money at a problem like black underachievement in schools are addressed in his book, "Good Racism -- Bad Racism" (Vantage Press, 1999).

"Affirmative action, set-aside programs, busing, Head Start, and redistricting all support the premise that Blacks are inferior," Freeman writes on p. 8. "The simple reality is that racism against Blacks will continue to flourish as long as Blacks are willing to accept the premise that they are inferior."

He adds, "What Blacks need is freedom and opportunity, not quotas and handouts."

Freeman wisely points out that affirmative action, multicultural education, Afrocentric history, busing and other "good racism" programs may have been well-intentioned, but in the end are demeaning and counter-productive for children of color . . . not to mention colossal wastes of taxpayer dollars.

"Too many of our people, young and old, use racism as an excuse for not trying," Freeman writes (p. 16). "We have to spread the word that racism, unfair though it may be, need not stand in the way of their success. . . . Opportunity alone isn't enough. We must also teach the value of preparation and application."

You know . . . he's right.

Any claim OPS tries to make, that it needs more money because it has more minority and poor children, needs to be swatted flat.

Any approach OPS tries to take, other than classic children's literature, systematic, intensive phonics and traditional math in those early grades, needs to be swatted flat.

Education is the key to equal opportunity, and the right methods are key to the quality of education that our neediest children need most of all.

Let's not shut up 'til they get it.

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Friday, November 08, 2002


The Nebraska State Education Association threw its weight around bigtime this past election and apparently succeeded in knocking off two of the best members of the State Board of Education, Kathryn Piller and Kathy Wilmot, with heavy funding and nasty, last-minute dirty or at least dingy campaign tactics.

Come to find out, though, that elsewhere in the country, people aren't such suckers for union propaganda.

Take San Diego, where the teachers' union sank $500,000 into the school-board race. Think about it: half a million dollars on a school-board race. Yeesh.

The superintendent there is a Democrat, Alan Bersin, and he's a bit of a back-to-the-basics kind of guy, so he's likeable for honest liberals and conservatives alike. His program of stressing reading and math in the early grades, combined with extensive testing, has produced impressive results, especially for students of color and those from families of modest means.

He has gotten along so far with a slim, 3-2 majority on that school board, even though the board is so goofed up and dysfunctional, they have sought psychological counseling, advice on parliamentary gamesmanship and professional mediation. (Read more on the San Diego Union-Tribune's site, signonsandiego.com)

Well, the union hates his guts, because his common-sense solutions and control over the curriculum threaten its power. So the union went all out trying to get two of their own wonks in place and seize control of the board.

Nanny nanny boo boo. Their half-million bought just one, not two, seats, and now the board is basically going to come down 4-1 AGAINST union high-spending and low-results programs.

Sam Popkin, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who is a Democratic Party apologist for the most part, has this to say about the teachers' union mess-up and how it was in perplexing opposition to the wishes of the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce and other reform-minded groups:

"It perfectly illustrates how the NEA is fast becoming the political albatross around the Democratic Party neck," Popkin was quoted as saying in the Wall Street Journal (Nov. 5 editorial).

Amen! And listen up, Nebraska.

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A Go Big Ed member in suburban Omaha reports that his wife was certified in another state to teach K-12 gifted and talented, and junior high and high school science. She interviewed with Omaha-area schools a few years ago for a biology teaching job. Her degree is in biology, and she is a fully-certified teacher as well. The first question she was asked was, "Can you coach soccer?" She was shocked, and withdrew her application.

Do you know what she is doing now? Not teaching. She switched gears, sought other professional training and now is working in a field completely unrelated to public education.


Think of her next time a school official says they have trouble finding qualified teachers.

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Thursday, November 07, 2002


Two of the best State Board of Education members ever, Kathryn Piller and Kathy Wilmot, have apparently been knocked off the board by challengers who were heavily funded by the teachers' union. There's still hope for Wilmot in a recount, but it's slight. Now the worry is that the state board of ed will revert back to being a big, bad, boring rubber stamp for whatever the state commissioner of education wants.

Except for those two, it has been Groupthink City on that board in recent years. Now, there have been occasional rays of light from Ann Mactier of Omaha on reading issues and Rachel Bone on matters of fiscal and societal conservatism. But without Piller and Wilmot, it's going to be an uphill battle to stand up against the status quo in public education on that board in important matters such as the commissioner's employment contract and so forth.

There are hazards to electing the chief of education for a state, just as there are hazards to going on the way we've done it for so long. The fear of overpoliticizing the office is always there, if we change to electing our state schools chief.

But we elect people to other key state offices that require special professional knowledge, such as the state attorney general, auditor and treasurer. With something as important as education, there should be some way to make the person more accountable to the public and less beholden to the special-interest groups that have education by a chokehold, particularly the unions.

The state ed commissioner is, after all, the highest-paid state employee outside the university system . . . ironically, after only the psychiatrists at the regional centers, for the most part. The commissioner's salary was listed as $118,186 in the May 2001 Personnel Almanac published by the Nebraska State Personnel Division, Department of Administrative Services. That compares to $65,000 for the governor, $52,000 for the secretary of state and $49,500 for the auditor, all of whom are elected statewide.

So who does such a high-paid government official report to? The commissioner is supposed to work for the elected representatives on the state ed board. But in practice, most of the board members have basically followed his direction over the years. And his direction, almost without fail, has been in lockstep with what the teachers' unions and educational bureaucracies want, not necessarily what's in the best interest of students, families and employers.

It's an unworkable situation politically, since the state education commissioner makes such a high salary and yet supposedly serves at the pleasure of state ed board members, who are reimbursed for expenses and that's about it. This is sort of a throwback to the way government used to be run, out of sync with today's push toward more direct accountability of public servants.

What to do?

Rick Savage, who did a great job as a strong, independent voice for parents and students during his stint on the State Board of Ed from 1996-2000, proposes this change:

Let's let the governor appoint the state commissioner of education.

Savage said that would be a good way to make the education chief accountable to people across the state. The governor would go around campaigning with specific educational philosophies and policies made clear. Everybody who voted would know what statewide educational policy should be, based on those well-articulated positions. That would make it much easier to hold the state ed commissioner accountable. And we'd all live happily ever after.

I agree with Savage.

He said, "The problem now is the education system is made of educators, by educators, and for educators. They can get away with anything because they can hide behind obscure candidates on the State Board of Education. After they get a 'rubber stamp' board there's very little that can be done to stop the commissioner because he persists as the sole source of information and perspective to the elected board."

Savage is another good Nebraskan whose name has been mentioned along with Brad Kuiper of Gretna for possible appointment by Gov. Mike Johanns to replace State Sen. Jon Bruning, who won election Tuesday to the state attorney general's office.

Savage may not get the nod this time, but with good ideas like this, we hope he gains public office somewhere soon. And may somebody in the Unicam pick up on this idea . . . and run with it.

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There’s a very bad joke about kids whose native language is not English. They often go to public schools where the education is so poor, they can be illiterate in not one, but TWO languages.

Ba-bum crash!

But of course that is an exaggeration. Schools have tried to meet the needs of non-English speaking students for many years now, and while there are abuses and disappointing results from place to place, success has not been, well, completely foreign to them.

But there are some exciting, cost-effective and sensible things happening with bilingual education that could have a positive impact on the Nebraska education scene.

Omaha Public Schools, for example, says in its 2002-03 budget that its limited English student population has risen to more than 4,000 in the past decade. That’s going on 10 percent of total enrollment. That influx of immigrant children has had a significant impact on how OPS uses its money and space to deal with the special learning challenges of those who can’t read or write in English very well.

Finding a better, cheaper way to make immigrant kids literate in English would seem to be a godsend in this economic climate, which prompted 60% of the voters in OPS Tuesday to say “no” to a request for extra funding from the state’s largest school district.

Maybe the answer is English immersion, where, generally, immigrant children get one year of special, separate bilingual education to learn English on a fast track, and then they join the general student population.

Voters in Massachusetts Tuesday said “hola” to English immersion and “hasta la vista” to the traditional model of bilingual education, which separates non-English speaking kids into classes taught in their native languages and keeps them from assimilating into the mainstream.

The traditional style of bilingual education – called “English as a Second Language” locally, or “Limited English Proficiency” -- has been called “language apartheid” in the way it separates immigrant children from their peers for most of each school day, often for five to seven years or more. In many cases it is said to cripple their practical understanding and usage of English for the rest of their lives, because they never quite blended into school because of the language barrier.

Ironically, since separate bilingual education got started in Massachusetts, it is interesting to note that Massachusetts voters dumped that format with a 68% voting majority Tuesday, including big wins in heavily minority neighborhoods, directing a change to English immersion.

English immersion is what California and Arizona voters put in place in 1998 and 2000, respectively, by majorities of 61% and 63%, respectively. Why? Because it makes so much sense and it works: California’s test scores have improved dramatically among immigrants. The percentage of Hispanic students who scored above the median in reading shot up from 21% to 35% in just three years.

Efforts in those states were led by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz, as was the campaign to dump bilingual ed and switch to English immersion in Colorado.

However, the Colorado ballot measure failed by 12 percentage points Tuesday despite early polling months ago that showed it had 78 percent support in Colorado. What happened in the interim? A Colorado heiress put up $3 million for last-minute ads by the education establishment to fight English immersion.

Those ads have been deemed “race-baiting” in the way they played on fears of white parents that their kids would be slighted in the classroom by infusions of non-English speaking Latinos.

The last-minute ads also used fraudulent financial figures, and the pro-bilingual forces have acknowledged that. The ads had claimed that Arizona spent an extra $442 per ESL student, which amounted to tens of millions of extra dollars . . . but the fact is, the extra spending stemmed from a federal lawsuit settlement, not the vote.

Proponents of English immersion programs say the additional costs to schools are minimal. They say there are significant savings from it in the prevention of future learning difficulties, reduction of extra LEP staff, elimination of onerous federal regulations such as excessive space-per-pupil requirements that cramp regular classrooms in favor of ESL classrooms, and reductions in dropout rates among immigrant children. All of these, they say, more than offset start-up costs.

Best of all, proponents say, English immersion works a lot better for kids than the separate bilingual programs that cost more and employ more staff.

Works better? Saves money? Sounds like an “ole.”



A check of federal education statistics about the nation’s largest 100 school districts shows that some of the peer districts of the Omaha Public Schools have a higher percentage of their students in “Limited English Proficiency” programs yet spend less per pupil overall than the Omaha district.

If the growing number of LEP students in OPS is used in an attempt to gain more state aid from the Legislature next year with claims that the OPS student body is more expensive to educate than available revenue can support, these figures should be cited in rebuttal.


Omaha Public Schools
Operating expense per pupil: $5,741
Percentage of LEP kids: 7.7%

Albuquerque, N.M., Public Schools

Broward County School District, Florida

Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, Texas

Houston, Texas

Tucson, Arizona

Source: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, Common Core of Data, “Characteristics of the 100 Largest Public Elementary and Secondary School Districts in the United States, 2000-01,” http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/100_largest/

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Here's a chance to get a great guy, a fiscal conservative, and a real leader in education into the Nebraska State Legislature.

Encourage Gov. Mike Johanns to appoint BRAD KUIPER to the District #3 seat vacated by the election Tuesday of Jon Bruning as our new attorney general.

The southern Douglas County / Gretna / suburban / rural district would be extremely well-served by Kuiper (pronounced "k-eye-per"). He is well-informed about the need for phonics in the early grades in our schools, has a great track record in business and family matters, and has great ideas about cost-effective government overall.

Please urge the governor to appoint Brad Kuiper! Contact Gov. Johanns by email at mjohanns@notes.state.ne.us or fax a letter to him in Lincoln at 471-6031.

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"History shows that in crises the people in power tend to refine and
intensify the status quo system which eventually destroys them. This
is the present movement in education."

-- L. Thomas Hopkins, Phi Delta Kappan, June 1974

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Go Big Ed political consultant Paul Dorr says that in most communities in which a big school bond issue or tax-lid override fails, school district officials usually commission an expensive post-mortem survey to find out why people voted against them.

Most of the time, they try to justify it by saying they have to find out why people didn't UNDERSTAND their request for more money and how they fell SHORT in explaining to the public their high-priced, complex needs.


Who is it who doesn't understand the message that Omaha Public Schools voters sent Tuesday, by a whopping 60 / 40 margin, that OPS is going to have to shift its costs and cut its budget a little, instead of getting more just because they asked for more?

So here's what Go Big Ed will do . . . if OPS starts doing such a survey, WE will do a counter-survey. As funds permit, we will start calling around to find out why that 40 percent mistakenly voted FOR the tax increase, and what they didn't UNDERSTAND about the need for units of government, such as the public schools, to set priorities and hold the line on spending when times are lean.

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Wednesday, November 06, 2002


We scored a big touchdown Tuesday by defeating the tax-levy override request of the Omaha Public Schools, and by such a bold margin, 60%-40%.

Woo Hoo!!! :>)

Be sure to visit http://www.GoBigEd.blogspot.com for post-election coverage.

Thank you very much to those Go Big Ed supporters who contributed $1,700 for some very effective ads in the face of more than $100,000 spent by the other side.

Special thanks to all those who shared the facts and "rocked the vote" on this important issue.

Now it’s time to put some plays together to score again . . . and win this game.

Needed: ideas for ways OPS could cut spending right away, and still be pro-teacher and, most of all, pro-student.

These ideas would be presented to the OPS board and the Legislature to voice the will of the people: excellence in education does not depend on big spending, and OPS can do a better job with the generous tax funds we're already giving them.

To produce these recommendations, I am seeking volunteers to serve on a blue-ribbon citizens' committee over the next few weeks. Please consider joining us.

We would suggest smart, practical ways that OPS could cut its spending right away. The goal: to remove the need for OPS to seek increased state aid from the Legislature or pursue a lawsuit seeking more funding.

Let’s get together on a strategy to help OPS get through its fiscal crunch and make a few necessary changes in spending patterns . . . without hurting teachers, students or the important things that need to keep happening in the classrooms of the state’s largest school district.

Just as Tuesday’s vote is having a domino effect on taxpayers and school officials statewide, solid, sensible, nonclassroom cost-cutting ideas would be a tremendous public service that would resonate well with taxpayers and school officials alike.

We need to prove that we are not their enemies. In fact, we are their patrons and their friends. It's time for us to provide fresh ideas and leadership on behalf of the children that we all care about so very much.

I would like to assemble the committee, meet once for dinner in mid-November to divide up the tasks, do the research, report back by phone or email by Dec. 15, write and rewrite, and then release the recommendations around the first of the year, as the Legislature is convening.

Needed: people to serve on the committee with focused research assignments. . . whether you can give an hour or 20 hours, there’s a spot for you . . . those who represent special groups of students are especially invited . . . accountants are especially invited . . . people to meet privately with OPS officials . . . people to review data on an anonymous basis . . . people to research cost-effective methods that are working elsewhere with students like those in OPS.

You can have your name listed, or not . . . simply give suggestions or plunge in full force . . . whatever role you'd like to play would be welcome.

All I can offer in return is dinner (probably at the Field Club, 36th and Woolworth) and my thanks for your willingness to serve and your support and leadership within your circle of influence.

Go Big Ed is on a mission.

Let’s roll!


(Please forward this website address to others, and reply to swilliams1@cox.net if you would like to join the committee)



Special thanks go to political consultant Paul Dorr, who aided the Go Big Ed committee and can now boast a track record on leading successful opposition to school bond issues and tax-levy overrides of 11 out of 12!

He is one awesome, taxpayer-friendly leader, and he's a great speaker, too. Cheers for the northern Iowan, a member in good standing of Go Big Ed with a special gold star for bravery in the line of duty.

Pass the word to friends in other cities and states about Mr. Dorr's effectiveness if they should face a tax increase in the future. The sooner you contact him and the more money you raise, the more effective your defense will be. You can reach him at (712) 758-3660 or rtp@juno.com

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Tuesday, November 05, 2002

HOORAY: www.StatePaper.com has been reborn as of today and ran this story. Thank you, boyzzzz. :>)


OPS Override: Scrooge or Santa?

The people who want voters in the Omaha Public Schools to override the Legislature’s spending lid on property taxes portray their opponents as kid-hating, stingy Ebeneezer Scrooges:

“Unplug those computers and make ‘em dip their pens in inkwells again.”

“Turn the heat ‘way down and make ‘em etch their math facts in the frost on the windowpanes.”

“Kick that crutch out from under Tiny Tim in Special Ed, the lazy shirker. . . .”

On the other hand, the “no new taxes” crowd is making the 6,000-plus OPS employees and their supporters feel like a gigantic theft ring of drunken Santa Clauses:

“Let’s hock all the textbooks and go to ‘the boats’!”

“Drug ‘em on Ritalin and we can watch soaps and call phone porn lines all day at taxpayer expense.”

“Teach as poorly as we can so more kids will bomb the standardized tests, get labeled ‘learning disabled’ and we can get more federal grants and more para-professionals to do our work for us!”

Bottom line: we’re polarized, people. This is no way to run a public education system.

Both sides need to put on duncecaps, sit in their respective corners and think about how to prove they really are “for the kids” when this election is over, no matter how it comes out.

Relations between the staff and the public in the state’s largest school district have never been more crucial. The upcoming legislative dogfight over state aid to education promises to be enormous. Anything that happens in OPS will have a domino effect statewide. So a good dialogue about our schools and our future needs to emerge.

Both sides should resolve to trust each other a little more and learn from the claims of the other side. It’s time to come together to work on solutions . . . “for the kids.”

That’s the first thing that ought to go, the cheesy campaign slogan of the pro-spenders. They cynically play on the emotions of the voters to trick them into thinking that throwing more money at the schools will prove their love for children, and anybody who disagrees is a dirty, rotten child-beater.

Instead, OPS officials could learn a lot from what’s happening in the inner-city schools around the country that are knocking the socks off the competition, and for less money, too. They are doing it with old-fashioned teaching methods, common-sense disciplinary practices, and cost-effective, tried-and-true phonics, handwriting, computation, memorization and recitation. Those basics have fallen by the wayside in districts like OPS in recent years in favor of expensive social engineering and the “fads du jour” that fail to teach kids how to read, write, think and figure.

It’s a paradox, but after a certain point, spending more on K-12 education actually hurts more than it helps. It’s called, in economics, the “law of diminishing returns.” Business people know about this law. Private schools know it. It’s time public schools did, too.

Secondly, we need truth in education information. OPS has been saying the levy-lid override would “only” cost an additional 15 cents per $100 valuation and that it would “only” add 41 cents a day to the average homeowner’s tax bill.

But that’s propaganda, and it’s emotionally abusive, especially to older taxpayers on fixed incomes, who buy that schtick, unfortunately. “Spin” has no place in public policy matters involving other people’s money. It is dishonest of the TV ads to say that without the override, OPS would have to get rid of art, music and gym. Shameless “Chicken Little” rhetoric!

Let’s look at the facts: the override would cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $150 a year in property taxes for five years, which is an extra $750 in taxes . . . a far cry from 41 cents. Double that for a $200,000 property owner, and so on. Nobody escapes: rents would go up, too, because landlords pass along tax increases as rent increases.

Now, OPS has said the override could bring in an additional $115 million over the next five years, or an extra $2,511 per pupil.

That figure, and the fact that the 2002-03 OPS budget gives OPS authority for total spending in excess of $15,000 per pupil when you add construction expenses to regular operating expenses (see p. 3 of the OPS budget posted online at www.ops.org), isn't discussed. Neither is the fact that according to the State Auditor, OPS is already $322 million in debt. Those figures have not been put forth by pro-spending forces.

When pro-spenders crab about how hard life is for teachers as an inducement to raise taxes, the hypocrisy oozes out. Actually, the OPS budget shows, teachers make up only about half the OPS staff . . . the noninstructional staff has exploded in size while K-12 enrollment has ticked upward only slightly . . . there is one employee for every 7.6 students in OPS now . . . which suggests that the problem isn’t the size of the salaries, but how many of them there are to pay . . . and, with a typical class size in grade school of about 20 students times the $15,000 per-pupil figure, OPS is spending $300,000 per classroom, and yet average teacher pay and benefits total only about $40,000.

So wuzzup wit dat other $260,000 that’s NOT going to the teacher, OPS?

See how much different the issue is from a measly 41 cents?

But now, on the other hand, the anti-tax increase people have seemed heartless and unsympathetic during this campaign when they ignore the special learning challenges posed to OPS by its unique student population. They come off as ignorant of the enormous, complex problems caused by the breakdown of the family and systemic child neglect that is reflected in many of the most disturbing OPS statistics, including inner-city test scores, which are very poor.

The number of non-English speaking students has zoomed up by 10-fold in recent years, to more than 4,000, according to the OPS budget. The total is nearing 10 percent of the OPS student body, one of the highest among large school districts in the country. That has enormously expensive budgetary consequences.

Similarly, OPS reported 50.8 percent of its students came from households with incomes low enough to qualify for federally-subsidized school lunches for the 2000-01 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s a higher percentage of poor and lower-middle income kids than many of the nation’s largest school districts, including San Diego, Broward County, Fla., and Baltimore County, Md.

Income level and educational attainment of the parents of students in a district are key predictors of how easy or hard it is to teach those kids. Demographic factors have a lot more to do with academic success than spending per pupil. OPS spends about in the middle of the pack of the nation’s largest school districts, for academic results that are fair to middling for students with OPS-style demographics.

So OPS does have more of a challenge than the average Nebraska school district . . . although strong arguments could be made that the things disadvantaged kids need to learn as well as their more advantaged peers are relatively cheap.

But the fact remains, urban public education in this day and age ain’t easy. Maybe OPS is doing the things that work, after all; maybe they just need to clue us in with a little less “spin.” Although OPS has a long way to go, particularly with academic achievement of racial minorities, it’s important to note that it’s not doing all that badly compared to its peers.

But you’d never know that if you listened only to OPS’ critics. We need to sweeten up, acknowledge what’s good about what OPS is doing, and throw them a bone now and then. Nobody likes to listen to nags. They will, however, listen to someone who speaks with warmth, humor and grace.

Ironically, very few anti-spenders ever show up at an OPS board meeting, write letters, or talk with OPS officials and board members on these issues. I plead guilty, too.

Why not? Because of the name-calling and demonizing, of course. Taxpayers who speak up against increased school spending and declining academic achievement get vilified, called “kooks,” child-haters, and worse. It hurts, since we’re the ones who give them their money, after all. They’re biting the hands that feed them. That’s got to stop, too.

Look: it’s time to get along. Past time, in fact. Kids aren’t getting any younger, the future’s not looking any easier, and those school bills are mounting up too darn high.

Whatever your views on school spending, whether you’re a Scrooge or a Santa, don’t you think it’s time to reconcile?

We need to quit going toe to toe . . . and instead, stand shoulder to shoulder, holding hands, and facing these problems together, side by side.

That wouldn’t just be “for the kids.” That’d be for all of us.
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A recap of earlier endorsements and recommendations on this site. See www.voterinformation.org for all-round solid information.

State Board of Education:
Kathryn Piller (Omaha area, south)
Kathy Wilmot (western Nebraska)

State Legislature:
District 10, northwest Omaha: Mike Friend
District 38, south-central Nebraska: Scott Scheierman

State Auditor:
Kate Witek

Omaha Public Schools tax-levy override:

Elkhorn bond issues:
Yes for $9.9 million for school projects
No to $2.9 million swimming pool and $4.5 million recreation center

School boards:

Elkhorn: Kim Fasse
Millard: Debra Atterson
Papillion-LaVista: Deborah Boykin
OPS: Subdistrict 7, Mark Martinez
Ralston: Michael D. Barker, Ronald Tietgen

ESU #3:
(all Omaha-area school districts except OPS)
Alan F. Moore
Ron Erlbacher

ESU #6:
(Fillmore, rural Lancaster, Saline, Seward and York Counties)
Joan Clark
Darrel Eberspacher
Barb Fehringer
Alan Jacobsen

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Monday, November 04, 2002


Last-minute campaigning on behalf of the Omaha Public Schools, which is seeking a tax increase on Tuesday's ballot, claims that OPS spending patterns should be compared to districts closer to its size.

With more than 45,000 pupils, OPS is by far the largest school district in Nebraska. Though that should afford it tremendous economies of scale in purchasing and so forth, compared to smaller local districts, its sheer size does make its fiscal patterns different from others.

So let's see how it stacks up nationwide.

Guess what? OPS is a big spender compared to other large districts around the country.

It ranked 50th in spending per pupil in a ranking of the nation's largest 100 school districts, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, "National Public Education Financial Survey," 1998-99.

That year, OPS reported 45,118 students and spending per pupil of $5,741. A similarly-sized district, Alpine School District in Utah, had 90 more students and spent $3,806 apiece . . . exactly one-third LESS than OPS.

True, the next district, St. Paul, Minn., spent a great deal more than OPS, $8,119 per pupil, but as you go down the list of the nation's top 100 largest districts, you'll find exactly half that spend less than OPS . . . and many of them have more poverty and more non-English speaking students than OPS has.

Source: http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/100_largest/table_10_1.asp

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Education advocates in the east-central Nebraska counties of Fillmore, rural Lancaster, Saline and Seward have researched the candidates for Educational Service Unit #6 and endorse these four as being the most pro-education, pro-fiscal accountability candidates:

Darrel Eberspacher

Joan Clark

Barb Fehringer

Alan Jacobsen

ESU #6 directors are not paid, but those in office now spent $60,288 in taxpayer dollars on travel and expenses from July 1, 2000 to April 30, 2001, according to the Nebraska State Auditor (see the full report at www.auditors.state.ne.us).

While those elected to 13 of Nebraska's ESU's spent more than the ESU #6 bunch on travel and so forth, four spent less. And that $60,288 might have been better spent on the children in that drought-wracked, taxed-out sector of the state, than on the people elected to the ESU office.

For more of a focus on the needs of students, and for fiscal conservatism, vote for those four folks listed above . . . and positive change for kids.

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This ad is running Monday and Tuesday on KFAB, KKAR and KCRO. Thank you very much to all those who donated money to put these ads on the air. Here’s hoping they will be effective.

What’s at stake Tuesday is an extra $115 million for OPS over the next five years, which figures out to an additional $2,500 per pupil, in the face of solid evidence that OPS could manage its money better and change to more cost-effective business and instructional methods.

What's also at stake, though, is a test of who’s in charge of the state’s largest school district. Is it the educrats who always want more, more, more? Or the parents and grandparents who have given OPS billions of dollars over the years, and deserve respect and results?

Here’s hoping this short but sweet radio ad will assure people that they won’t be hurting kids if they vote “AGAINST” the OPS tax increase. In fact, they may be helping them, by reminding OPS and other school districts across the state that it’s our money, not theirs, and by the way, we’re in charge.

The ad features two teenage girls:

The OLDER generations want us to have the BEST education money can buy.

They REALLY do.

And our teachers . . . they work HARD for us.

Sure do.

But I’m TIRED of being . . . well . . . USED . . . by the people who just want more MONEY for OPS.

No kidding.

They don't fool US. When they want to raise their budget, they say:

(falsetto) "It’s FOR the KIDS!"

Sure, it is. NOT! It’s for THEMSELVES.

Instead of doing a BETTER job managing all the money they already HAVE, they just want MORE, MORE, MORE!

They’re so . . . IMMATURE!

They’re acting like . . . TEENAGERS!

(laughing) Yeah! I hope people vote AGAINST that OPS tax increase. THAT would tell those big-spending bigshots:



Paid for by the Go Big Ed political action committee . . . a better game plan for Nebraska’s children and schools.
Find us at www.GoBigEd.blogspot.com

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Friday, November 01, 2002


The Omaha Public Schools have said that if voters approve the override of their spending lid Tuesday, they will have additional budget authority of an average of $23 million a year over the next five years. That totals $115 million that is at stake in Tuesday's vote, although OPS has said it might not need anywhere near the full amount.

The point is, if you divide that $115 million by the 45,782 students listed in enrollment figures in the 2002-03 budget posted at www.ops.org, it comes to . . .

. . . drum roll, please . . .

$2,511.90 per student.

Now, that would buy a LOT of pencils, paper, books and tax-sheltered annuities for administra . . . uh, that is, chalk.

How much of that $2,511.90 in extra educational value do YOU think each student is likely to receive?

Just wondering.
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There is one employee in the Omaha Public Schools for every 7.6 students, and the regular-classroom teaching force makes up just a skoch over half of the 6,000-person workforce within the district. That's according to the 2002-03 budget posted at www.ops.org

OPS used to have one employee for every 10.3 students in the 1985-86 school year, according to the budget book for that year.

Staff members who aren't regular classroom teachers work in special education, are counselors, safety and discipline personnel, health services, psychologists, office personnel, instructional support services, general administration, school administration, business support, operations and maintenance, and so on and so forth.

Nonteaching staff in public schools have a nickname: "The Blob." The public may focus on the frontline worker, the great American teacher . . . but bigger and bigger pieces of the pie are going to "The Blob."
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According to the 1984-85 budget book published by the Omaha Public Schools, the average elementary school class that year had 24.8 students (page v). That fell to 19.26 students by 2001-02, according to p. 13 of the current budget book available at www.ops.org

So average class size in OPS has been reduced by more than 22 percent in the last 15 years. And yet, back when there were many more kids per class in OPS, here's what the same page in the 1984-85 budget book said about academic performance in those "crowded" classrooms:

"The performance of Omaha's public school students on standardized tets has been exemplary, with mean scores ranking substantially above averages for national norms. The large number of scholarships and academic awards, as well as consistent honors in music, the arts, and athletics further attest to the continued high quality of the educational programs provided by the Omaha Public Schools."

But now the pro-spenders in OPS want $115 million in extra property taxes with Tuesday's levy-lid override vote in order to keep class sizes small or reduce them. Meanwhile, everybody's complaining about test scores in OPS. So . . . doesn't history show that the kiddies did better when class sizes were LARGER? Maybe THAT'S what OPS should be doing. Go figure.

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