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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