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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