Thursday, February 20, 2003


So seven of the nine budget czars in the State Legislature voted Tuesday to raise state aid to education. That’s despite the state’s $673 budget shortfall and the public’s fearsome anti-tax mood. Have fun swimming with lead balloons for water wings.

And so the rest of the state senators are down at the Capitol reading tea leaves for how they are going to divvy up state aid this time. They’ve come up with $722.5 million in “certified” need, a $60.6 million increase over the current school year. That’s a lot of tea . . . green tea.

Gov. Mike Johanns has agreed to mudwrestle Sen. Ben Nelson to raise funds to cover that $151 million in court-ordered fines over the nuclear waste dump we dodged, and help pay down that $673 million budget deficit. Can’t wait to see if Nelson’s hair gets mussed; bet Johanns has better-looking legs.

Meanwhile, school administrators around the state are consulting their Ouija boards to find out how in the Sam Hill they are going to make ends meet next year.

Union officials are planning to file more than 20,000 grievances, claiming that our teachers are all actually Cornhusker football players and ought to be paid a handsome stipend, too.

And taxpayers are putting on their tattered gloves and torn overcoats, going out to look for driveways to shovel to make enough money to pay their taxes. Sob, sob.

School finance is like fine literature: important, complicated, sad and full of big words you have to look up. At least, that’s what the documents about state aid seem like. See for yourself: they’re posted on the State Education Department’s website, http://ess.nde.state.ne.us

Now, amid all of this, here comes a would-be Man of La Mancha, tilting at windmills: State Sen. Chip Maxwell of Omaha. He issued a memo last week renewing his call to state senators to join him in a radical change of the school funding system. He wants to switch to 100 percent state financing and send the same amount of state aid to public schools for every pupil across the state.

His quest comes largely because the state-aid process has gotten too cumbersome, and gaps in funding and achievement persist between rich students and poor ones. We can’t go back to 100% funding by local property taxes because that’s unfair to the poor and illegal, anyway, due to all the school equity lawsuits dating back to Serrano v. Priest in the 1970s.

So Maxwell would do the polar opposite: dump local property taxes as a source of school aid. They now are roughly equal with property tax funding, each covering close to 45 percent, with other local revenues, federal funding and other sources covering the rest. He’d make up the difference with increased state sales and income taxes. Oy.

What has been the reaction to the notion of switching to 100 percent state aid? Maxwell says more people have been requesting copies of psychiatric commitment papers for him, than copies of his formal proposal. But he still resolves to get this done.

He claims total state funding would preserve local control because state aid would be like a block grant with no additional state strings attached (um-hmmm) . . .

. . . local private fundraising could prevent unwanted school consolidation in districts that have relied heavily on higher than average state aid (although in other places where that has been tried, people turn their backs on schools if they’re not forced to pay) . . .

. . . the amount would be more predictable from year to year, with a little room for growth, which would help school planners and managers (but the whole idea was to try to cut school spending, not allow it to keep rising) . . .

. . . and the recent broadening of the sales tax base opens a window of opportunity, Maxwell says, for funding the shift away from property taxes (but . . . who else in Nebraska besides the senators and the state bureaucracy WANTS more sales and income taxes?).

There are more reasons why not to switch to 100% state financing:

-- Sales and income taxes are nowhere near as stable and resilient in a recession as property taxes are. Look at California, which has a state-controlled school finance system, with only 25 percent of school funding coming from local property taxes. It fell from the 5th highest spending per pupil to the 41st in the recent recession. Why? Because it didn’t have the conservative buffer that property taxes afford.

-- Michigan is an example of a state that went to a much larger percentage of state tax funding for public schools, back in the mid-1990s after a school equity lawsuit. But that concentrated power in that state for the union and the edubureaucracy. According to the education website www.eiaonline.com using government figures, Michigan was second in the nation in state rankings of education salaries plus cash value of benefits, $62,985, vs. Nebraska’s 40th ranking, $40,443. Can the cost of living, and inflation, be that much higher in Michigan? No, but it’s a heavily unionized state with lots of lobbying muscle . . . and hardly any local say-so left, because of the shift to state funding. Note, too, that Nebraska kids beat Michigan kids on the ACT in 2001, scoring an average of 21.6 out of 36 in Nebraska vs. 21.3 in Michigan. Neither score is very good, but it does reduce one’s enthusiasm to copy states that spend more and get less than we do. Doesn’t it?

-- Additional state funding pumps up “The Blob” in K-12 education systems. According to www.eiaonline.com, the State of Kentucky ranks 50th in the percentage of the school workforce that teachers comprise. Only 44.8 percent of their school workers are classroom teachers; the rest are “staff” and aides and administrators and so forth – “The Blob.” Nebraska, in contrast, is more teacher-rich, averaging 53 percent teachers, which is 24th in the nation. Why does state funding of education increase “The Blob” and reduce the amount of money available for teachers? Because state funding results in state interference, state regulations, state monitoring, state consultants, state assessments, state evaluations . . . the more, the less merry, too.

-- To the extent that school districts would be limited to a set amount of funding per pupil, smaller districts would be choked into forced consolidations. That’s scary in Nebraska, a state full of smaller districts. But all the data show that the larger the school district and the more distant the source of decision-making power is from the pupils, the weaker the accountability and engagement of the public, and the worse the delivery of quality education. Accountability and public engagement are the two things schools need, besides stable funding. State financing takes them away.

-- If state lawmakers had their hands on the pursestrings of our schools, what is to keep them from yanking them any way they choose? Look at how California’s state-controlled schools put in class size reduction legislation – because it was “popular,” not because it produces better learning, because it doesn’t. That change forced enormous new expenses and the hiring of many, many inexperienced teachers. Result: test scores bombed. California has nuked what used to be a fine educational system by taking away local control.

Now, look. Maxwell has a point: the state-aid process needs to be simplified. It makes sense to compute a set amount per pupil and quit all this statewide haggling on whose pupils need more and whose can do with less. That’s communistic, anyhoo. Local control is already more of a myth than a reality; as it is, we already have far too many rubber-stamp school boards and burned-out educators complaining that all they do is dance to the tune of unfunded government mandates.

But let’s not make that worse.

And there are many good reasons to keep equilibrium between local and state funding of public education. Balance means stability and protection for our educators and our pupils. It also keeps the reins of power partly with the locals, and partly with statewide elected officials, including State Board of Education members and Erniecameral members.

So here’s what we should do:

Cut taxes with performance audits of state aid. Duh.

But we also can still use Maxwell’s idea, to a degree. Here’s how: figure out how much money we have in state sales and income tax to devote to education, divide it up by enrollment, and hand out the checks. Presto!

We could do that right now. But that wouldn’t be enough. Tie yourself to the fencepost, because here comes an ideological tornado. Here’s how we can make Nebraska’s schools the best in the world, with a combination of innovative deregulation and privatization:

First, Nebraska schools should withdraw from all federal funding, because it costs us more in money, time and say-so than it ever brings in. We really need to avoid the No Child Left Behind federal legislation, which has been dubbed “No Family Left Alone.” Exception: move special education and English as a Second Language programs to the control of the Educational Service Units (ESU’s) to continue receiving partial federal reimbursement. And while we’re at it, remove all but those two functions from the ESU’s – especially the icky data collection and assessment behemoths. Finally, reduce the number of ESU’s from 19 to 3, one for each congressional district, to greatly reduce that mega-bureaucracy. But mostly, get rid of that awful Title I. All kids, but especially poor kids, would be much better off without that largest federal education “deform.”

Second, turn Maxwell’s idea for one equal state-aid check per pupil into a voucher, and send those checks to private-school and homeschool students, too. Wherever they are in Nebraska, if they are getting educated, they deserve equal opportunity and an equal share of the taxes. What students are doing the best in Nebraska? The private-schooled and homeschooled kids, rich and poor. How do they do it? Strong accountability to, and engagement by, their parents. Why shouldn’t government subsidize what works best for kids? Why should it only subsidize what we all agree isn’t working?

Third, roll back or minimize government regulation of all schools in our state. Get rid of, or sharply reduce, our state school accreditation requirements, collective bargaining restrictions, standards and assessments regulations, teacher certification rules, and all other evidence that we have caved in to the nationalization schemes of Goals 2000 and Outcome-Based Education.

Government interference with public education is what has jacked up school spending so much. You can trace the increase in school spending to the growth in reliance on state and federal funding, rather than local funding. It’s the strings attached to dollars that come from Washington, D.C., and Lincoln – that are related to social engineering, not academics -- that damage schools. It’s the whole language, whole math, child-centered philosophy and constructivism – all of which are mandated by state and federal education funding. They cost at least 10 times as much as traditional methods of teaching the 3 R’s. The more funding power is consolidated at the state level, the easier it is for special interest groups – especially the teachers’ unions – to push through their expensive, ineffective fads that require more and more “staff” in schools, and lobby for and obtain more money and power for their increasing membership. Parents and taxpayers are, sadly, out of the loop.

That’s why we need to change the school-finance system. To get around them.

If you read “No Excuses,” the landmark book by Samuel Casey Carter on how 21 high-poverty schools still produced high academic performance, you’ll see the truth: more local control is what works . . . better methods, not more money and certainly not more government control of schools. The state bureaucracy and state teachers’ union blocks those better methods. We need to get shed of them.

Spending per-pupil in Nebraska has exploded by 300 percent in the last 20 years -- $2,471.62 in 1981-82 vs. $7,126.73 in 2001-02, according to the State Education Department. The kids aren’t getting dumb and dumber and requiring more money to be educated. It’s because of the increase in state and federal interference in what, constitutionally-speaking, is supposed to be a local concern – education.

The fault is . . . drum roll, please . . . the STATE’S, not the schools’.

If you really want world-class schools, you have to avoid doing what everybody else is doing. Right?

So let’s do this our way – the innovative, exciting, all-American way – encouraging education in all its forms, deregulating it and privatizing it.

We’d be first in the world to do education right.


Comments: Post a Comment