Thursday, February 13, 2003


State Sen. Chip Maxwell of Omaha suggested recently that Nebraska scrap local funding of our K-12 schools and shift all of the financial responsibility to state and federal sources.

Rationale: solve the property-tax crisis and the gaps between urban and rural Nebraska, and rich and poor Nebraska. Have just one K-12 fund, feeding into it from state sales and income taxes from all across the state, and then dispersing it equally as the same amount of money for every pupil, no matter where he or she goes to school.

Ahhhh! Property taxes would shrink to next to nothing!

Ahhhh! No more back-door deals and arm wrestling down in the Legislature as they wrangle with the state school aid formula.

But bleahhhh! State financing of local schools is a stinky idea. And here’s why:

1. How has state funding worked elsewhere? Not too hot. Hawaii is the only state in the country with just one statewide school district. According to Education Week’s 2003 Quality Counts report (www.edweek.org), Hawaii’s high-school graduation rate is 69 percent. Nebraska’s is 84 percent. That factoid is enough to make most of us say “aloha” to the state-funding idea.

2. But isn’t it better for kids if you “equalize” spending from place to place instead of allowing the richer school districts to spend more than the poorer ones? Well . . . in 1990, Kentucky embarked on the most sweeping equity-based school reform in the nation. It was supposed to be the big model for equal opportunity and state control over curriculum, assessments, teacher training and all the rest. In 2002, the students who were in kindergarten when the reforms began took the ACT. Their scores dropped from previous years. They scored 20.0 on a 1 to 36 scale. The national average was 20.8. Nebraska’s students scored 21.7. So “equalization” looks like it makes ALL of the students LESS equal.

3. But might it not be cheaper in the long run to consolidate a lot of functions at the state level and reduce all those pesky local bureaucracies? Well . . .why don’t you ask the former Soviet Union? THEY had state schools and no “bothersome” local control at all. But a lot of people think their centrally-controlled education system is what ran their country into the ground. It was “borscht,” in other words.

4. But what about teacher pay? If we could tap into a more equitable pool of money from all across the state, then we could give much-needed raises to some of the teachers in our rural areas. They are now trapped by the relatively low wealth ratios in their districts, compared to city teachers. But . . . do we really want to make all 20,000-some teachers state employees, with all the cascading consequences of that move? Do we really want to ignore the significant differences in the cost of living between urban and rural Nebraska? And do we really want to strip local school boards of the prerogative to set salaries and benefits?

5. But what about the politicization of education? Right now, there are so many political hoops our educators have to jump through, from the local school board to the Legislature to the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education . . . wouldn’t it be better to be done with a lot of that? O . . . K. Even if you kept elected school boards in place, they’d be “steers” instead of “bulls” because they would have to dance to the state’s tune to get the state funding. The closer you are to the source of the funding, the more power you have. With a state-financing system, the power would be thrown to the statewide education bureaucracy . . . and . . . organ music . . . the teachers’ union.

6. But wouldn’t state financing streamline a lot of the administrative functions and duplicated services that we now have? Well . . . define “streamline.” You mean, the state would set all the priorities? The state would spec all the textbooks? The state would evaluate all the teachers? The state would determine who has met the standards for graduation? The state would determine which districts get capital improvements funds and which do not? That’s not a “streamline.” That’s a “chokehold.”

7. But local school districts are infamous for favoritism, nepotism, pork barreling, parochial judgments and petty politics. Wouldn’t a move to state financing remove a lot of that? No, because the local yokels would still be contracting, wouldn’t they? They just wouldn’t be controlling the money any more; they’d only be receiving it, like a handout. And which kind of public servant do you feel is more accountable to you, the taxpayer: the fat cat whose office is right around the corner and whose wife you run into at the grocery store . . . or the fat cat sitting in a high-rise office building in Lincoln who’s never even been to your town?

8. But it isn’t fair that students in poor school districts don’t have the money for some of the extras that students in rich districts have access to. Yes, but . . . decades of research have shown that there is no connection between increased school funding and improved academic achievement. The calculus goes a lot deeper than spending per pupil. Shifting financial resources to poorer districts tends to anger middle-class, suburban parents who have worked very hard to get into those wealthier districts and are willing to shoulder those higher tax burdens in order to provide those extras for their children. Remember the Communist Manifesto . . . “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” That’s what statewide financing does. We’re supposed to AVOID that kind of stuff, aren’t we . . . Comrade?

9. What schools are working not very well at all? Sad to say, it’s the Native American schools in Nebraska. How come? It appears to be because the source of the funding is totally from outside the local area: federal funding. Parents and the public feel no ownership and have no leverage. There’s a lot of apathy and hopelessness. So they “check out” of the educational equation. And it shows. Surely that’s not what we want. And how.

10. What schools are really working well? Private schools and home schools. They wax Nebraska’s public schools in every measurement, from test scores to spending per pupil to evidence of character and citizenship. Everyone agrees that the main reason is that there is hardly any central-office bureaucracy for private schools and home schools. The building principals (or parents) have power over the purse-strings. And with private schools, the parents have power over the whole shebang, because it’s their money, and everybody knows it. The public schools act as if it’s THEIR money, even though it’s not. But in private schools, common sense rules the day, pennies are pinched, and kids are thriving in that environment. We should be following their funding model and driving the power closer to the parents, not further away as we would do if we went to a statewide model.

Nebraska right now is one of the states with the highest proportion of local property taxes in the school financing picture, nationwide. Switching to total state funding would be a radical move, indeed.

But get this: an even more radical move might be the best move of all. Instead of turning schools over to the state, we need to be turning them back to the parents and taxpayers. How to do that? Privatize.

And that ain’t no borscht.


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