Thursday, March 06, 2003

. . .


. . .


. . . it was all a dream. Dang!

Here’s what I dreamed:

1. We started paying districts state aid based on Average Daily Attendance, not Average Daily Membership, and every child was worth the same subsidy no matter where he or she lives in the state.

We need to end all this wrangling about which kids “need” more than others. That’s socialism. Just figure out how much we have and divvy it up. Done. To meet statutory requirements for K-12 education costs a lot less than they’re spending. They’ll figure out how to make ends meet. That’s what we pay them for. Eh?

Also, there are a lot of “phantom” kids we pay for every day, all across the state, who aren’t there. Maybe this will force districts with huge absenteeism to make school seem worthwhile enough to get kids in their seats Monday through Friday. Too much trouble figuring enrollment so often? Well, heyyyy: what’d we buy you guys all those computers for, if not to manage our money better? The one change would save $22.5 million in the Omaha Public Schools alone, based on budget figures on http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm

2. In my dream, we started making parents pay for the second half-day of kindergarten, not grant free all-day kindergarten, because it’s a frill; there’s no evidence it’s worth a hoot academically.

With 13 grade levels to pay for, all-day kindergarten represents roughly 7.7 percent of a district’s budget. I know, I know, actual cost is technically less than that because early primary grades cost less than secondary grades, but let’s just see. With OPS’s enrollment, that figures to $23.3 million for kindergarten funding. That means getting rid of that second free half-day would save something like $11.6 million in that district alone. Parents could still have the service if they wanted it. They’d just have to pay for it. What a concept.

3. We investigated whether there is widespread cheating in the federal school lunch funding program.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly one-fourth of the children who are receiving free or subsidized breakfasts and lunches through the federal school-food program for disadvantaged children are not really entitled to as much as they’re getting. It seems a little harsh to call them “cheaters,” but it seems there are more families signed up for the free-or-reduced-food program than U.S. Census figures indicate exist. Parents or guardians self-report family income to qualify, and apparently many have succumbed to the temptation to lie to get the freebies they shouldn’t be getting. In OPS alone, the feds are sending more than $10 million a year in reimbursement; if it’s true that $2.5 million of that is phony, that’s a lot of baloney. This ought to be investigated statewide.

4. We used state lottery proceeds to do performance audits on state aid to public schools.

Duhhh. It’s a bad dream that we’re not doing this already.

5. We figured state aid based on the required 180-day calendar. If schools want to stretch that to 187- or 190-day calendars, they’re on their own, funding-wise.

When times are tough, the tough think statutorily. What does state law require? How can we manage our time and resources efficiently enough to meet the requirement but not go overboard? Don’t suppose we can put the calendar back to a basic Labor Day to Memorial Day calendar with a nice fall break and a full week for spring break? Come on . . . families hate the “Old McDonald” approach to school calendars: “With a half-a-day here and a half-a-day there, here an intercession, there an inservice, everybody goofed up. . . .” Let’s keep it simple, senors and senoritas.

6. We urged State Board of Education member Joe Higgins to show true leadership, and convince his union and its well-coiffed and -leashed senators to get rid of the crazy “Rule of 85” early retirement program that he got in place a few years ago in his union leadership position – a huge reason for budget pressure and teacher shortages now.

Nebraska has just about the most liberal and generous teacher retirement system in the country, allowing teachers to retire at age 55 with 30 years of service. It was a gigantic kick to the solar plexus of both teacher quality and budgetary flexibility a few years ago when many, many experienced teachers took early retirement and left the classroom. The economy was going great then. Now, it’s blah. We can’t afford that kind of self-indulgence in this tax climate, with everybody’s investment portfolios in the dumpster.

7. And if the union won’t do that one intelligent thing . . . then, I realized in my dream although a lot of people already figured this out in their waking hours . . . it’s time to give up on them . . . bust the teachers’ unions and let school districts set their own common-sense compensation packages, including sensible health-care benefit plans.

If we really want to head off the impending teacher shortage because of Nebraska’s aging teacher workforce, we’d let districts pay that hard-to-find math, science, special education or vocational education teacher a little bit more than the garden-variety P.E. teacher who is in ample supply. They’d stay in teaching, or put off retirement, if we made it worth their while. We also should let districts pay their home-run hitters more and their three-times-transferred, marginal, discipline-challenged teachers less. Union rules prevent us from doing those common-sense, private-sector things, and it shows. But consider what the Omaha Education Association says about performance pay in their position statement on salaries (www.oeaomaha.org): they say “any system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance” is . . . hold on to your hats and tie yourself to the fencepost . . . “inappropriate.”

Oh, Mama! That’s what we’re up against. Not exactly an attitude of gratitude. No wonder it’s a budgetary nightmare.

Now I KNOW it was all just a dream. Wahhhh.

The good news is, once a dream is over and you know it was just a dream, that means you must be awake.

Are we, Nebraska? If so, let’s go!

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