Thursday, April 17, 2003

Happy Easter, one and all. :>)



There are a lot of things to like in the new plan to abolish state aid to education announced this week by State Sen. Chip Maxwell of Omaha.

He would replace it with a new, 1.5 percent variable state tax on income and property. About two-thirds of this tax would come from property and one-third from income. That would keep the funding level relatively stable regardless of what happens with the economy and people's incomes. And it would be kinder and gentler to property-rich, income-poor citizens such as farmers and seniors, both of which groups grace Nebraska from the Iowa coast to the Wyoming shore.

On the down side, the plan would force wealthier citizens to subsidize poorer ones across the state. But that is already happening. And as a matter of public policy, that might be better than the alternative, which appears to be allowing the collapse of most of the state's rural schools, and unconscionable disparities in funding power between rich and poor urban neighborhoods, which appear to be widening the achievement gap between rich and poor students.

Another down side is that the Maxwell Plan would require a constitutional amendment to add the new state tax, and the special-interest groups, chiefly the teachers' unions, will fight it tooth and nail. But Maxwell is convinced that the plan makes enough sense economically and educationally that the silent majority will outshout the educrats at the ballot box.

State aid is a mess, everyone agrees, and so this plan comes at an opportune time.

Right now, sales and income taxes pour in to the state and are tweaked to kingdom come in a strange compendium of formulas and figurings before being regurgitated back to school districts in a goofy patchwork of amounts of state aid that make little sense.

Under Maxwell's plan, every child enrolled would bring in the same amount -- $5,500 per pupil per year in the first year of the plan, 2004-05. That state subsidy would go up or down based on the Consumer Price Index, but not much. Since enrollment doesn't change that much from year to year, districts would have a pretty solid idea of how much is coming, and that's a good thing.

Maxwell also would shift to 100 percent state funding of special education, which might help get a handle on that runaway train and start ''paying down'' the disgraceful overidentification of ''learning disabled'' kids that districts are doing just to get extra money.

He also would add a new institution – state-run alternative schools – for kids with serious behavior problems, drug addictions, difficult personal problems and so forth. Maxwell figures that something like 5 percent of the Nebraska K-12 student body would shift into these schools, or 14,200 kids statewide. As long as these schools are kept the Sam Hill away from becoming School-to-Work slave-labor training camps, and the focus is constantly on returning these children to academic soundness and their regular schools, then that would be a good thing, too. It might even be enough of a carrot to earn support of the state's educators, who are constantly complaining about the distractions and difficulties of educating kids who are besieged with ''issues'' too tangled for public schools to mend . . . and yet, who love the extra dough that comes with the ''at-risk'' designation and thus have disincentives to help these kids get strong.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the Maxwell plan is its very uniformity of school funding. It may drive the silk-stocking set crazy to think that their children get no more dough for fancy-pants activities that, by the way, do nothing to build their vocabularies and grasp of reality, but which sound really, really good when the parents brag about it on the cocktail party circuit. This plan would take away the ''edge'' the rich schools think they have over the hoi polloi.

That might drive people with means out of the public schools and into the private schools, where they can donate money to ensure that their child has access to a digital camera or a CAD/CAM lab, for example. There, they would see how much money the public schools are wasting on nonacademics far away from the classroom, and in contrast how efficiently and well the private schools are managing money and preparing young minds and hearts for life.

Now, think about it. A decline in enrollment in the public schools and a corresponding groundswell of public opinion that the private schools are doing a better job might be the only way to force the public schools to get better. Right now, they have no reason to: they ''get paid'' regardless.

But under Maxwell's plan, if there were an exodus of ''the beautiful people,'' the public schools would have a reason to get them back in order to rebuild their enrollment figures. And that might be enough to refocus them on academics, cut out the deadwood, stop the waste, get rid of the social engineering – all of which parents want. It would force them to treat parents as customers. That would be a good thing. It would force them to get rid of a lot of the costly, nonacademic nonsense that is not competitive with the private schools, which stick to business.

Competition would be good for public schools in Nebraska. They would get better. And that would be a very good thing.

Remember, Maxwell's a politician, so gentlepersons, start your grains of salt, but he had the Legislative Fiscal Office run numbers for him, and he's claiming there would be a 25 percent property tax reduction under his plan. That would be a very, very good thing.

He's calling for people to contact their state senators and talk up his plan among their friends and colleagues.

Get in touch with him and get a copy of his plan, entitled ''Budget Proposal,'' via email at cmaxwell@unicam.state.ne.us

Let Go Big Ed know what you think of this, too. That would be the "goodest" thing of all.

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