Saturday, February 28, 2004


The incoming superintendent of the Lincoln Public Schools is going to be paid $200,000 a year, one of the highest salaries of any line of work, public or private, in the state.

Meanwhile, tuition for a parochial school in Lincoln is $800 a year -- less than $5 a day on a 180-day schedule.

Those two facts converge as this series on private education comes to a close. They illustrate the amazing variety in philosophies and approaches that are being taken with K-12 education in the public sector vs. the private sector.

Public schools: spare no expense in satisfying the needs of the adults employed in the system; take all the credit for what's working, and none of the blame for what's not.

Private schools: just give kids what they need and improvise and scrounge to make it work; you really can do more with less.

The trendline appears to be that the public schools are demanding more and more money . . . and the private schools are doing the same things, only better, for far, far less.

I'm struck by the image a friend of mine relates: she saw a teacher in an inner-city private school repositioning a broken floor tile with her foot while she was teaching. She later went back to glue it in place herself. At the same time, this friend's children were attending a cushy suburban public school that spared no expense on technology and furnishings -- only the best would do.

Yet each and every one of those disadvantaged private-school children was reading at or above grade level. She saw books piled everywhere and lots of notebooks and lined paper filled with words. She saw a kindergartener's paper posted on the wall; he had written the word ''chrysanthemum.'' Heck, most adults can’t write that word correctly.

Yet in her cushy suburban public school, very few of the kids were reading and writing very well at all. Instead, they played at ''centers'' and did ''projects.''

In the public schools, despite their far superior funding, there is an alarming number of students who have become learning disabled, either through medical causes or, as growing numbers of educational observers suspect, through the wrong kinds of curriculum and instruction in the early grades.

There didn't used to be this disparity in spending levels between public schools and private schools. There didn't used to be this disparity in student achievement, either.

As the twig is bent, no matter how much money is poured into it, the tree will grow . . . and it is becoming apparent that no matter how much money we pour into public schools, if their philosophies and methods aren't right, the kids aren’t going to flourish.

Meanwhile, the private schools and home schools just keep plugging away, doing the right things for kids for not much more cost than a generation ago.

Hmm. Which management model should we follow?

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Friday, February 27, 2004


A salute today to Rhonda Stuberg, a longtime educator and valiant charter-school champion in Nebraska. She has started a private school for inner-city kids in the former Nebraska School for the Deaf, 3223 N. 45th St.

Apollos Preparatory School charges tuition of $60 a week. It uses the excellent phonics curriculum, Abeka. It offers preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds as well as kindergarten, first and second grades. It employs two teachers as well as Mrs. Stuberg, and already has enrollment of 18 children.

It's a religious, non-denominational school because Mrs. Stuberg, a member of Augustana Lutheran Church, is convinced most parents want a faith-based education for their children.

There's more structure, the adult-to-child attention is much more intensive than in the public schools, and the curriculum is presented in old-fashioned, direct ways. The schedule is year-round, another change from public schooling which seems to be necessary for disadvantaged pupils.

Her first-graders are reading, and reading well. Her kindergarteners are reading.

Yet these are the ''fall through the cracks kids'' we’re all concerned about, who inner-city public schools don't seem to be helping. In contrast, at Apollos School, their parents are delighted. ''They love the structure, the consistency,'' Mrs. Stuberg said. ''They’re excited: their kids are learning.''

Of course, she's strapped for cash and would be overjoyed if her nonprofit, 501(c)(3) were ''discovered'' by donors who want to support inner-city education with tax-deductible contributions, as well as private-sector foundations and philanthropists. She would dearly love to hire another teacher so she could devote more time to administration and offer parenting classes and so much else. She's there until 7 p.m., many nights and is pouring her heart into this effort.

But the key is: they're reading. They're learning. They're fact-finding. They're thinking. They're flourishing.

At sixty bucks a week.

''There’s a reason more people don't open private schools,'' Mrs. Stuberg said. ''Where are you going to get the money?'' She said she's not making money, and not really breaking even yet. But it's early. And she's sure it'll work out fine. She believes in the concept . . . and she believes in the children she serves.

Her life's work has been teaching kids ''who don’t fit in.'' A certified teacher with a master's degree in special education, she taught kids who were truant and in trouble at Boys Town and Uta Halee, and was former director at Cooper Village. Most were very, very behind and skipping a lot of school. Their reading was stuck at the fourth- or fifth-grade level and they just couldn't handle secondary-level work.

Mrs. Stuberg realized that their educational foundations were weak. She worked really hard a couple of years ago by lobbying and forming a statewide coalition to try to get charter schools legalized in Nebraska. Then she could use public-school funding for the different, more intense learning needs of inner-city kids, away from the one-size-fits-all public schooling environment.

However, the teachers' unions slam-dunked that innovation, just as they have slam-dunked attempts to get tuition tax credits, vouchers and other school-choice solutions here.

''I didn’t feel I had any hope at all to get anything accomplished,'' Mrs. Stuberg said. She decided that could no longer be an excuse, so three years ago, she just hung a sign on the gate, spread the word and presto! Her school was accredited by the Nebraska Department of Education in August.

Where does she go from here? ''My dream would be that those people who care very much about how their kids are doing will get their kids to me. We want them to be able to have choices and alternatives, especially if they're not doing well in the school they're in.''

Want to encourage her in that dream? Contact her to set up a tour for you or your church or civic group (Mrs. Stuberg's office phone is 457-7857; email: rstuberg1@cox.net). Spread the word to others. And most of all, send a tax-deductible donation to:

Apollos Prep School
3223 N. 45th St.
Omaha, NE 68104

If you're wondering where she got the unusual name for her school: while she was pondering what to do about her ''calling'' to help disadvantaged children, Mrs. Stuberg's Bible fell open to a New Testament account of a well-educated Jew from Alexandria who became a Christian and became almost as famous a teacher in the early church as St. Paul. His name: Apollos. She felt it was confirmation to her, to share her teaching skills and love for kids who really need knowledge and love.

Rhonda Stuberg is no saint. But what she's doing with that little school is about as Biblically Correct as it comes.

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Thursday, February 26, 2004


When I rode my dinosaur to school many years ago near 96th and Pacific Streets in what's now midtown Omaha, nobody went to school at home. I mean, nobody! Now there's a homeschooler two doors away, I have a number of friends who do it and love it, and the only other student who was a National Merit Scholar besides my own daughter at her high school had been homeschooled up until just before graduation.

That got my attention. So did the VW Bug that our preteen homeschooled neighbor tore apart and rebuilt, the local and national geography bee and spelling bee success, and especially the manners and lovely, well-written thank-you notes that we have received from homeschooled children who have visited our home.

They seem to have such a glow about them. Like -- they feel extra loved. And it shows, in how they do in high school, college . . . and life.

What's going on here? It looks as though homeschooling is on the move in Nebraska, as well as around the country.

According to a report, ''Learning at Home,'' by Hanna Skandera and Richard Sousa of the Hoover Institution, homeschooling is growing at a rate between 11 percent and 25 percent annually. Homeschooled students now constitute more than 3 percent of K-12 enrollment in the U.S., according to the report. In the year 2000, approximately 1.7 million American children, K-12, were being home educated.

They tend to be from white, upper middle-class, intact families with three or more children and a stay-at-home parent, usually the mother. The kids in these homes watch very little television, compared to the nation at large. The notion that homeschooled children aren't as adept socially has been debunked; remember, their role models for conduct and attitude are solely adults, not mostly their peers, so actually, their manners and congeniality are thought to be better than public school graduates. Parents spend only a fraction as much on curriculum and other expenses than either public or private schools do; of course, salaries aren't a factor, but neither are services that may be in place in schools but which they don't want and their children don't need.

Recent studies by researchers including Caroline Hoxby have determined that it is family aspects, not necessarily school inputs, that produce the superior achievement of homeschooled children compared to kids in public schools.

In other words, the quality of their parenting and the parental commitment to education are more valuable than the tens of thousands of tax dollars that these parents give up to provide that K-12 education themselves.

How are they doing? It knocks your socks off: even though only about 25 percent of homeschooled children have parents who are certified teachers, somehow their parents get it together enough so that these children moosh their public-school counterparts on nationally-standardized tests. It's one of the most striking pieces of evidence AGAINST the dubious value of teacher certification.

Homeschoolers score well above private-school students, too, although they both significantly outscore public-school students.

And how. The report states that by the time home-schooled students reach eighth grade, ''their median scores are more than four grade equivalents above their public school peers.''

Bottom line: Nebraska taxpayers may be smarter to invest in homeschooling, not public schooling, to try to replicate that tremendously cost-effective and inspiring success. Isn't that our goal? Aren't we supposed to do what's best for kids, not just maintain the status quo for the adults employed in education?

Those are the kinds of issues and statistics likely to come out in an upcoming speech Nebraskans can attend to learn more about this fascinating alternative to public education. A national leader in the homeschooling movement will speak in Lincoln at 7 p.m. Friday, April 2 at the 17th annual Home Educators' Conference and Curriculum Fair.

The event, sponsored by the Nebraska Christian Home Educators' Association (www.nchea.org) is set at Indian Hills Community Church, 1000 S. 84th St., and continues through Saturday, April 3. See the website for registration information.

The keynote speaker is Mike Smith, president of the Home School Legal Defense Association (www.hslda.org), representing 75,000 member families, and a longtime champion in legal and public policy arenas. His wife, Elizabeth, who homeschooled three of their four children, also will speak. All four of the Smith children are now college graduates.

Other speakers scheduled by the statewide organization, whose presidents are Nick and Kathleen Lenzen of Lincoln, include:

-- Joyce Herzog of Chattanooga, Tenn., a 25-year teacher in public and private schools who is now a homeschooling consultant; she has a master's degree in learning disabilities and has special expertise in homeschooling children with special needs.

-- Dennis Gundersen, pastor-teacher of Grace Bible Church in Tulsa, Okla., whose focus is children and faith.

-- Andrew Pudewa, director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing and a teacher and homeschooling father of seven; he advocates a classical approach to teaching and specializes in English composition, early childhood and music education.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2004


There must be some reason why 55 percent of parents who now send their children to public schools would send them to private schools if they could afford it and if there were one not too far away. That’s according to ''On Thin Ice,'' a November 1999 report from the research firm, Public Agenda.

The poll showed that people believe by wide margins that private schools ''generally provide a better education'' than public schools and do a better job ''teaching academic skills'' and ''maintaining discipline and order.''

Test scores from the 2003 SAT shed more light:

Score: School Setting

1,020: Public-school students
1,065: Religious private-school students
1,123: Independent private-school students

These and other indicators of private-school quality are cited in a revealing report, ''Facts and Studies,'' from the Council for American Private Education, www.capenet.org/facts.html

You can see how private schools moosh public schools on standardized tests of reading, writing, math, history, civics and more, all categories at all grade levels. Kids in private schools are much more likely than their public-school counterparts to take advanced-level courses, volunteer to help others in their communities and feel safe at school.

According to reports cited, private-school teachers are much happier with their jobs and express significantly less concern than their public-school counterparts about such issues as student disrespect for teachers, lack of parental involvement, and students coming to school unprepared to learn.

One reason for their success may be that private schools are smaller than the publics. Eighty percent of private schools enroll fewer than 300 students. It may surprise you to learn that 23 percent of all schools in the country are private schools, 27,000 of them serving six million students. But they enroll only 11.5 percent of all students. That shows that they're smaller than the public schools, and that may be why they are more effective.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics report, ''Private Schools: A Brief Portrait,'' May 2002, nearly half of the nation's private-school students are in central cities and another 40 percent are on urban fringes or large towns. Only 11 percent are in rural or small-town schools.

Catholic and nonsectarian private schools are growing at a faster rate than public schools, and conservative Christian schools have posted a 46 percent enrollment increase since 1989, vs. 19 percent for public schools.

But now let's get down to brass tacks: how much it costs.

Is it true that private schools are ''country clubs'' where the rich can hot-house their children to stay one step ahead of the masses, who can't afford private education?

That's a myth. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1999-00 school year, the average elementary-school tuition charged by private schools was $3,267. Catholic schools charged an average of $2,451 for K-8 schooling, and nonsectarian schools charged an average of $7,884.

In Nebraska, most private school tuition rates are generally less than $2,000 a year for K-8 levels of schooling, working up to around $5,000 or $6,000 for the high-school level. That's still significantly less than the spending per-pupil in Nebraska's public schools, which averaged $7,476.38 for K-12 in 2002-03 (http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm)

Perhaps the most expensive private school in the state, Brownell-Talbot School in midtown Omaha, commands $8,575 a year for a kindergartener and $11,300 for a senior in high school. That's well above the state average.

BUT . . . public-school spending per-pupil figures reflect operating costs only. They don't include debt service and other off-budget spending.

If we looked at it that way, private schools actually cost LESS than public schools – even Brownell-Talbot.

If you look at this year's Omaha Public School’s budget (www.ops.org/budget/), for example, you'll see the actual cost per pupil in that district is far more than the reported general-fund spending. If you add construction costs and debt service on top of operating costs, the actual per-pupil annual cost is $12,675.60 (see p. 3 of the budget for enrollment of 45,986 to be divided into the total expenditures shown on p. 9 of $582.9 million).

While it's true that private schools have endowments and conduct fund-raising to supplement tuition and provide scholarships for the needy, actually, the tuition paid by parents to private schools is a lot closer to the actual cost than the general-fund spending reported by the public schools, which leaves out non-operating expenditures.

Yeah, you say. But still, private-schools are mostly for the rich, because the rest of us can't afford to pay tuition, even if it's less than what public schools cost through our tax dollars.

But get this: of all students in the country whose families have annual incomes of $75,000 or more, 18 percent are in private schools . . . and 82 percent are in public schools. (U.S. Census Bureau, August 2003 report on the social and economic characteristics of students in the nation's schools in 2001)

The rich people are actually the ones in public school. And they're the ones whose kids aren't doing as well as the kids in private schools.

Bottom line: if you look at the facts, they may not be making the wisest use of their money.

And since the money spent in public schools is actually tax money, then it's our money, too.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Nebraska boasts 224 private schools in 91 communities, according to the Nebraska Education Directory published by the State Education Department. The state reports that 41,185 children are in private, parochial and homeschools across the state.

So much for the myth of private-schooling being exotic and inaccessible.

According to the Nebraska Federation of Catholic School Parents, private, parochial and homeschooling families save Nebraska taxpayers more than $250 million a year since they do not have their children enrolled in the ''free'' public schools.

So much for the myth that private-schoolers aren't community-minded and team-spirited.

According to the 2003-04 enrollment reports to the Nebraska Education Department by grade, race and gender, 10.6 percent of the children being educated in private-sector settings are African-American, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, or Asian/Pacific Islander. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, that's just about the same ratio as the overall population.

So much for the myth that private schools exclude racial minorities. In comparison, Nebraska's public schools are 20.5 percent minority, the reports show.

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Monday, February 23, 2004

Back from a trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Today begins a weeklong series on private education in Nebraska. Cheers! -- S.


What's the deal with Nebraskans who have their children in private schools or homeschools?

They're paying mucho buckos for public education through property, sales and income taxes and assorted fees and fines. Yet they pay more money on top of that for private-school tuition, or give of their own time and money to conduct homeschool.

According to the State Department of Education, there's a whole bunch of them, too: 41,185 children are enrolled in the state's non-public education programs this school year. That's about 13 percent of the total, according to the 2003-04 membership reports published by the State Department of Education.

And it's more children than actually sit in the classrooms of the state's by-far largest school district, the Omaha Public Schools. OPS reported enrollment of 45,986 for the 2002-03 school year, but in its annual financial report to the state for that year, actual average daily attendance was only 39,657. So if the private-schoolers were lumped together, there'd be more of them than in the massive OPS.

So wuzzup wit dese private-schoolers? Why are all these people turning their backs on the state constitution's promise of a free education for their children, and the fair use of their own tax dollars and those of their fellow taxpayers?

The answer used to be pretty much one reason: religious education.

But increasingly today, it's in search of better quality, too.

Let's look, this week, at private education in Nebraska. It's big, it's growing . . . and it's doing exciting things for kids.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2004



Let's put in place our own outstanding, innovative plan to vault Nebraska to the mountaintop of educational excellence. I have a three-pronged approach. I call it:

Go Big Ed!

Feel free to comment on these proposals or add your own. Go Big Ed will resume on Monday, Feb. 23 with a series on private education in Nebraska.

1. Back the Education Bureaucracy Into a Cage.

You're the lion tamer and ''The Blob'' is the out-of-control nonteaching bureaucracy. It’s time taxpayers showed who's boss. The only thing educrats understand is regulations. So let's put good ones in to replace the bad ones we're stuck with now. The State of Minnesota, vastly more liberal than Nebraska, is doing great things with a grassroots coalition to roll back the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad government ''learning'' standards that are micromanaging schools with Political Correctness, and strangling out any shred of individuality and accountability schools may have left. If Minnesota can get rid of the dumbed-down standards in their ''Profile of Learning,'' we can get rid of State Education Commissioner Doug Christensen's Goals 2000 standardized schlock that is costing us our solvency and wrecking our children's futures. This was foisted on us about 10 years ago as outcome-based education, since renamed ''High Performance Learning.'' HAH! The only thing it has performed highly in, is WRECKING schools at a huge expense. Read more about Minnesota's success on:


2. Parent Power.

I really like what State Sen. Chip Maxwell is trying to do with his proposal to fund K-12 with a $6,000 per-student state subsidy. He's trying to cap spending, get rid of the political football over the state-aid formula, and get the spotlight off bureaucratic wrangling and back onto academics. The problem with his plan is, parents still don’t have any power. The money still is perceived as coming from the ''state,'' not our neighbors and friends. So . . . Go Big Ed favors a no-strings attached per-pupil ''educational rebate'' in tax funds to be paid to those parents who choose NOT to enroll their child in a public school, but instead to homeschool or use private education. It's OK if this rebate is less than the average per-pupil expenditures of state and local taxes – even half as much or only a third as much. If the average per-pupil spending in Nebraska public schools is now about $7,000, then make these ''alternative rebates'' available to any family who wants them for $2,500. Keep public-school funding where it is, and keep offering special-ed and other services free of charge for families who choose to use them. Yes, there may be more money going out initially since existing private-schoolers and homeschoolers would be cut ''in'' for the first time. So maybe we'd have to phase it in based on how many people apply. But isn't it wrong to deny them a piece of the tax pie, since they pay into it? And think how much we'd save in the long run. That $2,500 would be far less than what taxpayers spend on a public-school pupil, but would be more than what the average homeschooling family now spends per pupil. That would enable some quality improvement in that arena, which helps us all. And that money would cover tuition or make a huge dent in it at every private school in the state -- equalizing educational opportunity for rich and poor. It would spawn lots of new private schools, which is what we need most of all: more choices, more competition, more opportunity for parents to be treated like customers and not just ''useful idiots'' who merely supply enrollment stats. Avoiding an elaborate school-choice voucher system would be great, too, because then our private education system doesn't get all entangled in the ooie-gooie bureaucracy and mediocrity in our public schools. Key point of this plan: we must NOT mandate that kids in private schools and homeschools have to take any certain assessment. That would wreck the distinctly different curriculum in private schools and homeschools so that they would align with the public schools. Not gonna go there; wouldn't be prudent. Meanwhile, as it grows, private education will shine so brightly that the dimwits in public education will notice enrollment drain – the only thing that gets their attention – and clean up their act. Then all kids will be better off. It's the only way. Or if the publics don't improve, they'll go down the drain and it'll be clearly their own fault, since they had much more dough than the private schools. I'll be there playing ''Taps,'' followed shortly by a rousing rendition of ''When the Saints Go Marching In.''

3. End the Bureaucratic Mediocrity

You know how there've been some, ahem, changes in the University of Nebraska football staff? Well, nobody likes how it's been done. But maybe it needed to be done, to avoid a slide into mediocrity. It reminds me soooo much of what's going on in our schools, statewide. They used to be pretty darn good. So let's take a clue. Let's be a lot more courteous, but . . . think about who ''caved'' to let all these crummy, dumbed-down, nationalized standards and anti-intellectual regulations take a throttlehold on our schools. Whoever did that needs to be gone. Ergo: let's abolish the State Board of Education. They haven't been relevant or integral for some time now, anyway. The money is handled by other duly elected officials, from county boards to state legislators. No need for yet another rubber stamp. This would give authority back where it belongs – with local elected school boards. Last, but certainly not least, abolish the office of the State Education Commissioner as an appointed job. Instead, make it elected, and therefore, the person will be accountable to the public, the way the State Treasurer and State Auditor are. Aren't our children at least as important as our bucks? My goodness, this is one of the very most important jobs in the state – maybe even more important than the governor's seat. What do we expect to get from our schools except mediocrity, with an appointed, Union-Shilling, Accountability-Dodging, Backside-Covering Rubber Stamp in that office instead of a passionate, reality-driven, voter-sensitive, independent advocate for our kids? Give the person a small staff, yes, yes. But let's get bureaucracy out of commission in the Cornhusker State's schools . . . and fire up the economic development potential and obvious benefits of having a truly excellent K-12 educational system, not just one that's in “compliance” with ''The Blob.''

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Tuesday, February 17, 2004


A Go Big Ed reader responded to Monday's story about rising costs in K-12 education in Nebraska by pointing toward special education:

''Don't forget about the increased costs over the years for the special ed programs. Very labor intensive and I don't think most people realize how much of the budget goes for various parts of it. Certainly I have never broken it down, but knowing people who have gone into special ed and hearing various others who work with it discuss aspects of it, I know it has to be a real budget buster. In many cases, it amounts to a very expensive babysitting service. This doesn't mean I don't have compassion for those suffering from these disabilities, but it does indeed cost a lot of money and I have a hunch a lot of the increase in spending, with fewer students, is due to this.''

Could she be right?

What percentage of the kids labeled ''special ed'' really have medical problems that interfere with their learning ability, or give them special challenges? Nobody would ever contest their right to having those bona fide needs met, within reason, at public expense. Make sure that's straight. In contrast, though, what percentage of kids labeled ''special ed'' are normal medically, but have actually been ''instructionally disabled'' – MADE to have learning problems because of the wrong methods of teaching the basics in the itty bitty grades?

Evidence from all over indicates that the ratio is close to 25 percent bona fide special ed . . . and 75 percent of those "disabled" students actually fully or partially ''instructionally-related.''

You can chart it by the appalling rise in the numbers of children labeled as having ''specific learning disability.'' Most of them can't read very well but have normal intelligence. A very good case could be made – with science, with brain scans, with empirical evidence – that there's nothing wrong with most of those children that good schooling couldn't have prevented and even now can't fix.

But we’re still pouring millions down a rathole doing the things that are MAKING them ''special ed.'' And ''The Blob'' -- the education bureaucracy -- won't fix it, because if schools did a better job for more kids and fewer kids needed special ed services, there'd be less money in it for THEM.


I wish every state senator had the guts to demand a printout from the State Education Department on how many special ed kids in their districts have medical diagnoses – mental retardation, physical handicaps, speech problems – and how many are simply labeled the nebulous ''specific learning disability.''

I bet it'd be a real eye opener, because in some areas, it’s 80 percent ''phony special ed,'' and 20 percent bona fide. They used to publish this for all to see. They don't anymore. Wonder why? Duhhh.

As for actual spending, here's what another check of the statewide audited financial reports from Nebraska school districts showed about special education, or ''SPE,'' and you can see for yourself on http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm:

Nebraska K-12 districts, total SPED instruction, 1992-93:


Increase in 10 years: 91 percent

Nebraska K-12 districts, SPED school-age transportation, 1992-93:


SPED transportation, 2002-03:


Increase in 10 years: 76 percent

Nebraska K-12 districts, preschool SPED, 1992-93:




Increase in 10 years: 85 percent

I realize most of this is to take care of the enormous unfunded mandates handed down by the feds in exchange for their paltry few bucks in partial (very partial) reimbursement for SPED programming. Those mandates, you'll note, are coming close to damaging or even ruining the educational atmosphere for gifted and normal kids, too, and for federal pennies on the dollar of what those mandates actually cost us in state and local taxes.

So they're forcing us to ruin our own educational system, using mostly our own money.

Put a pencil to paper. Enrollment in Nebraska schools has stayed basically flat for the past decade, but spending has darn near doubled, 'way over the rate of inflation. Yes, a disproportionate share of the spending increases have come in SPED. So ask yourself:

Has the number of disabled kids really nearly doubled in our state in the last decade?

Does it really cost THAT much to meet their learning needs?

Or are we just gerbils on a verrrrry expensive federal wheel, going nowhere, with what's left of our money flying out of our pockets at every revolution?

Speaking of revolutions . . . you'll like tomorrow’s story. It’s about SOLUTIONS.

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Monday, February 16, 2004


The Wall Street Journal published a revealing chart with stats from the U.S. Department of Education Budget Services office and test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. See "No Politician Left Behind" on OpinionJournal.com: http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110004698

Federal, state and local spending on the nation's K-12 education shoots uphill like a roller-coaster from 1990 to 2003, from just over $200 billion a year to this year's record half-trillion dollars . . . and that's not even counting the enormous federal expenditures for special ed.

Meanwhile, fourth-grade test scores flat-line, like a dead person's brain wave, over all those years of increased spending. Ahem.

Nebraska state legislators, school administrators, school-board members and taxpayers must have a brain wave pattern a lot like that.

A check of the State Education Department's annual financial reports shows that Nebraska K-12 schools have increased their spending by 64 percent in the last 10 years . . . to ''handle'' an enrollment increase of .2 of 1 percent.

Nebraska schools spent $1,324,618,121.13 in 2002-03, compared to $852,748,199.67 a decade ago. But there are only 304 more pupils now than the 276,982 kids reported in the 1992-93 school year.

That comes to $1,552,203.69 in extra spending for each of those extra 304 pupils. Hmm . . . maybe they have really tricky special learning ''needs,'' eh?

Balderdash. If Nebraska kids were taught how to read correctly in the early grades, the lion's share of this outrageous overspending wouldn't be needed.

And the academic achievement trend line wouldn't look like a dead person’s. A very EXPENSIVE dead person's, at that.

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Saturday, February 14, 2004


Transportation costs have gone up by 60 percent in the Omaha Public Schools over the past decade. What brought up that very un-Valentinesy matter? A friend saw an enormous bus pull away from an OPS magnet in west Omaha after school on Friday with one -- count ‘em -- one pupil on board.

That kid could ride in a LIMO with an armful of red Valentine's roses and a bottle of (non-alcoholic) champagne for a lot less money than it cost to give him a solo ride on that bus.

My friend didn't follow it to see how many miles it drove, and didn't get the bus number and so forth. But she DID get mad, wondering how much transportation is costing us under OPS' wacky system of assigning and moving pupils. And she fears that last week's cuts in state aid to many school districts will be interpreted as stingy taxpayers shaking teachers upside down by the ankles to rob them of their extra coinage, instead of what it really signifies: overspending in nonclassroom areas.

Teacher pay is far from the ONLY reason taxes are so high. Transportation is a big area where a private-sector management consultant could save us some big, big bucks, if the educrats would only let them come in and put pencil to paper for more efficiency. Schools need to change the way they do business, and have for a long time.

I checked the financial statements on the Nebraska Department of Education website for OPS' transportation spending reports, and found:

$7,294,999.56 in regular transportation
$4,576,395.66 in special-education transportation
$11,871,395.22 total

$10,253,444.74 in regular transportation
$9,430,195.37 in special-ed transportation
$19,683,640.11 total

Increase: 60 percent.

SPED transportation, you'll note, posted an increase of more than 100 percent in 10 years. Meanwhile, in the same reports to the state, OPS said enrollment had increased by less than 5 percent in that same decade.

The numbers screech for a management tuneup. Will anyone listen? The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round . . . maybe now it's time we started HONKING, too.

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Friday, February 13, 2004


Heres how University of Nebraska-Lincoln biochemistry major Ben Kissling (www.geocities.com/intelligentdesignunl/idtn.html) came to know that the theory of evolution can't be true, despite the propaganda often taught in school and unfortunately in place in Nebraska's official science standards. He now finds himself teaching others about the new science he hopes to make his life's work, intelligent design. Ben writes:

''It all started with 'Bomby the Bombardier Beetle.' It was a children's book put out by ICR (Institute for Creation Research) about the bombardier beetle, which squirts chemicals out of its hiney that makes an explosive mixture for its predator to swallow. The argument goes that evolution could never make such an animal in slow, gradual steps because the chemicals involved were so volatile that intermediates would all blow up. It was a rather unsophisticated argument, but it started me along a path.

''The real kicker came in high school. I went to a Christian high school that still taught the literal Genesis as the truth about creation and our beginnings. By the time I was old enough to start questioning my own beliefs, I had already seen enough to not question that basis. I knew that you could never prove such a thing, aside from quoting the Bible, but I also saw that no other scenario about something so distantly in the past could ever be 'proven' even in a rudimentary way. I questioned many of my parents' beliefs and my own, growing up, but I never really questioned that one.

''So here I am in high school, bored to death, knowing I'm going to college but not knowing why. I guess it's just what you do after high school, so, like, whatever. My dad gives me this book called 'Darwin's Black Box' (by intelligent design leader Michael Behe, a biochemistry professor at Lehigh University) and I'm like, 'Sounds cool.' So I read it because I'm bored.

''But it turns out this book might just have determined the course of my life. It introduced me to biochemistry and intelligent design. Being the incredibly smart person I am (!), I immediately latched on to them. Biochemistry is a combination of two disciplines (biology and chemistry) creating an entirely new one, and intelligent design, using the biochemistry and much more, makes sense of an age-old scientific mystery.

''The idea of the black box being opened intrigued me greatly. I always liked the idea of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I love mysteries. I was always one to look for the root cause, the bottom line of everything -- what really makes things tick. And all of a sudden, I saw that cells weren't just blobs of cytoplasm with a nucleus. There were things in there that interlocked like pieces in a puzzle . . . and I was hooked.

''Chemistry became real, rather than just something that made liquids turn colors. It was cool, but kind of meaningless, unless you're into fabric softeners and Ajax. Ajax is what you use to clean the toilet. I mean, come on.

''So anyway, after a freshman year as a chemical engineering major (I chose that solely because it meant I didn't have to take English, a fact which I bragged about to my senior English teacher all year. Boy did I have to eat crow), I switched to what I was interested in and should've been in since the start, biochemistry.

''The more science classes I took, and the more evolution got preached, the more comparisons I could make between the way evolution was taught and the way I heard a pastor preach on Sunday morning. It was assumed (in science class) everyone who was there already believed (in evolution), and if you didn't already, you were there to learn. It's really funny how the more teachers tried to convince me, the more firmly I became convinced how wrong they were.

''I could tell several stories but one that sticks out is when my organic teacher told us about some enzyme or something that had all this RNA-like 'junk' attached to the active site. Apparently, the active site was small and did all the chemistry, while all that RNA 'junk' was (supposedly) simply evidence that RNA was the first basis of life and was simply hanging on waiting to be selected out!!! The teacher then went on to teach us the way humans do the same reaction in the lab, with a totally different chemical.

''I waited till the appropriate time and asked why we don't use the enzyme. A grave and discerning look came over my teacher's face as he explained that enzymes are incredibly specific as to what they will react with, and humans usually want one reagent that will do the same reaction with many different substrates.

''I should've asked WHY enzymes are so specific. Could it possibly be because of all that RNA-like 'junk' hanging off the end? (Meaning, that it isn't ''leftover'' from evolution, but highly functional and there all along -- by design -- on purpose.)

''Hmmm. . . .

''Well, I was satisfied, but I'm not sure I got my point across.

''I could today take you to sections of my textbooks and read passages about evolution, laughing the whole way. It's so obvious no one knows what's going on since the biochemical revolution turned the cell into the most intricate, complex, and small machine man has ever known and turned homologous morphology into nothing more than a flawed classification system.

''All the stuff I'm seeing now in my classes makes me excited about my career. I wonder how much hasn't been discovered because no one's looking at problems the way ID (intelligent design) does and I will.

''I already have a few rudimentary ideas, one I ran past Behe (author of the life-changing book on intelligent design) last summer in an online conference. He seemed intrigued, which excited me all the more. I intend to make a career in research and hopefully advance scientific knowledge. It will be fun.’’


It sure will, Ben: watching a fine young Nebraska scientist get in there and make as exciting an assault as a giant bombadier beetle on the crumbling, false dogma of evolution!

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Thursday, February 12, 2004


Let's say you hit a golf ball 30 miles and it lands without a bounce in the cup on the 18th green of a golf course that far away. That's what human conception and fertilization are: miraculous. And yet it has happened, just that way, billions of times . . . and we've got the people to prove it. You're not an accident – you're a miracle!

That's why I get so TEED OFF at people who still say Charles Darwin was right in 1859 when he wrote '''The Origin of Species,'' and that random chance and natural selection have caused the universe and all life within it.

That's how the official science standards of the Nebraska Department of Education read – extremely pro-evolution. Because they are that way, the green light is on for teachers who either don't know or don't care that the theory of evolution is a crock to go ahead and teach it as gospel. They're using textbooks that teach it that way, too, censoring out the mountain of rebuttal evidence, denying Nebraska schoolkids an honest portrayal of this issue.

The only thing the rest of us can do is to try to get around those standards and continue to teach teachers and students alike that evolution is a crock.

Today is Darwin Day, marking the birthday of the naturalist who spawned the theory of evolution, even though he really only knew a lot about barnacles, and male ones at that.

Darwin didn't know much of anything about the human body, and he certainly didn't have the benefit of everything we've found out in science since the 1850s, including cellular functions, hematology, biochemistry, endocrinology, cardiology, immunology and electron microscopy – all of which make the theory of evolution look realllllllly stoooopid.

Yes, I'm reading another book: '''What Darwin Didn't Know: A Doctor Dissects the Theory of Evolution.''' It's by Geoffrey Simmons, M.D., a physician since 1969 who has studied the human body and evolutionary theory his whole life. It's a wonderful read about the human body, from the cell to all the complex systems, neurological through excretory.

It'd be a great gift (www.amazon.com) to give to a high-school or college student, teacher or anyone who is doubting their faith.

Another book along these lines with exposes on the misinformation in textbooks that Nebraska kids, among others, are using is ''Doubts about Darwin: A History of Intelligent Design'' by Thomas Woodward.

And here's some good news to share on Darwin Day: there's a new group formed at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln by students who know evolution is false. They are the Intelligent Design Theorists of Nebraska, www.geocities.com/intelligentdesignunl/idtn.html and their faculty advisor is astronomy professor Martin Gaskell.

Tomorrow we'll hear from an endearing UNL student named Ben Kissling who's from Lincoln. He started realizing that evolution couldn't be true when he learned about an amazing bug. Now he's a biochemistry major on fire for learning more about intelligent design, what's what, where's where, and why.

Tune in tomorrow!

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Wednesday, February 11, 2004


As the Legislature continues to gnash their teeth and beat their chests over the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad job of dealing with school finance, there's one thing they should remember:

More money does not produce better learning.

We should put a bust of longtime University of Rochester economist Eric Hanushek in the Rotunda. He's now with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and coming to the end of a long career as a -- surprise! -- Democrat who has devoted most of his career to examining the effect of school spending on student achievement.

He has reviewed 400 studies of student performance and school resources, along with 275 more studying the impact of class-size reduction and achievement, and has found . . .

. . . drum roll, please . . .


With a doctorate in econ from MIT, he knows how to do the math. And he says that real spending per pupil has zoomed upwards by 200 percent from 1960 to the 1990s, while the pupil-per-teacher rate has zoomed downwards by one-third, from 26:1 to 17:1. Despite all the incredible costs of that, achievement has improved only marginally across the land, and mostly among minorities, whose scores had very little room to go downward anyway.

In fact, Hanushek's life's work suggests that the smartest thing we could do, to improve student learning, is to CUT SPENDING.

Try it! We'll like it!

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Tuesday, February 10, 2004


School Choice: How Nebraska Can Have It All

It's obvious that Nebraska's K-12 education system needs to be deregulated and more freedom and options should be offered to parents ASAP. But an organized system of government vouchers to allow low-income students to go to private schools is not the answer for Nebraska, or any other place, for that matter. A voucher system and government-run charter schools are to be avoided at all costs.

Instead, we need to reduce school taxes to acceptable levels, leave property tax considerations to the locally-elected taxing boards as always, and then divide up locally-collected taxes such as sales tax at the county level by the number of school-aged children in that county . . . no matter what kind of school they're enrolled in . . . do the same thing with state-collected taxes such as income tax . . . and send that amount of money back to those families with school-age children in an equal amount per child, across the board.

It's not a voucher. It's more of an ''educational benefit'' or a ''school rebate.'' I call it a sort of ''G.I. Bill for Schoolchildren.'' It would be fair, democratic, easy to manage and would encourage independence, innovation and an academic focus instead of a sociopolitical one for our schools.

Two delicious results: education spending would no longer be a perpetual political football in the State Legislature. And the union-controlled State Board of Education and state education bureaucracy would be emasculated.

Everybody has to get the same amount of money, or else it's a communistic system.

But what about the counties with less taxable property per pupil? How can the education they provide be ''equitable'' to the education in a property-rich county? The answer is in the private sector, the establishment of private schools that this change would propagate, and the incredible charitable funding power of good-hearted Americans -- not forcing us to share the load in the duty of educating the next generation, but allowing us to do so of our own free will.

Let those schools with low-income children and non-English speakers and those with bona fide special education needs have the federal funding that is supposed to be strictly for them, too, but as for local and state tax dollars, they have to be distributed on a strictly equal per-pupil basis.

Most importantly, there cannot be any strings attached to these dollars, or else we'll destroy our private schools the way we're in the process of destroying our public ones.

School choice has to be like the G.I. Bill after World War II – millions of soldiers got the funding from tax dollars to choose their own college, trade school, or other kind of learning facility, with no strings attached, completely at their own choice and with no government interference in the educational facility they chose.

That's the only thing that'll work for K-12 education, too.

Parents can turn that amount of money in to the public school of their choice if that's the option they choose, and pay not a cent more. I'm positive the vast majority of parents will continue to do this, as before.

Or they can turn that amount of money in to the private school of their choice, and either pay the difference in tuition, or obtain one of the growing numbers of ''private scholarships'' that are being made available from corporations and philanthropists nationwide.

I suppose it would be fair to let homeschoolers pocket their ''educational benefit,'' and the risk of some of them doing that and using the funds for lottery tickets and booze would be the chance we'd have to take, in order to have educational freedom, independence and fairness for all. Most homeschoolers do it better than most public schools anyway, the test scores show, although it is true there are some who do it poorly, and some parents who neglect their children. But I've interviewed plenty of low-income parents and even retarded parents who know that education is a hugely important priority for their children, and I believe this is what they want, too -- everything fair and square, a level playing field for all families. It'd be up to the local governments, churches and social service agencies to watch out for abuse and neglect.

The point is, ''school choice'' in the form of an intricate, invasive, bureaucratized system of vouchers or government-run charter schools would do the one thing we SHOULDN’T: kill the private schools.

Here's how it happens: everywhere that voucher systems are in place, government regulations, accreditation and certification requirements, and forced assessments come with those voucher dollars. All that interference destroys the spirit, curriculum and autonomy of the private schools.

If you're taking government money in the form of vouchers, these private schools are told, you cannot ''discriminate'' on the basis of religion or other types of moral traits in the teachers and principals you hire. That'd be quite a change for faith-based schools. You can imagine. The private schools will get hooked on the government money and gradually lose their ''differentness'' -- that which is working so well in private schools -- in order to conform the curriculum to match the state-ordained assessments that are standardizing K-12 education right and left.

It follows that government money will destroy the ability of the private schools to teach the truth about all kinds of things, or teach differently, and most certainly teach better, as a result of becoming reliant on the public teat and having to conform to what the public schools do.

That's what happens with any form of welfare, which is all a ''school-choice voucher'' system is. It takes money from taxpayers and gives it to nontaxpayers. It's communistic -- ''from each according to his ability to pay, to each according to his need.'' It’s the unconstitutional regulation of religion, and the squashing of educational freedom and independence.

We can't have that here in Nebraska. We need the ''G.I. Bill for Schoolkids,'' instead.

A pipe dream? Probably. But that's my stand.

And we have to get going on this immediately, or start a huge push for more private scholarships to get a massive exodus of poor and minority kids out of our public schools.

Exhibit A: go to the Nebraska Department of Education's website (www.nde.state.ne.us) and scroll to the bottom, where it says ''National Media: Focus Nebraska.'' Click. Then click on ''Education Watch 2003 State Survey Reports,'' and in turn, ''Achievement Gap Summary Tables.''

Ewwww. Nebraska clings to boooooring mediocrity on those state-by-state test-score comparisons, despite our relatively good demographics compared to other states – meaning, levels of poverty, educational attainment of parents, percentage of intact families, per-pupil funding of public education, and so forth. We are underachieving, bigtime. I think it's because of the deathlock that the bureaucracy and the unions have on K-12 education in this state.

More importantly, Nebraska has a terrible, unacceptable, revolting achievement gap between our white students and our students of color. For example, on the 1990 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 81 percent of Nebraska’s African-American eighth-graders scored ''below basic'' on math. The statistics conclude that the average black student in Nebraska, no matter what income level, is more than three years behind the average white student, in math.

Meanwhile, by eighth grade, Nebraska taxpayers have spent well over $50,000 on each of those students. Think about it. Why would we keep throwing money at a system that does this?

If you click through the tables, you'll see Nebraska listed at or near the bottom in the rate of improvement we are making in closing the gap between whites and African-Americans and Latinos, compared to other states.

I can't live with that. Not a minute longer.

But I can't watch us destroy our private schools with a voucher system, either.

Let's talk about a G.I. bill for Nebraska’s schoolkids . . . and have it all.

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Monday, February 09, 2004


Here's hope for those who would like to see school-choice vouchers, tuition tax credits and private scholarships give the majority of Nebraskans some alternatives to public schools. It's a $20 book / position paper, ''Voucher Wars: Waging the Legal Battle Over School Choice,'' by Clint Bolick, the attorney for the groundbreaking Cleveland school-choice program and others.

There's a review on www.educationnews.org/an-insider.htm that talks about the administrative stonewalling, legislative roadblocks and legal battles that advocates of school choice face. It is said that the unions and school districts have ''Vise-Grip'' control over state legislatures.

So? Vise-Grip locking pliers were invented in Nebraska (Danish immigrant Bill Peterson, DeWitt, Neb., 1924). We know how they work.

Which means we know how to unlock them, too . . . do what's necessary to make school choice a reality here . . . or we would, if enough of us got books like this and got together on this key issue.

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Saturday, February 07, 2004


The bad news is, Rachel Bone of LaVista has told Go Big Ed that she will probably not run again for the State Board of Education. She said all the volunteer time and effort is worth it if you can make things better for just one child, and Mrs. Bone makes no bones about it – she is one of the few on that board who really does put children first. So it is a blow to lose her.

The good news is, though, there is a chance that child-focused, taxpayer-serving, academics-oriented leaders can take control of that crucial statewide board because five of the eight seats are up for grabs:

1) As reported, Hastings attorney Steve Scherr is resigning, leaving an opening to serve District 5, approximately the southeast one-fifth of Nebraska.

2) Also as reported, north Omahan Ann Mactier, 81, has said she will run again in District 2, and she is an absolute heroine when it comes to back-to-the-basics in reading.

3) Mrs. Bone represented District 4, part of the Omaha metropolitan area and surrounding region.

Two other incumbents whose seats will be up for grabs:

4) Beverly J. Peterson of Oakland, District 3, the northeastern one-fifth of the state.

5) Kimberly J. Peterson of Lincoln, District 1, the Lincoln area.

Both of them would be very vulnerable to a candidate with a desire to represent students, parents and taxpayers, not just the education establishment. If five back-to-the-basics candidates could be elected, there would be a clear majority on that board, and good things would start to happen.

To review district boundaries, backgrounds of incumbents, agendas, duties and other considerations:


Spread the word quickly, though, because the filing deadline is coming up.

Former State Ed Board member Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City has offered to help prospective candidates any way she can: email kwilmot@atcjet.net or phone (308) 268-6235.

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Friday, February 06, 2004


There's at least one opening on the State Board of Education in the upcoming elections. Steve Scherr's letter of resignation was included in the minutes of the Board's Feb. 5-6 meeting. The Hastings attorney is not running again in District 5, approximately the southeast one-fifth of Nebraska. Scherr is going to oppose Sen. Carroll Burling of Kenesaw for State Legislature.

Omaha's Ann Mactier has said she will run again in District 2. The southern metropolitan Omaha district is represented by Rachel Bone of LaVista; she was unavailable for comment on whether she will seek another term.

To review district boundaries, backgrounds of incumbents, agendas, duties and other considerations:


Former State Ed Board member Kathy Wilmot of Beaver City has sent out word encouraging people to run for this important board, and to support good candidates with money and volunteer time. She said, ''Folks, this is your chance to put people on the State Board of Education who are not Nebraska State Education Association puppets. This is a chance to have people who truly represent parents, taxpayers and most importantly . . . CHILDREN!''

Mrs. Wilmot, an eight-year incumbent, was defeated by 115 votes in November 2002 amid dirty campaigning that resulted in a $1,000 fine against Grant High School teacher Diana Tate and a $250 fine against Gering Superintendent of Schools Don Hague, both from the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission. Read more about it on www.kathywilmot.com

The same election saw massive infusions of union cash to help former Nebraska State Education Association president and former NEA official Joe Higgins defeat Omaha's Kathryn Piller.

Mrs. Wilmot, representing Citizen EdWatch, a new grassroots organization aimed at education and political issues in Nebraska and beyond, said she would welcome queries from interested people and would schedule a Candidate Training Seminar for them.

Email kwilmot@atcjet.net or (308) 268-6235.

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Thursday, February 05, 2004


Watch the watch. Watch the watch.

Nebraska taxpayers sometimes seem hypnotized. They seem out of their senses, the way they keep pouring more and more money into the public schools to keep doing so many things that we already know don't improve student learning.

Watch the watch. Watch the watch.

Tax watchdogs (such as www.netaxpayers.org) report that the public is so numb and mesmerized, it's difficult to get people to wake up to reality and join the fight against wasteful school spending. The apathy is especially distressing in school districts where student achievement is lackluster and disappointing.

Watch the watch. Watch the watch.

And now we have tax dollars spent on a whole new tactic: hypnotizing the students.

That's right: Fremont High School had a hypnotist come to a school assembly for the 1,400 students plus teachers on a Friday morning right before the kids went off to take their last two finals.

According to the student newspaper, ''The Rustler,”'' the hypnotist led students in ''potential make-out scenes, pretending to be fish, and crying to sad movies.''

One girl was quoted as saying: ''My favorite part was when Aaron Paden thought he was naked!'' A senior boy and girl were ''crawling all over each other's lap smelling one another's 'sweet aroma.''' There was a picture of five hypnotized sophomores struggling to get straws in their mouths.

Oh, the EXCELLENCE! Your tax dollars at work, folks. Fremont spends $7,086.61per pupil and taxpayers have given the district $94 million worth of facilities, according to the annual report on file with the Nebraska Department of Education:http://ess.nde.state.ne.us/SchoolFinance/AFR/search/afr.htm

Fremont High School's average ACT score is 22.3, below the state average of 22.6, and consistently below the state average for the last four years. On nationally standardized tests, 40.8 percent of the 10th through 12th graders scored below the national average in reading, and 39 percent were below par in math:

So now they’re turning to hypnosis to try to raise those test scores. Or something.

Watch the watch? Yeah . . . a stopwatch. It's time to snap out of our self-induced hypnosis, and put a stop to stuff like this.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2004


Comes now an intrepid reader from Hyannis, Neb., out in Grant County in the Sandhills north of Ogallala. He makes a pretty good case for why the Class I schools surrounding that K-12 district ought to be merged. That's what Sen. Ron Raikes wants: all 260-plus of Nebraska’s tiny country schools consolidated with the town schools.

The hearing room in the Unicameral on this issue (LB 1048) was jammed Tuesday as small-school defenders made their case and heavy-duty educrats spouted off about consistency, compliance and how if they can get rid of 260 elected school boards, that would give a lot more power to unelected educrats . . . oops, I guess that's not exactly what they said, but that's what erasing the Class I schools would mean.

I still say nobody should be forced to give up their local neighborhood school. I still say a much more democratic, cost-effective and sensible solution would be to give all Nebraska pupils the same amount of funding in a no-strings-attached voucher, and let local yokels decide how to spend it, and where.

But there are always exceptions. And this Hyannis reader makes a solid case for why consolidation makes political and economic sense in his neck o' the woods.

In and around Hyannis, there are five Class I country schools within a 28-mile radius on state highways, and two more with budget authority set elsewhere but still part of the system. Our correspondent writes:

1) Because of the ''common levy,'' the high school board gives budget authority to the Class I grade schools, and it's an ''exercise in frustration'' for taxpayers to go to either board to express concerns about spending or programs, because they both pass the buck.

2) In the year 2000, Hyannis Elementary School asked for a budget of more than $400,000 for 20 pupils . . . TWENTY! . . . but after the high school board cut that in half, the town went wild with anger; the two board members who proposed that more reasonable figure were ousted. That's how ''politically impossible'' it is, he says, at least in Hyannis, to cut a Class I school budget.

This Nebraskan said that before the passage of the ''common levy,'' Class I districts levied their own taxes; accountability of the separate school boards was fine. ''The budgets of our area Class I districts were frugal, showed a great deal of planning, and were tailored to the needs of the particular district,'' he wrote. ''Common levy removed the fiscal restraints imposed on each of the Class I districts. . . . As a result, our taxpayers see round after round of tax increases each year.''

According to the Class I audits for the 2002 school year, there are 95 pupils being served by 14 teachers, six aides and assorted other staff in eight schools at an average cost per elementary pupil of $10,697.32 per year.

He concludes, ''This system could easily operate with one central school in Hyannis and two outlying 'attendance centers.' The cost savings would be enormous. Additionally we would be able to offer a more extensive curriculum and higher quality special education services with less travel time for special-ed staff and specialty teachers.''

So maybe the problem is the ''common levy.'' Maybe it's a management problem or a political problem that's isolated to that area. Or maybe he's right, and a straight-up consolidation would fix things.

All I know is, $10,697.32 is 'way too much money to be spending on a grade-school kid for one school year in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

The high school has the same situation: right around 100 students 7-12 and a spending budget of $1,326,950. Meanwhile, according to http://www.nde.state.ne.us, the Hyannis High School test scores aren't impressive. In 2001-02, 45 percent of the seventh- and eighth-graders tested below the national average in reading, and in '02-'03, 57.9 percent of the high schoolers did.

Obviously, major spending cuts have to be made, and alternatives and innovations – one-room schooling comes to mind – need to be put in place.

Overspending is a problem that's by no means limited to the small schools. But it's long past time for educators and taxpayers to start thinking big, and turn these problems from large back into small.

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Tuesday, February 03, 2004


Shawn Boyd, 28, moved his family last year out of the City of Lincoln, away from the state’s second-largest school district, the Lincoln Public Schools. They settled near the tiny Cheney (Neb.) School southeast of Lincoln. Purpose: when his daughters, now 2 and 4, go to school, he wants it to be in that Class I school.

“I want my kids to get more one-on-one interaction with teachers,” Boyd said, “a chance to have a better foundation for their learning experience, and hopefully, to not have to put up with those circumstances that you see in larger public schools, because it’s easier for teachers and parents to control things in the smaller environment.”

Boyd is one who puts his time and money where his mouth is: although brand new to the community, he has already joined the school board. And he has lobbied hard against LB 1048, which will be on public hearing in the Unicameral’s education committee this afternoon.

Boyd opposes the bill, which would force merger of the 241 elementary-only districts into larger K-12 districts, effectively killing the country schools, Boyd says. He believes the bill won’t get out of committee, but wishes more Nebraskans understood the issue better. It’s a question of quality, he said, pointing to statistics such as far fewer dropouts, better test scores and better relations between school staff and the community in the smaller setting.

“Everywhere you look, even in New York City, the big push is to make schools smaller and get teachers and students to know each other better and feel like more of a community,” Boyd said. “That’s what we were after when we moved here.”

He said that a neighbor’s problems dealing with the public school his daughters would have attended in Lincoln prompted his family’s move. Boyd said the school staff concealed the fact that there were brown recluse spiders in the building, until a teacher “leaked” word late in the year. The principal’s reason for not telling the parents is that the spiders are nocturnal, so he didn’t figure kids were in danger. Boyd said that was totally unacceptable to him, as a parent.

In addition, he said, there was a problem with a boy exposing himself to a little girl at the school. The neighbor again called the principal, and was told that it wasn’t the principal’s responsibility to make sure that every child was safe. “We couldn’t believe it,” Boyd said.

Rather than doing away with small, country schools, Boyd said the state’s school financing formulas ought to be fixed to make funding equitable for each child, no matter where their school is located in Nebraska. He also said he strongly favors charter school and school-choice voucher legislation.

To contact your senator on this or any other bill, or track legislation:


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Monday, February 02, 2004



I don’t think anybody would dispute it: the schools in disadvantaged areas of the Omaha Public Schools are a mess. The achievement gap between the races has been horrible and indefensible for years. Busing was a costly failure and damaged the community cohesiveness that is so important in K-12 education.

OPS recently got its taxpayers to pour a half a billion dollars, with interest, into school construction, but there’s no evidence anywhere that spending more money on K-12 education correlates to higher student achievement. We’re spending more and more and more, and getting less and less and less.

So why on earth would we want to do the same thing to the tiny jewels in the crown of Nebraska education – our small schools, which post higher levels of student achievement than our larger schools despite facing greater barriers to success, not the least of which is a scrawny tax base?

Research is showing more and more that small schools, run right, can be far more cost-effective and provide much higher quality outcomes for kids than larger schools.

More importantly, rural schools are often high-poverty schools. We know that kids from low-income homes need the warmth and personal touch of the small-school setting to overcome the disadvantages of poverty. Poverty is a key reason Nebraska’s larger school systems aren’t doing so hot right now. But, the data show clearly, poverty makes little or no difference in the smaller districts.

Think about it.

Why would we want to break up these rural children’s neighborhood “feel,” bus those kids far away, put extra stress on the marginal academic performers, and nuke their hometown’s centerpiece, which is what a small-town school means in terms of social and political life? Again, recognizing that there’s no evidence from anywhere that the kids are better off afterwards.

If we force these consolidations, we are likely to be setting those kids up to be just like the kids from northeast Omaha. Come on, now. Nobody wants that.

The idea of forced consolidation of the state’s Class I, or “elementary-only,” districts will come up at a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Room 1525 of the Capitol, as the Legislature’s education committee considers the fate of those 241 country schools, and whether they should be merged into a K-12 district by 2005-06.

I say they shouldn’t.

Now, I know I recently suggested it might be wise to consolidate two smaller districts, Valley and Waterloo. But in that case, the issue is quality. In contrast to the Class I schools, which consistently post better than average scores on standardized tests, student achievement in both Waterloo and Valley is pretty bad, considering their demographics.

Waterloo kids averaged 21.7 on the ACT, far below the state average of 22.6, which isn’t so hot itself, considering that 36 is the best score possible and you get a 10, I believe, just for showing up. Waterloo’s reading and math performance on standardized tests in lower grades is disappointing, with a majority of its secondary-level students scoring below the national average. Valley isn’t much better, with an ACT of 22.1 and as many as 46 percent of its students below the national average in at least one measure, grades 3-5 math.

You can check out the data for yourself on the Nebraska State Department of Education website, www.nde.state.ne.us

Meanwhile, Waterloo and Valley both spend a pretty penny per pupil. I say that’s not good, old-fashioned, cost-effective Nebraska-style education. Something needs to change. Consolidation in this case is likely to bring on economies of scale and cost-effectiveness.

But it’s not the same story with most of these grade-school-only schools. You can read more about their outstanding academic performance in these two fact-packed reports from the Rural School and Community Trust:

-- Nebraska's Small School Systems: An Educational Treasure, At Least When Adequately Funded

-- Small Works in Nebraska: How Poverty and the Size of School Systems Affect School Performance in Nebraska

They’re available on:


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Sunday, February 01, 2004



It has been interesting to watch the ongoing complaints about the lack of taxes being paid on expenditures for the National Education Association’s political activity. Those complaints are being lodged by Landmark Legal Foundation (see www.landmarklegal.org and look under “Latest Developments,” then “Education”).

Landmark is the nonprofit, public-service law firm that fought for water rights in Nebraska, for school choice in Milwaukee against the NEA and the ACLU, and against judicial tyranny in the infamous school reorganization case and billion-dollar school-funding boondoggle in Kansas City.

According to Landmark, the NEA has spent more than $70 million a year in recent years for an army of more than 1,800 paid political organizers and lobbyists, tied tightly to the Democratic Party. The individuals, called “UniServ directors,” are employed by a union local, but they are selected, trained and funded primarily by the NEA.

The money comes from teachers’ union dues paid into the union’s 13,000 local affiliates. Landmark contends the money was spent to help elect or defeat political candidates. If that is so, the NEA should have paid taxes on it, but didn’t. Union officials have said the expenditures were for “communications” or nonpartisan political efforts.

If Landmark’s complaints hold up with the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Departments of Labor and Justice, though, the NEA could owe millions of dollars of back taxes to the government. It might even help with some of these budget shortfalls we’ve been facing, also caused by the NEA to some degree: how sweet it is!

That is, ironically, the union will owe back taxes that started out as FRONT taxes. After all, taxpayers are the ones who pay the taxes that wind up as salaries paid to educators, who use them to pay union dues. So if the NEA was evading taxes, it’s a double whammy to those of us who don’t.

And it should be an eye-opener to teachers, who may want to stop and think about what the NEA has become, and do they still want to be associated with it. Part of Landmark’s end-game is to let union members know they have a right to demand a refund on dues spent on politics, and to encourage teachers to break free of union association if they think that’s best.

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