Wednesday, February 23, 2005
OP-ED: MISINFORMATION CORRECTED ON CLASS I SCHOOLS
Last week, an error-plagued story on Nebraska’s Class I schools controversy ran in major newspapers here, and was picked up by www.drudgereport.com It perpetuated the myth that parents are yanking their kids out of the town schools in Lexington and Schuyler out of racism, to avoid the influx of Hispanic kids there for their parents’ meatpacking jobs. But the real reason they’re going to country schools is for academics, as we saw Tuesday.
The story also showed the author’s ignorance of the fact that Class I schools are so tiny, they don’t have cafeterias and don’t serve the ubiquitous free and reduced, subsidized, government lunches to low-income kids that the town and city schools do. The story thought the absence of the typical poverty indicator for a school population, the subsidized lunch percentage, meant that the kids are all rich. Wrong!
It also claimed spending per pupil was much, much higher in these country schools, implying that Nebraska is skimping on the brown-skinned kids and lavishing all kinds of moolah on the whities in the country. Again, wrong: many, if not most, Class I schools spend at or below the state average, and those that spend more have proportionately more special-needs kids, driving up their cost per pupil in a deceptive way.
So the story went out all over the country, making Nebraskans look like rich, racist, wild-spending yahoo’s. It was terribly unfair.
Luckily, here’s an op-ed that explains it all beautifully. It was in last week’s Lincoln Journal and is reproduced here compliments of its author, George Lauby, board member, Dawson District 22. He’s “legislative liaison” for Dawson County Class I’s and contributing editor, www.NorthPlatteBulletin.com:
By George Lauby
In the Legislature Feb. 10 during debate on LB 126, Sen. Ron Raikes portrayed six Dawson County Class I school districts near Lexington as havens for privileged white students.
They are not.
The unforgivable thing in this debate is that Sen. Raikes omitted data in the argument. He said the six districts spend too much.
Raikes cited budgeted costs-per-pupil of $9,500 to $11,000 that he said came from six Class I schools near Lexington. He NEGLECTED to include the budgeted cost at two of the districts nearest Lexington -- District 22, with an ‘04-‘05 budgeted per pupil cost of $7,070, and District 16, with a cost of $7,874 per pupil.
Nor are these schools segregated. There are minority students at all of the Class I schools. For instance, at the two districts mentioned above, 40 percent of the students are Latino or Native American.
Public schools serve the residents of their districts first and foremost. There are fewer minority students in rural areas than in towns, because most rural residents are farmers and ranchers. However, the districts and the schools are by no means exclusive.
Lexington Superintendent Dick Eisenhauer seems to imagine suburban, private neighborhood Class I schools. There are about 130 students, most of them residents of the districts, scattered among the six schools over an area of about 200 square miles. Most students travel 5-20 miles to the Class I school.
Districts 22 and 44 (6 and 8 miles from Lexington, respectively) have 44 students combined, and 7 of them opt in. Four of the seven are minorities.
The situation is similar at the other four schools. In all six schools, there are a total of 40 option-in students. 16 of them do not come from the city of Lexington. Eight are non-Caucasian (Latino or Native American). That means 16 or so are Caucasian from Lexington. Some of them are special education students or students who have been bullied or are failing for some reason or other at LPS.
Only two opt-in requests at all 10 Dawson County Class I schools have been turned away in the past 3.5 years and that happened because programs were full, according to board members and Dawson County Class I administrator Kenneth O’Mara, Ed.D.
Regarding poverty, Dawson County Class I poverty students do not register on the Nebraska Department of Education index of “free and reduced lunch eligibility” because the schools don’t serve reimbursable lunch. Students bring lunch from home as they have since Class I schools were founded more than 100 years ago. If lunch is arranged or provided, the schools don’t ask for reimbursement from the state.
If there is some correlation (certainly not a direct correlation) of special education students with income level, 30 percent of Districts 16’s and 22’s students are poverty level.
Raikes has never visited Dawson County Class I schools. It doesn’t appear that Supt. Dick Eisenhauer has, either.
Two of the six schools spend about $11,000 per pupil -- at one school, the special needs of a family of three students with a rare genetic disorder and a student who is nearly deaf have pushed costs skyward. An occupational therapist visits each week; the school hired a special aide and purchased sophisticated audio as well as visual equipment.
The children with the disorder no longer live in the district, but Mom has optioned the kids there and now drives 25 miles each way, using the school of her choice to meet exceptional needs, as provided by state law.
In 2003-04, 50 percent of the other students at District 15 had high-cost special education needs. If the school could be considered a haven, it would be a haven for appreciative parents of special needs children, not “privileged whites.”
Another Dawson County school with a high budgeted per pupil cost (nearly $11,000) that Sen. Raikes mentioned during floor debate is District 17. The school’s budget was based on last year’s student enrollment, which was 28.5 percent higher than this year. If actual spending this year (2004-05) decreases by 28.5 percent, the school will spend $8,000 per pupil, near the state average and $500 per pupil less than Lexington Public Schools.
If you put all the omissions and misinformation together, the average cost per pupil at the six Class I schools near Lexington is less than Lexington Public Schools and the state average.
Other Class I schools in the county are even more cost-efficient. A Class I school near Gothenburg has an ‘04-‘05 budgeted per pupil cost of $6,500, one of the lowest in the state. Those low-cost schools have something to teach us all about educating efficiently, but LB 126 would eliminate the board that personally oversees the operation.
Sen. Raikes’ spending numbers, which seem to have been provided to him by the Department of Education, were over-inflated and his numbers of poverty students were absurd. Needless to say, we are dismayed at the rhetoric and character assassination.
Three Dawson County Class I school districts dissolved during the past five years, even though the county’s population slightly increased, as residents dealt with the reality in their geographical school districts. We think that flexibility is intrinsic to Nebraska’s ingenious rural elementary school system.
On the other hand, the research if not the motivation of LB 126 is suspect. Its fiscal note uses vague math even though the bill has stood for 10 months.
Class I schools in Nebraska use about 7 percent of state K-12 spending, so even if all Class I schools were completely closed and it would cost nothing to educate the 8,000 students elsewhere (a preposterous projection) the taxpayers would save next to nothing – 1.3 percent.
If one accepts the highly questionable projected fiscal note savings attached to LB 126, $12.7 million, the bill would reduce K-12 spending by two-tenths of one percent.
If one accepts the earlier fiscal note (posted Jan. 11) of $2-3 million (also questionable), savings are “4-thousandths of 1 percent” of K-12 spending.
LB 126 was drafted and introduced a year ago as LB 1048, but the fiscal note savings were increased five-fold only three days before debate opened on the floor. Needless to say, that is highly suspect.
Sen. Raikes is unmindful of another minority group – ranchers who are Class I parents in Dawson County and live 15 miles or more from the nearest school and are busy now bringing to life the basic product of Nebraska’s economy – baby calves.
Assimilating with a K-12 5-7 miles from the Class I could cost those parents, and the K-12 district, another 20-30 minutes a day in transportation time and costs, plus more non-reimbursed travel for the parents to attend teacher conferences and activities.
A fair assessment by those who live in the area combined with U.S. census data is that 30-50 percent of those mostly Caucasian families are impoverished.
The misinformation seems to stereotype rural residents, who in reality are all kinds of people who value living in rural Nebraska and involvement in the governance of education, as our state founders intended when they created the system of Nebraska's schools more than a century ago.
Dawson County Class I’s cooperate under an interlocal agreement formed in 1999. They share an administrator and special programs. They would be interested in exploring interlocal agreements with the K-12s to help solve significant educational problems. Dawson County Class I board members already know such interlocal agreements allow people most directly affected to solve problems.
People solve problems, not laws.
A confused Dawson County Class I board member and parent, Tammy Paulsen of Cozad, said Feb. 10: “What have we done to deserve so much criticism, when we are only helping children learn?”
We don’t know.
Non-white students at Districts 22 and 16: Tammy Knauss, board president, Dist. 16, Machelle Smith, board president, Dist. 22.
Kenneth O’Mara, EdD. – 308-858-4612 (home); 308-325-1150 (cell).
Reporting students eligible for free or reduced lunches: Board members or teachers at Districts 15, 16 17, 22, 25 & 44.)
Special needs at District 16: Cindy Schultheiss, administrative aide, Dawson District 15. 308-324-4752.
2004-05 budgeted costs per pupil, Districts 15, 16 17, 22 & 25: Nebraska Department of Education and Sen. Ron Raikes.
Tax savings if all Class Is disappeared: Nebraska DAS-Budget Division
-- 2005 K-12 spending (education dept. budget) - $1.1 billion.
-- 2005 total state budget -- $5.8 billion.
Nebraska Department of Education
-- Projected 2005 Class I state spending -- $75 million. (Same as 2004 because districts are closing).
-- LB 126 fiscal note, Feb. 7
-- LB 126 fiscal note, Jan. 11
Mr. Lauby can be reached by email at email@example.com, or
Office – 800-696-0096
Cell – 308-325-2315
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