Tuesday, October 10, 2006
PUBLIC POLICY BRIEF:
INITIATIVE 422 AND THE CLASS I DEBATE --
POINT VS. COUNTERPOINT
The Nebraska Legislature’s Legislative Bill 126 basically is forcing Nebraska’s remaining Class I rural elementary-only schools to consolidate with larger K-12 districts in towns and cities against the will of the parents and teachers in small communities.
A petition drive by Class I supporters got the issue on the Nov. 7 ballot for voters to consider overruling the Legislature, and letting the Class I school boards resume operations.
The measure is Initiative 422.
Should it happen? Should the Class I country schools be revived?
Here are some pro’s and con’s:
Do Class I grade schools do as good a job academically as larger K-12 districts, as measured by standardized tests?
Yes. For the most part, Class I schools do even better than K-12 districts in cities and towns.
According to www.nebraskansforlocalschools.org, in 2004-05, the average standardized test score in reading for Grades 3-5 in the Class I schools was 72.22%, significantly higher than the state average of 65.32%.
The reading quality differential becomes larger in Grades 7-8, when the Class I pupils posted an average score of 74.16% vs. the state average of 61.96%.
For math, the small schools posted Grades 3-5 average scores of 74.95% vs. 69.14%, while the Grades 7-8 Class I pupils outstripped the state math average by 78.87% to 64.69%.
How does per-pupil spending compare in Class I schools vs. larger districts?
It’s virtually the same. According to State Education Department figures, the average per-pupil cost of Class I districts was $8,028, vs. $8,013 per pupil statewide.
While there are several Class I districts with eye-popping costs per pupil – upwards of $20,000 per pupil in Tri-View Public School in Adams County, for example – the reason is that there may be just one or two severely handicapped children in special education in a tiny student population. The spending average increases exponentially because of the incredibly high cost of special ed in some cases, but the actual cost per pupil of regular-education students in that school may actually be lower than the state average.
Of course there are a few schools in which spending exceeds the state average, but that’s true in all sizes of districts.
The main consideration is the statewide average, which is virtually equal between Class I schools and all others. That’s important, given the fact that Class I schools don’t have the economies of scales that other districts do. It reflects an excellent record of cost-efficiency on the part of Class I school boards and educators.
But weren’t the Class I schools consolidated into larger districts to save money?
That was the story. But it hasn’t happened. Ironically, the claim on the legislative floor was that LB 126 would save the state $12 million a year by closing the Class I schools. But according to the state’s own figures, LB 126 is costing Nebraska about $3 million a year, largely for added personnel and operations expenses resulting from the added enrollment.
Districts such as the North Platte Public Schools have complained about increased costs, and that isn’t even counting the additional gas costs for individual families all across the state that now have to transport their children many more miles per day to and from school, against their will.
Why should Class I schools get any state aid to education, sharing in state sales and income tax? Aren’t they all extremely rich from property taxes collected on farms, while they have relatively small student populations to educate?
According to state figures, the average amount in state aid received by Class I schools per pupil was $1,908 in the 2004-05 school year. That compares to $2,698 per pupil in the Omaha Public Schools and $2,183 in the Millard Public Schools, two much bigger districts with huge property valuations all told.
State aid to education was intended to provide consistent funding for the state’s public schools and a means to assuage the impact of rising property valuations and falling farm incomes. It hasn’t worked out that way; political realities have resulted in more state aid going to districts with lots of low-income and non-English speaking pupils, leaving rural Nebraska property owners choking on higher and higher school taxes.
Actually, there are Class I schools that received insultingly low amounts of state aid in recent years: Strang Public School in Fillmore County received $218 for each of its five pupils, for example, while Ashby Public School pupils in Grant County received $104 apiece and Pleasant View in Keya Paha County received a dollar apiece.
Considering the tiny amount of state revenue that’s assisting in the education of the children in those schools, it must stick in the local residents’ craws to see their schools being demolished by State Department of Education, State Board of Education and State Legislature policies, even though their schools are doing a better job for less cost than in the big cities.
It’s hard to feel good about that, as a Nebraskan dedicated to a fair shake for each and every child in the state, regardless of their geographical location.
Is it true that there has been “white flight” out of town schools into rural Class I schools to sidestep immigrant children of minority races, in parts of Nebraska with recent increases in non-English speaking students?
No, that appears to be a false claim, though it reportedly was a powerful factor in the decisions of a majority of state senators to approve LB 126 a year and a half ago, and put enormous pressure on the more than 200 remaining Class I schools to consolidate with K-12 districts.
And yes, there have been enormous shifts in the demographics of schools around towns such as Schuyler and Lexington, where there have been large influxes of Hispanic people in recent years.
But the facts don’t show that longtime citizens who are white and English-speaking moved their children to rural Class I schools to “duck” immigrant children.
According to www.nebraskansforlocalschools.org, only 16 of approximately 300 white students in the Lexington area have opted in to nearby Class I rural grade schools, which themselves are 40% minority.
The group also contends that the three Class I’s nearest to Schuyler have gained just 32 new white pupils between them in recent years, far less than a measurable migration.
The Class I schools in those areas actually are more racially integrated than the typical suburban Nebraska school. In fact, of the 13 Nebraska districts in which racial minorities actually form the majority, four are Class I’s, according to Nebraskans for Local Schools.
It appears that enrollment growth in Class I’s around Schuyler resulted from concerns about academic quality in the Schuyler town school, not racial prejudice. Rather than “white flight,” what we may be seeing is “quality flight.”
According to Nebraska Department of Education enrollment statistics compiled by Angie Palmer, a Class I supporter, in the 1985-86 school year in the Schuyler Public Schools, there were 588 white children and 12 Hispanics. By 2000-01, that ratio had changed to 331 whites and 466 Hispanics.
However, in the nearby Class I schools, the populations had changed only slightly: Colfax grew from 20 to 35 white students and from 0 to 2 Hispanics in that timeframe, while Fisher dropped in white student population from 45 to 38, and increased in Hispanics from 0 to 4.
In the same five years, white populations grew more markedly in the K-12 districts close to Schuyler, and even if that is evidence of “white flight,” it’s moot, since LB 126 dealt only with Class I schools and wouldn’t do anything about enrollment flow between K-12’s. Note that Clarkson grew from 160 to 206 white students, and from 0 to 4 Hispanics, while Howells grew from 193 to 222 whites and one to three Hispanics, and Leigh increased from 229 to 282 whites and 0 to 4 Hispanics.
Ms. Palmer’s research turned up significantly higher test scores in all of these other schools, both Class I’s and the neighboring K-12’s, than the Schuyler Public Schools. She suggests that is the reason for the relative loss of enrollment in Schuyler. In the 2004-05 school year, 58.54% of Schuyler pupils in Grades 3-5 were reading below the U.S. average, and 54.88% were doing math below par.
That, Ms. Palmer said, is the real story – and, she contends, there is no evidence of race-related prejudice or bias in enrollment data in that area, contrary to what might have been said in the Unicameral, and in the political arena concerning Initiative 422 today.
Do Class I educators have more freedom with curriculum than educators in larger districts do, and is that good or bad?
Apparently, they do. And most reasonable people would say that alternatives are always helpful, not harmful. If it weren’t for kids in private schools getting traditional math instruction in the 1970s and ‘80s, the entire nation might have shifted to “new math” and we’d all be basically incompetent with numbers. Since the public schools could clearly see that their graduates were not doing as well as the private-school graduates, though, public schools shucked “new math,” at least for a while.
We may need to keep the Class I schools, if for no other reason, then as an alternative to big-district standardized curriculum that may not be very good, even if it is “popular” with educators.
As an example, North Platte Public Schools board member Molly O’Holleran has praised Shurley grammar and writing curricula that she learned about from former Class I teachers who have joined the K-12 district in consolidations. Class I teachers have been known to produce grade-school children able to read at a 12th-grade level, and a number of Class I students have gone on to star in their K-12 high schools and on to college and beyond.
Why is it fair that a Class I teacher may have only six children to teach, yet a teacher in a larger district may have more than 20? Isn’t this a fairness issue for educators as well as for equal opportunity for students?
Why is it “fair” that teachers in Omaha and Lincoln can expose their students to the symphony, museums, science labs, architects, astronomy programs and who knows what all else, when the rural teachers don’t have those facilities anywhere near at hand?
Why is it “fair” that urban teachers have school counselors, school nurses, school librarians and other full-time support staff to lean on, when rural teachers are on their own?
It doesn’t seem “fair” to punish a Class I teacher by taking away her job just because her class size is smaller than an urban teacher’s. It actually may make her work harder, because small classes imply giving each student individualized attention, and that can be tougher and more draining than even the advanced-normal-struggling triage that teachers in large classrooms usually employ.
The Nebraska State Education Association, the teachers’ union, has been a powerful foe of Class I schools, apparently because smaller teacher salaries are more acceptable in tiny country schools than in K-12 town districts, and the union wants to get average salaries higher in the state any way it can.
Aren’t Class I schools for rich farm kids? Hardly any of them are poor enough to get free or subsidized school lunches, for example. If we close their schools, why can’t they just go to private schools, since they can apparently afford it?
The hostility toward rural families and ignorance of their economic situations revealed by this issue is truly disappointing. First, the family incomes of the Class I student population are actually a lot closer to the state average than the statistics imply. This is for the simple reason that statisticians assess the amount of poverty at a given school based on how many pupils qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. So many Class I schools are so small that they don’t have lunchrooms or offer hot lunches, there’s no sense in applying for the federal aid. So the kids in any given Class I school might actually be poorer than in the town and city districts, but the stats wouldn’t show it.
As for expecting them to switch to private schools, note that any private schools that might be available would also be many miles away, in the same towns where the public schools are located. So it would defeat the purpose of the Class I families that want to retain local schools. And it would not seem to be fair public policy to deny anyone a free public education just because of their geographical location.
Weren’t Class I schools just caught spending all kinds of money on all kids of frivolous things? Weren’t there a bunch of them receiving tax dollars every year without having any kids enrolled? Isn’t it a bad idea, with our school taxes constantly going up, to let Class I schools continue to operate under the radar because they are so isolated?
Questions have been raised by State Auditor Kate Witek (see http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/4295872.html) but nothing illegal was found and nothing more will be done (see http://www.wowt.com/home/headlines/4295872.html).
A lot of school spending is a judgment call; would it make headlines, for example, that a District 66 administrator took a trip to Japan recently to tour schools there, or that a Westside High School teacher took a class on a chartered plane for a day field trip to Washington, D.C.? Or should it? How about the cost per square foot of new carpet in schools in Blair, or the cost of the theater curtains at Lincoln North Star?
Perhaps items like these all should get more public review than they do now. Scrutiny of school spending is always in order. But with the more than $2 billion a year of K-12 spending in Nebraska each year, it seems counter-productive and politically motivated to zero in on a few thousand here or there, and ignore the big picture.
The “ghost schools” amounted to an inflammatory charge during the LB 126 debate that 11 of the then-210 Class I schools had budgets, but no pupils; it turns out that the money was being used to liquidate assets for schools in the process of dissolving, or to contract out the educations of district children to other districts. There was no monkey business involved and no charges were filed or money demanded to be repaid. The “ghost schools” were doing the right thing. It would have been irresponsible not to fund those functions, even if it looked “bad” on paper. See http://www.classonesunited.com/SchoolsWithZeroStudents.html
Class I schools are no more or less “under the radar” for how they spend money than any other district in the state. You can see audited financial reports for all Nebraska districts any time you want on the State Education Department’s website, http://ess.nde.state.ne.us and go from there for more information to local districts. Since tax dollars are public funds, school spending decisions are fair game for your review and criticism.
Isn’t it too late for the Class I schools that have already merged in to the town schools? Their teachers are already working at other jobs and everything would have to start over from scratch. Is it realistic to think the Class I’s can be revived?
Here’s what one Class I advocate has to say about that: “Definitely, although it may take our Class I schools awhile to recoup from the damage the larger districts that absorbed them already did in the meantime.
“Our fairly new elementary school, with its quality, caring staff that gives students much individual attention, has been taken over by a larger district. Everyone in the community with young children says our schooling is far superior to that of the larger district, which threatens to eventually completely close our elementary school.
“The first thing the large district did was spend all the money at its secondary school that our small district had accumulated.
“We would start over without the funds we had saved, but we can do it. We want the best for our children, and it's clear we need to re-establish our Class I district to do it.”
See more on this issue on www.nebraskansforlocalschools.org and www.classonesunited.com
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