Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Vote "No" on Proposition 401 and all other school overrides

Tom Jenney of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers has been a nearly lone voice recommending the defeat of school-district budget overrides. For what it's worth, I'll lend my voice to that effort and recommend the same, especially to those who, like me, reside in Tucson Unified School District (TUSD), which is not operating under an override.

There's plenty of money available per classroom full of students. Jenney puts the figure at $194,000 per 25-student classroom. That's not using the "fishy" figure whereby total spending is divided by total number of students (see David Safier's explanation; inclusion of construction costs is a bad idea); Jenney instead computed the average using Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne's annual report, excluding construction and land purchase costs.

Averages in the abstract might not reflect the condition in any particular district, but the $7,730 per pupil figure used by Jenney is a few hundred dollars less than spending in TUSD and almost a thousand more than Catalina Foothills. (I did not write that backwards, and you did not read it backwards.) Regardless, there's a lot of money in the districts. Spend $100,000 compensating a classroom teacher (salary plus lavish health insurance plus "employer contribution" to pensions, Social Security, and Medicare, and nearly that amount is left over to keep the lights on, purchase supplies, have art and music classes, pay administrators, etc. A lot is being spent on the public school system--Jenney says that the figure has doubled, in inflation-adjusted dollars, relative to 1970--and there is little to show for it. It's clear that the taxpayer's money is not being spent intelligently, that there is waste and systematic failure; it makes no sense to give more.

A "no" vote is not drastic. Override amounts vary by district, but 5-10% of the district budget is a usual amount. Moreover--and all of the publicity pamphlets mailed explain this--ARS 15-481 establishes a "phase-down" procedure. If an override election fails, a district's funding will not be cut all at once. If the cut was too drastic, the districts can ask for another override. (This could establish perverse incentives for administrators.)

Call them "public schools", "government schools", or whatever you like; it's also quite clear that they're violating the social contract, and not just by failing to educate students to an eighth-grade level before sending them to high-school and to produce high-school graduates before handing out diplomas. (Geriatric libertarians: "social contract" is a well-understood metaphor; please Google it before ranting in the comments section.) When government agencies tell us how it's going to be, insist on doing things on their own terms, and insist that we pay no matter what, we don't ordinarily tolerate it. With schools, it's different. It's "for the kids", if not ours, then someone else's, possibly some disadvantaged household's. If that's the case, we should be even more intolerant--and we shouldn't let anyone try to cast us as immoral for our position. Failing us is one thing--we can vote, throw the bums out, and "shoot the bastards" if we need to. Failing children, who have no recourse at all is less tolerable, much less still if we consider that the product of an urban public school will often lack the literacy, the communication skills, or the understanding of government needed to ever have recourse. Not wanting to hand over more money to poorly-performing and wasteful government institutions does not reflect an antisocial tendency. Sometimes the opposite is true.

If the schools want more money, they should start doing things differently, demonstrating need first, by becoming more efficient and adopting internal reforms. We should also demand an end to the following:
  1. Teachers are not paid according to merit. Schoolteachers should probably be paid more, to attract people to teaching who would instead go into other professions. Effective teachers should be paid more than ineffective teachers. Teaching is a highly individualized profession. It is not ditch-digging. It is not house-framing. Teachers are not fungible. The manner in which they are compensated should reflect that. Looking at this from the other side, taxpayers should be outraged that their involuntary contributions are being given as much to poor teachers as to good ones.

  2. Public schools don't ask. They either demand, or they are silent. I am a graduate of a public/government K-8 system and a private high school, the former in the Chicago sububs and the latter in the city itself. The private school sends mailers, solicits me for funds, maintains personal ties, and seeks my help in other ways. The public school stopped keeping track virtually the day after graduation. It started again when I applied for a small college scholarship but stopped immediately after I graduated college, and even then the communication was limited to my receipt of their check. They didn't even ask me to come in to tell the kids that yes, someone from our neighborhood can go on to be a scientist or whatever else he'd like to be.

    I thought that perhaps this was a Cook County, IL problem, but I've asked around, and Arizona public schools are no better. There is no continued contact with alumni, no routine active solicitation of contributions from area businesses, no Mother's Clubs, Father's Clubs or associated boosterism, no real effort to create a learners' community. If the public schools and their supporters can't be bothered with establishing of foundations or asking those with close ties to the institutions--alumni, parents and families of current students--for voluntary contributions, they have no business demanding involuntary contributions from the taxpayer.

  3. Nonparticipants are not treated equitably. A vote for an override is a vote to raise taxes not just on public school parents and families but also those homeschooling, sending their children to private schools, or sending their children to charter schools. None of these groups will benefit from the override.

    Charter school families receive a government subsidy just like public schoolers do. The other two groups do not receive so much as a tax credit. Homeschooling and private-schooling parents save the taxpayers the expense of educating their children. They've taken responsibility for their children. We shouldn't just admire them for it, we should treat them fairly. The least we can do is to not bill them for support of the public schools while their children are being privately educated. A tax credit for homeschoolers and tuition fee payers, up to the amount the district spends per pupil, would not only make private education in reach of more families; it would also constitute simple justice. Homeschoolers, private school parents, and those of us who support them should vote "no" on overrides until they are treated fairly and not made to pay double for education, at least while their children are of school age.

  4. Student promotion is haphazard in the early grades. Arizona's high schoolers must pass the very basic "AIMS" test to graduate. Too little, too late. I'm no advocate of pervasive testing; the temptations to teach to the test and to treat the test as a target are both too great. But to require that students be reading with basic comprehension by the end of First Grade and read fluently (no more "sounding it out") and comprehend more advanced passages by the end of Third Grade would seem reasonable. Reading comfortably and with comprehension is the key to further education and good citizenship, too. What good is the high-school AIMS test if a student enters high school a functional illiterate?

    For those who fail, aggressive remediation is in order--and I'd happily support an override to fund it.

  5. Curriculum decisions are politicized. Ideally, the schools would be independent and any subsidy would follow the student. That's too great a paradigm shift for "this year" but we should insist that the schools act as though they are independent and allow teachers to choose textbooks. This is intimately related to the "merit pay" issue. Effective teachers don't do the same thing as lousy ones, but better. They do things differently, and as anyone who has ever taught understands, classroom materials are part of this. Arizona has a limited system of choice, enough to start de-politicizing the classroom.

No comments: