There’s a nasty little trend coursing throughout America, and while I hardly want to toss a bucket of cold water on your warm holiday spirits, a warning is in order as federal, state and local governments broach the inevitable passionate debates about education funding in 2012.
The next few months portend a reality show based on school reform going very, very badly.
Here in the nation’s capital, tempers could start as early as mid-January, when the D.C. Public Education Finance Reform Commission begins drafting a per-pupil funding strategy that will guide the hands of lawmakers and the mayor in developing education budgets for many years to come.
And if you look at Texas, Colorado and other states, such deliberations are already messy political processes that put government budgets and policies between a rock and a hard place.
Consider, by way of example, Texas. On one side stand Hispanics and advocates for low-income families and English-language learners, who claim in a lawsuit that residents in impoverished school districts are paying higher taxes than those in affluent districts but aren’t receiving a solid education.
On the other side stand residents in wealthier districts, who claim in a lawsuit that the state is effectively imposing a state property tax to pay for schools and that by doing so it also is usurping local authority.
If that precarious scenario doesn’t raise your eyebrows, consider the perplexing bah-humbug picture in Colorado, where by judicial fiat a single judge declared that the state’s K-12 education funding system is uniformly unfair. The ruling left the Democratic governor wide-mouthed and the teachers union decreeing “Merry Christmas to us.”
But the teachers union and the state leaders actually should be ashamed of themselves because huge chunks of school-district funding is spent on union affairs outside the classrooms.
A few of Colorado’s costly unholy alliances recently uncovered by the Denver Post:
• Sixteen Colorado school districts pay all or part of their union president’s salary and benefits while the president is on either full or partial leave from the school conducting union business.
• Nine state school districts pay the salary and benefits for teachers on release time, as well as for the classroom substitutes who replace them.
• Ten school districts aren’t tracking the annual cost of union leave.
What’s more, the Obama administration used $137 million in taxpayer money to cover the cost of federal workers’ union activities.
D.C. taxpayers should fast-forward to next year, when Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Council begin gazing at the dollar signs and policy recommendations that will be embedded in the school finance commission’s draft report. By the time we flip those new calendars we received for Christmas to mark our fling with the start of spring, school closings, teacher pay and evaluations, and facility costs will have nostrils flaring.
Truth acknowledged, there is an upside to the commission, whose primary objectives were to study funding equities and disparities between traditional and public-charter schools, and make recommendations to city hall. The creation of the finance reform commission was supported wholeheartedly by charter-school advocates and welcomed by regular public schools. But there are pitfalls to the panel, too.
The major rub lies in the possibility that city officials will be encouraged to continue shortchanging the spirit and the letter of the laws that created not only the uniform student-funding formula but the 1995 legislation that established charter schools and grants them a considerable measure of independence for bureaucratic authority.
Together, those laws helped to make D.C. charters among the most successful and largest systems in the nation.
Since the passage of the laws, however, D.C. lawmakers have added laws that force charters to provide services for which they are not provided public funding, chief among them on-site routine health and mental programs, physical education and feeding programs, safety and security, and resources for parents and families.
All reforms come with a price tag, and that includes the neat little bow that the D.C. school finance commission eventually will wrap around its package of school-finance reforms.
And consider as well that while the District is hardly the size of Colorado or Texas, the soul of city hall is as liberal as they come. (Think medical marijuana, and publicly financed abortions and condom giveaways just to name three issues.)
Here’s to hoping the luck of the New Year gives D.C. taxpayers a huge break that also avoids the District becoming legally embroiled in school-funding reforms.
• Deborah Simmons can be reached at email@example.com.
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