Monday, February 20, 2012

Haley: I don't want to pay for your kid's education

If it weren't for simple mathematics, Governor Nikki Haley might've succeeded at portraying herself as a compassionate conservative. Unfortunately for her, thanks to hundreds of thousands of fine math teachers across the land, Americans -- even we South Carolinians -- can comprehend simple arithmetic.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said her proposed budget for 2012-13 increases money for public schools, but a closer look shows her recommendations would actually decrease state funding by nearly $80 million.

"You'll see education gets an increase," she said in releasing her first executive budget last month.

The Republican governor is partially correct, but only by disregarding some pots of money. Her proposal represents an increase in recurring money for K-12 schools, when factoring in all state revenue sources - chiefly, the penny of the state sales tax that goes directly to education programs.

However, Haley's budget proposal does not include anything funded this school year with one-time money.

That includes $56 million legislators added to the budget to boost the so-called "base student cost" to $1,880 per student - money they added over her veto. Superintendent Mick Zais has asked legislators to at least maintain that key funding source, which primarily pays for teacher salaries, by funding the $56 million through recurring sources, plus adding $15 million to account for student population growth.

By doing neither, Haley's budget would reduce that per-student amount to $1,766 - in a year the state formula calls for it to be $2,790.

Educators call it disappointing.

This is not new. Educators have been disappointed for a decade now.

If a condition lasts a whole decade, can't we call it chronic? Are we suffering chronic disappointment in our state's leadership? Are our state's leaders guilty of chronic neglect of public education?

And what a stirring demonstration of commitment to the rule of law in South Carolina! The Education Finance Act and its formula for a base student cost, adopted in 1977, dictates that this year's appropriation should total $2,790, is absolutely ignored.

An untrained monkey can observe that Haley's budget shows public education is not a priority for her. It reinforces the position that many educators put forward in 2010, in actively supporting Sen. Vincent Sheheen for the post Haley occupies, that when data demonstrates a woman hasn't supported public education in the past, we might reasonably predict that she won't suffer a blissful epiphany once ensconced in the chief executive suite. Better candidates deserve our active support.

Yet educators remained divided then -- oh, I don't like politics; it's so dirty. And, we can't get involved in partisan bickering and make people angry at us; there's no telling what they'll do in retaliation when they get into office. And, let's face it, we're a conservative state; best to ask for what you want, be thankful for what you get, and work with everybody.

Result: Governor Nikki Haley.
Base student cost: $1,766.
State of the education professions: Demoralized.
Quality of public education: Suffering.
Value to long-term right-wing agenda: Priceless.

Here's a prediction: When educators organize, educators win.

Legislators say there's no chance they'll restore the base student cost to $2,790, which would cost $553 million, but they could provide some increase.

"Some increase." This is laughable. A base student cost of $1,800 would represent an increase, and it would still leave us at education funding levels somewhere near 1996, the year that Bill Clinton was re-elected to the presidency.

The extra $913 million projected for 2012-13 follows several years of budget cuts due to the Great Recession.

It's due to a surplus from the fiscal year that closed June 30, along with more money coming in this fiscal year than legislators budgeted, plus continued growth. However, required increases - including property tax relief, health care and reserve funds - gobble up most of it. And those surpluses from the current and last fiscal year are what's considered one-time money. Former Gov. Mark Sanford long railed about using that to pay for long-term expenses.

Yes, we need property tax relief, because high taxes on beachfront property discourages wealthy retirees from relocating here to shelter their nest eggs; it's the primary reason we've seen in-migration drop off so precipitously in the past two or three generations.

Haley has long complained that more money needs to go toward the classroom, rather than administration.

As Zais points out, that's precisely where the "base student cost" - considered a bellwether for state support - goes, in the form of salaries: "We ought to try and at least maintain funding for classroom operations."

"While the governor and I disagree on the dollar amount directed to the base student cost, we're in complete agreement that recurring dollars should be used to pay for recurring expenses," Zais said.

Sophistry: the tool of confidence men, fortune-tellers, magicians and pickpockets.

Try this: While the superintendent and I disagree on the need for public education funding, the Constitution and I are in complete agreement that the legislature is specifically empowered to raise the revenues necessary to fully fund the state's essential obligations and institutions.

Haley's budget also does not annualize the $20 million in one-time "hold harmless" money sent to districts to cover shortfalls due to an adjustment to a state funding formula. And it reduces lottery money to K-12 schools by $11.3 million, in order to fully fund lottery-funded college scholarships.

Items Haley highlighted when releasing her $5.7 billion budget plan include further tax cuts - reducing revenue from state and corporate income taxes by $140 million - and the addition of about 100 law enforcement officers. She would put $75 million of one-time money toward encouraging counties to take over the maintenance of some state roads.

The conservative South Carolina Policy Council says Haley is right to insist that education by funded only with recurring money.

"If increasing base student funding is a priority, it should be treated as a priority, not a benevolent afterthought," said spokesman Barton Swaim, who formerly worked for Sanford. "All this confusion highlights the fact that our funding structure doesn't make sense. Our K-12 education system isn't underfunded - it's funded inefficiently."

Translation: It isn't that we're not feeding our children enough, it's that we're feeding them a little bit from four major food groups, three times a day, when one Flintstones chewable a day would be more efficient.

On the plus side of the equation, Haley would give the statewide public charter school district an additional $10 million.

"The problem that I think we've had in the past with government is we tend to just look at the dollars that go into education."

Yes, I can see where that's a problem. When citizens can look at a budget document and see how many or, har har, how few dollars go specifically to public education, it tends to impede the governor's ability to undermine, dismantle and privatize public education and other services. Apparently, parents want their schools to be funded at ever-increasing levels, similar to the annual increases in cost-of-living, inflation and the forces of the free market. It's as if they take to heart that old saw from the King James: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

I don't want us to do that anymore. It's not what we get; it's how we spend it," she said, adding that's why she put more money toward charters.

Hm. Sage advice. It's not what we don't have, it's how we manage the void.

I can see Haley telling a poor family at Thanksgiving: It's not important that you have no turkey and dressing with all the trimmings, it's important that you have a whole afternoon free, since you won't be napping from turkey overload.

Or, telling poor children at Christmas: It's not important that Santa Claus brought you no toys, it's important that you swallow your disappointment at those in whom you previously placed your trust.

Or, telling slaves on our old antebellum plantations: It's not important that you're deprived of freedom, and of learning to read and write, it's only important that you have plenty of time and opportunity to get your work done.

Hilariously, even Haley's own charter-school lieutenant undercut her specious argument:

Superintendent Wayne Brazell said that money would only cover student growth in his statewide district, which consists of charter schools that chose not to organize through their local district.

Remember, several years ago, when local school boards were refusing to approve charters for fly-by-night bands and snake-oil salesmen to open charter schools in their districts -- and siphon precious public dollars from their district budgets -- former Governor Mark Sanford pushed lawmakers to set up a statewide charter school district with its own board of trustees.

So Haley's generosity toward charters in this budget proposal only benefits the charters who couldn't get approved by their local boards and had to resort to the Sanford dodge to open their doors. That's nice. It sends a good message to the children: Play by rules and lose; create loopholes and win! Yay!

The $10 million would be on top of the $25 million legislators added in the current school year, to help make up for the fact its schools get no local taxes. Ironically, since the district otherwise relies on base student cost, Haley's budget actually reduces per-student spending on its schools.

Haley redirected some money that comes in through the penny sales tax added under the 1984 Education Improvement Act. That penny funds specific things such as gifted and talented programs, summer school, student testing, 4-year-old kindergarten, and bonuses for teachers with a national certification. Both Zais and Haley recommend closing that incentive program to new entries.

The penny is expected to generate an additional $42 million over the recurring amount legislators budgeted for this year, to nearly $607 million. However, after factoring in a one-time allocation from a previous surplus, the extra is less than $9 million.

New programs she funds include $2 million toward Teach for America, which puts top college graduates who didn't major in education into low-income schools, and $1.75 million to launch a STEM curriculum, which stands for Science Technology Engineering Math, aimed at preparing students for careers in technology.

Education Oversight Committee director Melanie Barton praised the additions of those EOC initiatives.

"Having successful leaders in the classrooms of our most challenged schools is critical to change the expectations and culture of many of our schools," she said.

This hurts my brain.

The leader of the Education Oversight Committee affirms that "having successful leaders in the classrooms of our most challenged schools is critical." Yet she praises the Haley plan, which (1) reduces per-student spending, (2) eliminates incentives for National Board certification, a program to improve the quality of classroom professionals, and (3) diverts funding from four-year-old kindergarten to pay for Teach for America (aka Teach for A While), a program that "puts top college graduates who didn't major in education" into the most critical classrooms for only two years.

This is praiseworthy? I understand that the EOC isn't really a body of educators -- even some of its "educator appointees" are business people rather than education professionals -- but praising an anti-education budget for its scraps and crumbs is weak.

Haley also added $10 million for technology and $2 million to help failing schools while eliminating money for some university-sponsored programs. She puts $5 million toward leasing school buses, as she pursues legislation transferring bus responsibilities to districts.

"I don't want to buy any more school buses," Haley said.

Well, that's what it's all about: What Haley wants.

I don't want to look at how many dollars we spend, she says. I don't want to buy any more school buses. I don't want to pay for any more textbooks or dictionaries. I don't want to hire any more teachers. I don't want to keep SCETV on the air. I don't want to pay retirement benefits to our public employees. I don't want to provide health insurance to anyone. I don't want to build any more schools. I don't want to read criticism from newspaper editors. I don't want to talk to reporters who print what I say and make me look foolish. I don't want my support for Mitt Romney to count against me. I don't want to learn about Caesar's wife from John Rainey. I don't want Darla Moore to overshadow me. I don't want to hear any more about transparency. I don't want anyone to question me. All I want is to be obeyed.

Her spokesman Rob Godfrey used that as an example for how her budget increases money for K-12: "It doesn't burn tens of millions of dollars on buying buses, which are expensive, which rapidly depreciate, and which we don't need to own anymore," he said.

The state hasn't spent "tens of millions" on buses in years.


Yeah, that's right. Scrapped school buses from Alabama and Kentucky and Tennessee don't cost tens of millions of dollars; those states may even pay us to come and take the buses off their hands.

The current budget designates up to $12.3 million for new buses from unclaimed lottery prizes - the first designation for buses since 2007. The education agency has received about one-third of that, said Zais, who added he's fine with decentralizing buses.

Zais did request $36 million to buy enough new school buses to comply with the state's 15-year replacement cycle law, to get buses from the mid-80s off the road. Legislators have ignored that law since passing it.

Of course they have. This is South Carolina, where the law is a mighty rubbery thing.

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