Saturday, February 11, 2012

Kershaw public school parent demands, "Show me the money"

Public school educators have been raising the issue since 1977, when the Education Finance Act was first adopted. It was a compromise, which means it didn't meet the complete need even then. Still, it established the base student cost, a formula-driven dollar amount that South Carolina lawmakers would appropriate each year to fund public schools statewide.

That commitment didn't last a hot minute.

And in the 34 years since 1977, lawmakers have felt moved to fully fund that base student cost fewer than 10 times.

More often than not, they funded other budget priorities first, then shoe-horned the state's remaining revenue into the education budget and called it the base student cost.

This year is a great example. The EFA dictates that the base student cost should be nearly $3,000 per child. South Carolina's lawmakers appropriated only $1,880 per child -- the same funding level they appropriated in 1989.

That's what passes for commitment to quality public education in our state.

O, yes, we passed an additional penny on the sales tax in 1984, called that the Education Improvement Act and kept truckin'. Sadly, a lot of lawmakers consider the revenue from that penny to be the only revenue that they are obligated to use in funding public schools. That's called "supplanting" funds.

And -- so sorry, but -- when revenues from that penny are thin, thanks to a bad economy or a recession, the answer from lawmakers is always the same: That's all we have to give, we can't afford any more.

O, they say it like they hate it. They wring their hands and shake their heads from side to side. They look at the floor around your shoes as if there might be some more money laying there. They look so disappointed when they don't see any.

But we can always afford another corporate tax break, though, can't we?

So, from the perspective of an educator, it's always heartening to see parents get on board and ask the same questions, as Kershaw County's Robert Price is doing now.

An electrician by day, Robert Price spends most of his free time on somewhat of a crusade. He wants to change the way education is funded in South Carolina.

"Other than sit around and talk in the bars and complain or talk at church and complain, or talk at work and complain; what can I do to really be effective to help open the eyes of the political people who fund the education system?”

Price, who has a daughter in the Kershaw school system, is launching a petition drive to change the formula state lawmakers use to fund education.

He says the law requires the state spend $2,790 on each student every year; but they're only spending $1,880. Price wants to know where that money is going.

"Not one dime has the governor planning to give to public education, out of 900 million dollars. There’s something wrong with that picture, I don't care if Picasso paints it."

Speak, Mr. Price, speak.

But be careful, Mr. Price, and be not misled. "Funding reform" does not always mean more funding will make it into the public schools. If you take a dollar from your right pocket and put it in your left pocket, you still have a dollar. You can fold that dollar and slide it into your shirt pocket, roll it up and perch it on your ear if you want, but you still have your same dollar.

At the State House in Columbia, lawmakers are very skillful at spooning a million dollars out of one line item and saying they'll put that million dollars on another line item in the name of "funding reform." Problem is, a lot of dollars fall out of the spoon between here and there. They may say that, in the name of "funding reform," we've made some policy changes that result in greater efficiency.

Lawmakers love greater efficiency, Mr. Price, because it's a great distraction from the fact that fewer dollars wind up in the final accounting. Remember: It's all about the dollars. And in the end, lawmakers will congratulate YOU for helping them to achieve "funding reform."

I checked the website that features your petition drive. On its front page, it reads,

School funding is unpredictable and unstable, reform is needed to provide the quality of education we want for our students in South Carolina.

We are in the process of getting 25,000 signatures on a petition for education funding reform. This petition will be submitted to lawmakers in Columbia. It is our expectation that this will have a positive impact and they will respond by carrying out reform that will improve the education received by the children in South Carolina.

Uh-oh. I see a lot of "reform" but I don't see anything demanding lawmakers to fully fund public education, to fully fund even the base student cost. And if I don't see it, you can bet your last money that lawmakers won't see that either.

So I clicked through to the "Mission Statement" page, and it read,

The Citizens for Education Finance Reform in South Carolina organization is a non-profit, non-political, organization with the sole purpose of convincing the South Carolina House of Representatives and the South Carolina Senate to overhaul the funding structure for K-12 education in the state of South Carolina in order to provide a predictable funding stream and equitable funding for the educational needs of all students, regardless of where they live.

Ooh, I get nervous when I hear that we're asking lawmakers to "overhaul" a funding system.

I know what that means to me: I want lawmakers to guarantee that they'll fund what it costs to provide high quality education to every child, including yours.

But I also know what "overhaul" means to lawmakers who already believe that we spent too much money on public schools. It means to spend the least money we can to achieve the best results from the most children. That means what "funding reform" always means: Children of important folks in important places will get what they ask for, while the rest of us... well, Mr. Price, the rest of us won't keep getting what we've always gotten; we'll get even less, in the name of "funding reform."

And when getting even less yields even worse results, our elected leaders will say they gave us the reform we asked for, so if it isn't working, the teachers must not be performing.

The teachers.

The same teachers who've been saying since 1977 that a compromised base student cost was insufficient to provide a high-quality public education to every child.

And we're back where we started, except that our children will get another year older, and our school boards will be strapped for cash one more year, and life goes on, and on, and on.

You have to be specific with our elected leaders, Mr. Price. Many of them are slick as greased pigs on May Day. You ask them for "funding reform" and an "overhaul" and that's exactly what they'll give you -- and that lonely dollar you've been moving from pocket to pocket will be just as lonely tomorrow.

To get what you want, you have to be specific: Call the Devil by his name. If it costs $3,000 to educate your child this year, demand $3,000. If it's $4,000, demand $4,000.

Meanwhile, Mr. Price, thank you. The more we are, the stronger we are.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for an enlightening view of the politics of funding overhaul.