by Gayle Plato, M. Ed.
Education funding, the liberal’s beaten poster child, never reflects reality nor sees the light of day. Ask any state legislator, “How does the state actually fund money for schools”, and you’ll get a description of per-pupil base support, phrases like large capital (the buildings and big stuff), soft capital for desks, and transportation. In addition, when you say things like, “Why don’t we dictate how many ___ or fire all of the ____,” their eyes glaze. Your cracked pot on which you stand is crumbling like art of Piestewa Area 51 notoriety. You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Of course not. Because the average citizen cannot just look up the state budget for education and have ANY clear picture of how the money is allocated. At a recent town hall meeting of Americans for Prosperity, I heard two budget experts trying to explain the line item veto in regards to programs that Governor Brewer crossed out. The experts were confused, and they read this every day. I challenge anyone reading this with a child in an Arizona public school: please tell me how much your child’s district gets for your student? Nobody truly knows. Yet the teachers’ unions are screaming, the liberal lobbying groups including our beloved Arizona Republic complain daily about the state being near the bottom in spending. Since when, in the history of public funding, is spending less a BAD THING? I want to know if amount spent is showing a return! Why invest more in a system rising in cost and producing lousy products? Students in Arizona are GMs-SUV gas guzzling Jimmys. We are the ones going bankrupt to build these lousy products.
“Following the formula through state financial documents, however, is
complicated. For example, in the Statement of Revenues and Expenditures in the Arizona Superintendent’s Annual Financial Report for 2006-07, state revenues received by school districts are reported according to enrollment-based formulas, categories of spending and Proposition 301 funds collected from a 2000 tax increase to be used specifically for teacher base pay increases, teacher performance pay and certain maintenance and operations programs.3 Within the Statutory Formula Programs section is the Basic State Aid, as well as additional enrollment determined categories. However, in the State Summary of Financial Data, Basic State Aid is not a line item. Rather, state revenues for the classroom are categorized as Maintenance & Operations, Classroom Site Fund, and Instructional Improvement Fund. There is no direct link between the two. Further, some of the statutory formula funds, such as for soft capital outlay, are broken out separately. This is all very convoluted, but the point is that the system lacks transparency and,therefore, accountability.” (http://www.goldwaterinstitute.org/article/3170)
We spend approximately half of our state budget on education: the cost problem is simple. Throw out the formula as it is not relevant. During a state time of open enrollment, where children can move freely between districts, per-pupil costs get muddy. Do we properly track transportation costs? My son cannot take a bus as he’s from ‘out of district’. Where do his travel bucks go? Doesn’t seem they go with him, and when I asked at the districts, no one seemed to have a clue. Price per desks, cost of books, transportation based on district boundaries: the terms themselves are not current. Kids don’t sit in individual desks all in row reading Dick and Jane. North Phoenix /Scottsdale schools use smart boards and lap tops, while lower income classes are still huffing dry erase pens in stuffy portables, sharing antiquated IT in backwards labs. Who are we kidding about equalization of funding?
This is not Left v. Right. This is the Past v. Present. We are using formulas that carry over from a time when tabulation was done by hand. We can track every child and know where he is sitting every hour, put it in a data file, and have to the state by the close of the school day. Technology is supposed to HELP STREAMLINE.
Regular Education: Offer a flat rate per child and let the districts sort it out.
All problems and costs beyond a flat rate based on the per student funding are up to the local citizens. Our Constitution mandates and recommends fiscal debate be with the majority of the people it impacts. Define the state amount based on pupil attendance. Determine an average cost for elementary and secondary regular education. Let them levy, bond, budget cut, or have bake sales. As a libs would say—buy and sell local.
Special Education: Get the state out of the way.
Federal funding tabulation does not need to go through the state as districts could submit data directly and get monies according to programs and students. Why do we filter all programs? Bureaucracy is the problem, with lots of made up jobs of cheese movers and crumb counters. Budget analysis is antiquated and fraught with waste.
Funds Follow Students
We are paying for kids to learn. The flat rate follows the child, and this should be accomplished in darn near real time. If the IRS moves to a majority of us electronically filing, with greater accuracy and less fraud, our education allocation can handle monitoring of students on a state level.
Emergency Funds are Temporary
Any school failing, falling down, feverishly growing, or facing crisis, needs to fill out specific requests with absolute cost analysis and face detailed scrutiny. This is the key for all state allocation problems. Our state gets in the middle of programming issues and temporary concerns, and then NEVER moves. We move the cheese and then let it mold.
No one, on a state level can mandate district decisions, but we are forced to pay for district mistakes. When any blogger writes, let’s fire all of the low-end administrators (yes I said that basically), all state level politicians literally laugh. Why? Because our ocean of debt is infiltrated by schools of jellyfish: endomorphic gelatinous blobs that float where they please, with far-reaching tentacles that sting all that swim. We allow schools to bite the hands that feed them. Make the districts grow up and balance the books, or the parents will vote the boards out and down all bonds.
Arizona creates odd mandates of building funds or programs like all-day Kindergarten. We allocate for a temporary need or local desire but then do not allow oversight, limits on pilot funds, or change as needed. If a district needs help with old buildings, let’s give official options for the emergency—not ongoing support. If a district wants all-day Kindergarten, we cannot line item it in for political points one year, but then not have ANY state control for fear of getting voted out. That fear is the sting that’s killing us all.