Monday, July 10, 2006

Educating Staff, Pt. 1

Staff at Buckeye State has been taking issue with some recent statements on this blog about education funding. This is the first of two which will be posted here.

Why here? Why now?

I'm posting here for a couple of reasons. First off, putting this togther is taking some serous time. Putting together Part 1, which is stuff I've been studying for three years now, took a long time. Part 2 involves some research and therefore will take even longer. That's a hell of a lot of effort for a comment to refute what was essentially a potshot.

I had been working on the "Tone" post for a few days when the stuff with BSB started. The post wasn't in specific response to that. Still what I said in that post holds true. I have a comments section. It works. People use it. If someone has a question or argument about something I've posted, they are welcome to drop a comment and I'll respond when I can, and if it takes a lot of work that's fine; it's grist for my blog. But I'm not interested in putting this kind of time into generating content elsewhere. Especially when my first attempt was studiously ignored.

As to why now -- I had a busy weekend and a busy Monday. In addition, I was fairly pissed at how this went down. I don't particularly want to take part in a war, so I waited to cool down a bit.

To reset the dispute itself. In my Educate and Obfuscate post I mentioned that K-12 and higher education are hurting for money. Staff pulled up NEA state-by-state data for the 2003-04 school year (the last year for which NEA has the data up.) Those data show that Ohio is mid-range for teacher salaries and class size and 16th in per-pupil spending.

Now here’s the thing. I’ve been blogging about education for as long as I’ve been blogging. I’ve written some almost absurdly detailed posts about the funding system. I’ve written about volunteering as a school funding advocate, about working on levy campaigns and about my recently acquired gig as an organizer for the Ohio School Funding Campaign. I’m not claiming to know all about school funding, but I have some game. When I find an article that advocates eliminating net neutrality rules, I don’t immediately declare Bill Callahan wrong. In fact, what I’ve done in that situation is contact Bill. Because he’s forgotten more about the issue than I’ll ever know.

So Staff shouting “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” based on one data set is a bit presumptuous, though not terribly surprising.

My reply to Staff’s first post is here. It’s not terribly detailed, but I thought the reply at the least explained why debate as to the meaning of the NEA numbers is open. Well apparently Staff disagrees, though he didn’t reply to my comment. Instead he seized on this post to accuse me of demagoguery. Apparently the question of school funding levels is settled and all that’s left is what to call me.

Let’s get two things settled up front. First off, demagoguery. I am not advancing arguments I know to be false, nor am I stoking prejudices against identifiable groups -- the two elements of the dictionary definition of demagoguery. Staff is welcome to disagree with me, but don't accuse me of lying. I don't believe this stuff because it's my job, I do my job because I believe this stuff.

Second, both posts talked about both K-12 and higher education. Staff doesn’t dispute that Ohio is shortchanging higher ed, so let’s at least apply that fact to both of my posts. Maybe I’m only a demi-demagogue.

OK, into the heart of the dispute. Staff’s argument is that since Ohio is at least “average” on a number of benchmarks, the problem is “distribution” rather than overall funding. Rather than spend more money, we simply need to repair the system.

Two interrelated problems with Staff’s argument: the data he sites are too old to be of use and he overreads the import of the data. Simply because it is easier on me, I'm handling the second one first.

Staff’s argument for simply distributing the money more “efficiently” appears to be based on a misunderstanding of how schools are funded in Ohio. It’s true the system fails to distribute resources effectively, but that is in large part due to Ohio’s over-reliance on local property tax revenues to fund schools.

As I pointed out in the comments the his first post, high-wealth districts distort the mean per-pupil expenditure figure by spending far above the mean. As a result, the distribution is absurdly skewed with an overwhelming majority of school districts below the mean.

Staff’s formulation, apparently, perhaps (he never really says) is to take money from the high-wealth districts and redistribute it elsewhere. This is politically untenable and probably unconstitutional. The high per-pupil expenditures in high-wealth districts result from high property tax collection. Just taking the property tax money won’t work.

What works is raising the amount of state aid. You don’t give more aid to high-wealth districts, and you don’t aim for everyone spending like Beechwood. But you do try to bring school districts up to a level of adequacy. What is that level? Ah, there’s the rub. That’s why all the various plans for funding reform, from the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force to Flannery’s to the ideas currently being discussed all have some sort of costing-out mechanism.

In fact, the state’s failure to cost out was one of the three main inadequacies in the school funding system cited by the Supreme Court in State v. DeRolph. The other two were over-reliance on local property taxes (which see above) and phantom revenue.

I should also note that comprehensive funding reform isn’t currently on the tail end of the appendix to the addendum of the General Assembly’s dance card. It may be that a truly comprehensive reform wouldn’t cost significantly more to anyone outside the high-wealth districts, but instead would involve some sort of tax trade-off – higher income or sales taxes and lower property taxes, for example. In the meantime, most school districts are hurting for money and will continue to hurt until the GA increases the state share.

Finally, as I said the NEA data have some serious deficiencies. First and foremost, they are old. I’m trying to track down the methodology NEA used for putting their charts together as I have some additional suspicions. I will post that later this week.


Anonymous said...

Scott. Maybe you took my post too personally. It was really just a jumping off point to open the discussion. I think after reading this post you and I are fundamentally saying the same thing.

where we differ perhaps is that you believe we should raise taxes to increase the funding to the under funded areas. And sure that would work to some degree. Politically i dont think it is tenable. And levy failures indicate this to be the case too.

I believe that the fundamental starting point is to overhaul the entire tax system, so that schools rely less upon property taxes for funding, which ultimately create the massive inequities in the system. Then if wealthier areas want to maintain their high level of school funding they can increase their local taxes to do so. This i think is far more politically doable - Republican councils and townships raising taxes !

When you look as a whole at the economic problems in Ohio much of it can be traced to the tax code, not just schools, but small businesses too - and large ones.

Which is why i think just throwing more money at poor schools is a bad idea, both in terms of policy and politics.

I dont think this is a debate you can have comprehensively without looking at the entire state budget and tax code to be honest - and neither of us have the time nor resources you would need to produce that kind of plan.

The facts are we are a heavily taxed state that is massively under performing - which indicates significant inefficiencies. You simply have to fix that before doing anything else.

The NEA report isnt that old (a couple of years i think) and i dont think the situation has changed much in recent times. I would agree that that report is however very broad brush and doesnt give the regional insight into the states problems - but it does highlight very clearly it is a distribution problem first and foremost, and not an over all funding problem.

ps, i picked that report over others because i figured folks on the left might be more accepting of it than other outlets for that kind of data. Other stuff i did look at painted a similar picture.

Anonymous said...


I was talking in broader terms than you writing that piece. indicated that not every tax cut the GOP propose is bad - and that Dems had to stop playing that card, and using the extra revenue for more spending argument reflexively - as you did. It's bad politics and not always the best policy either.

Dems are smart people and can figure out lots of ways to increase efficiencies in our government through better policy, including tax and spend policy.

You yourself link to some good ideas on school funding.

Anonymous said...

A thought about the statement that NEA data shows ``Ohio is mid-range for teacher salaries and class size and 16th in per-pupil spending.'' Salaries are tied to teachers' years of experience. I would reckon Ohio districts, on average, have an older teaching force.
That said, teachers, on average, in public schools do fairly well these days compared to several decades ago. Yes, beginning teachers don't do so great...
A neighbor -- with no further education other than her bachelor's degree - made low 60s upon her retirement last year from a suburban Akron district.
Granted, she had 30 years in, but 60K is nothin' to sniffle at. And she didn't work summers, also nothin' to sniffle at. Hope this helps add to the discussion.