Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTimes article, “Nation’s Wealthy Places Pour Private Money Into Public Schools, Study Finds” in hopes of finding a quote explaining the underlying effect of the trend described in the headline, which is to move schools toward a fee-for-service model as opposed to a public utility model.
Several years ago when I was Superintendent in MD in the mid 1990s, some leaders of the local business community introduced the idea of creating a foundation to fund some elements of the budget that they felt were discretionary. The exemplars they offered were from states where budget caps were pushing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs. At the same time I was serving on a State “Blue Ribbon” panel created by the Governor that was examining the funding formula in the state. In retrospect, I can see the connection between these two initiatives more clearly. While the legislators serving the less affluent districts in MD were trying to raise the State’s base contributions to ever higher levels, the business community was trying to find ways to offset their hoped for loss of State funds by developing “workarounds”.
Over the next 15 years I witnessed a continuation of this tug-of-war between those favoring an increased base in school funding and those advocating a de facto “fee-for-service” model, a tug-of-war that manifests itself in the following ways:
- The portrayal of “public schools” as “government run schools”: As the American public’s suspicion of anything associated with the government increased as a result of their belief that “government is the enemy” the so-called “school reformers” re-branded “public schools as “government run schools”. Raising taxes for a “program run but the government” would not meet favor with voters who believe that “the marketplace” can spend more wisely.
- The increased acceptance that fees are an acceptable means of providing non-mandated programs: My first experience with fee-for-service was in the 1980s with the institution of a fee doe Drivers Education based on the rationale that Drivers Ed was not a graduation requirement and taking the course provided a benefit only to those students whose parents could afford a car for the stunt to drive. In effect, it was an effort to shift the overall cost of an education program that benefits affluent students away from taxpayers who arguably needed relief. When I went to Exeter NH I inherited a district policy that required high school students to pay for the bus if they lived within 3 miles of the school building based on the rationale that State law did not require it. In New Hampshire, the district I led instituted athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel budget for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. I found many of these fees troubling, but undoing a practice that creates a revenue stream is extremely difficult in a time when many other pressing priorities were in play. Moreover, whenever fees were debated in budget sessions members of the public and Board members would cite practices in CA and several midwestern states where book fees, activity fees, and athletic fees are commonplace.
- The increase in privatizing services within schools: As noted in prior posts, schools typically privatize transportation, food services, special education related services, and many non-instructional services related to business operations and technology. With every portion of the budget that is privatized it becomes increasingly easy to argue that another segment of the budget— say music lessons— can be outsourced and money saved.
- The narrowing of the mission of public education: While much has been written about mission creep in public education, including an article I wrote for a local newspaper over five years ago, the reality is that legislators and the voting public increasingly see school funding being limited to those courses that are graduation requirements and whose focus is academic. The standardized testing regimen as only made this worse by effectively de-emphasizing art, music, and physical education in favor of “academics” at the elementary level and viewing secondary education as preparation for work or college. This narrowing of the content results in schools shedding “non-essential” programs in the arts and “non-essential” electives and extracurricular activities in high schools adding to the joylessness for students and driving parents to either enroll their children in after school elective programs or take their children out of school completely.
- The expansion of the fee-for-service model across all government services: The “government is the enemy” mentality has increased the level of privatization in other government agencies including the armed forces, parking, and, yes, the return of toll roads.
These trends do not bode well for those who advocate an increase in the base in school funding, especially given the acceptability of the workarounds for affluent parents. Given the choice between higher taxes to provide physical education and the arts for all children and paying a fee to enroll their children in arts programs and physical activities their children enjoy it is not surprising that parents accept the less robust program in their schools. From the taxpayers perspective, it is an even easier decision: low taxes will always trump services for children in another town. Without the full throated advocacy for equitable funding for all schools, funding that would require the same per pupil expenditures as the most affluent districts now pay, we will never have true equity of opportunity…. and the fees will keep increasing.
The NYTimes headline reads “Nation’s Confidence Ebbs at a Steady Drip” and Peter Baker, the author of the piece, fails to connect the dots and come to the obvious conclusion: the steady loss of confidence is a victory for the oligarchs who started the “government is bad” meme and kept the drumbeat going with every chance it had… and the combination of inept political leadership and diminishing government resources is paying off! Anything with a “government” label attached is ipso facto incompetent and anything run by the private sector in a marketplace free from regulations is ipso facto superior. So those who own and operate deregulated corporations are benefitting and the rest of us are suffering…. especially the children raised in poverty who are left being in those “government schools” and whose parents get fewer and fewer benefits… unless they work for a company that pays them minimum wages in which case they “earn their food stamps” (sic).
And as we come to a national and local elections that are bought and paid for by the “dark money” of the oligarchs, voters are staying home in droves because the system is rigged so that the primary elections yield only mirror image candidates. Getting the government confidence back on track will require an investment by taxpayers… but getting that investment requires faith that the spending will be worth it. When you vote in a couple of weeks, select the candidate who is willing to break this vicious circle. It’s the only way “government schools” will rebound.
Today’s NYTimes editorial page blog, Taking Note, has a short post by Vikas Bajaj titled “Republicans Against Toll Roads“. The blog talks about the pushback TX Republican legislators are getting as a result of their decision to fund road improvements through tolls instead of gasoline taxes. But voters are getting what they are paying for… and MAYBE the pushback in TX will spread the same way their current thinking about charging fees instead of taxes has spread.
As I noted in a comment I left on the blog, Texas’ Republican’s view of “the commons” is different from the rest of the country… but seemingly the thinking of Texas is spreading. IN, IL, and WI are all talking about toll roads as a workaround to tax increases which were needed because the mpg on cars was resulting in lower fuel consumption. But the “fee for service” model in TX has spread to schoos as well. Their public education funding is based on the same kind of premise: they underfund school districts who then charge fees to make up the difference. Texas is ranked 45th in the country in per capita spending, up from 49th. Prisons, though, are a GOOD place to spend if you’re a TX legislator! TX has more people in prison than ANY state and keeps spending even though it had 11,000 empty beds in 2013.
It would be nice if TX was an anomaly… but what has happened in TX mirrors what is happening in our country as a whole where we are cutting social spending but adding to a military budget that has excess capacity. MAYBE the outback in TX is a harbinger of what will happen across our country in the near future.
Mokoto Rich’s latest NYTImes article on Philadelphia schools describes the continuing plight of the district due to the lack of money. This paragraph offers a look at the general and particular impact of the funding shortfall on the schools:
Such is the state of austerity across Philadelphia, where this fall, the schools almost did not open on time, and the district has eliminated 5,000 staff positions and closed 31 schools over the last two years. Feltonville (MS with roughly 800 students)… has lost 15 teachers, two assistant principals, two guidance counselors, an office secretary, three campus police officers, 10 aides who supervised the cafeteria and hallways, and an operations officer, who oversaw most of the school’s day-to-day logistics.
The article is primarily about the conflict between the teachers union and the board that oversees Philadelphia schools over the ongoing negotiations needed to balance the budget and the State’s funding formula which is the underlying cause of the problem. What is NOT mentioned, however, are the huge tax breaks the current Governor and mayor offered to businesses locoed in Philadelphia and elsewhere in the state… and those lost resources are as much a factor as the funding formula itself.
I’ve written several blog posts on Philadelphia schools, which is where I got my start as a middle school math teacher in 1970. I am saddened every time I read an article that described the funding problems the school faces and the draconian measures the district has taken to close the funding gaps. In my judgment, every single article about funding problems should contain at least one sentence describing the tax breaks business have received because that is a far better source of revenue than squeezing money out of sin taxes on cigarettes and diminishing salaries that are already 20% lower than those of nearby school districts.
And here’s a cartoon that shows the Philadelphia situation: substitute “Philadelphia Schools” for the cat at the bow of the boat and you get the picture….