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Moving Toward Fee-For-Service

October 23, 2014

I scoured 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 rationale for 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. Their thinking was prompted by the experiences of  states where budget caps were forcing districts to cut things like field trips, elective courses and school clubs and school-based organizations were picking up the costs through private donations. In effect, the business community was seeking to shift the burden away from broad-based taxes toward the end users…. that is making public schooling a fee-for-service enterprise like, say, trash collection.

At the same time as this idea was being floated in the county, 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 a higher level in hopes of providing their students with an equitable opportunity, the business community was trying to find ways to offset the effects of the loss of State funds they sought through capping taxes 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 a fee-for-service model was in the early 1980s with the institution of a fee for 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 student 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 lead schools in 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 mandate transportation for students within that range. In Hanover NH, the district I led in the early 2000s, I inherited a plan whereby the district charged athletic fees each season that covered all of the non-personnel costs for sports that were in place when the fee was instituted. The rationale was that Little Leagues and soccer programs charged fees and parents were accustomed to paying for their children to participate in those town-sponsored activities. I found many of these fees troubling, but I knew that 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. By the time I retired three years ago, the charging of fees for service, once rare, was increasingly 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 or even tutoring— can be outsourced to lower the budget without compromising the education program.
  • 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 if not their own community. 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.

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