Saturday, May 31, 2008

Does the legislature deserve a gold star for education funding?

An article a couple of days ago about the upcoming primary in House District 20 between Rep. Paul Neuenschwander and the challenger, Becky Edwards, contained a comment that has become a common theme of many incumbent legislators this year:
"I voted for over $930 million of new money for education, which is the most ever," he said. "For [Edwards] to say we weren't represented well, that's just baloney. We passed a record tax break and still gave record money to education."
He questions why Edwards is so opposed to the omnibus bills when the only people to vote against it were Democrats.
"If she thinks differently, is she a Republican or a Democrat?"

The Senate Site featured three posts May 7th and 8th , here (ignore the troll posing as a teacher in the comments), here, and here, repeating the plea: Our record education funding increases the past three years show our support of education; stop claiming we’re anti-education. How much credit do you think they deserve?

I wrote about my views on the legislative duty to fund education a couple of months ago. I am glad they gave teachers some excellent and much-appreciated raises the last two years and that they increased the WPU funding. I also applaud the legislature’s prudence in reducing the size of the raises this year when budget projections came in lower than expected. I even like the direct raise to teachers, which wasn’t supported by all teachers and the UEA, even though the legislators made various false insinuations about money “not reaching the end of the row” during the sessions and at various other meetings. But is that all there is to it? Does a raise equal “shut up and sit down?”

And pay attention to the way different opinions spin those numbers differently. A huge part of that total “new” funding (the claimed 73% increase) is just to cover the continued substantial growth they were constantly reminding us of during the voucher debate. If their own formula calls for them to fund each student a certain amount and 10,000 more students start school, is the basic funding required to educate those children an “increase?” Both Bramble and Neuenschwander are including that in their numbers. They are also using the UTA’s method of calculating per student spending to even further falsely inflate the size of their dedication—that means claiming federal funds, state trustlands money distributed and administered separately from state budgets, and district level funding increases, such as Alpine District residents voting themselves a $229 million bond in a property tax increase…all included in UTA’s spending per student figures, as somehow reflecting positively on the state legislature’s attitude towards public education.

So I’ll just repeat some of what I wrote previously:
Legislators are also elected to represent their constituency. This is a moral duty as well as a pragmatic one for those wishing to be re-elected. Polls at the beginning of the last legislative session and for the last few years have consistently shown immense support for increased funding for education, even when the alternative is a tax cut. Wouldn’t further underfunding public education be breaking the public trust?

So I view legislators who increased education funding during the years with the largest (2007) and 3rd largest (2008) budget surpluses ever in the history of the state as doing their duty and enacting the will of the electorate. A solid, admirable job, but not spectacular. That is not the same as fighting for real improvement in education.

The legislature often tacitly defines “gratitude” as unquestioning acceptance of their will, which educators view as insulting and paternalistic. “Look. We “gave” you these raises, so just quit griping about vouchers, top-down merit pay schemes, false accusations, unproven corporate programs, message bills aimed at non-existent educational problems (i.e. flag and Constitution in every classroom), and our removal of local control. You wouldn’t want to make us mad after all we’ve done would you?” That’s not good or “generous” government; that’s ham-handed manipulation.

Bottom line: if you supported vouchers which are inherently designed to weaken and eventually phase out public education and justify an omnibus bill with pet appropriations to unproven programs favored by Howard Stephenson’s lobbyists, voting for necessary increases in times of surplus that still barely cover growth after years of falling behind does not give you a record of supporting public education. At best, it makes you slightly less “anti-public-education.”