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.”

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Why do you insist on NOT including federal, trust lands, one-time, capital etc etc. when calculating per student spending?

Why do you say that including these amounts is inaccurate and misleading? Aren't these real tax dollars and shouldn't taxpayers be credited for paying these?

Wouldn't you expect a taxpayer group to include these when calculating how much taxpayers are spending on education?

Natalie said...

FYI - Trust land monies are not taxpayer funds. They come from the trust.

Anonymous said...

Natalie,

If government collects money, it's automatically taxpayer money. It doesn't matter where it comes from. Someone is paying this money to the government. If they weren't paying it, it would stay in the private sector.

Even interest on trust or reserve funds are taxpayer dollars because government originally got that money either from the private sector or the private sector would have had that money if government didn't. If that money had never been diverted from the private sector, then the private sector would have spent and/or invested the money.

It's not like the state of Utah can just make money appear from nowhere. Otherwise, the state could fund everything because they could just make the money appear.

You're making an argument similar to Real Salt Lake when they said that hotel taxes are largely paid by out-of-state tourists and therefore these are not Utah tax dollars. They were wrong to say that because these are still revenues that government collects and has an obligation to spend appropriately.

UtahTeacher said...

Anonymous,

I agree exactly with your last paragraph about the stadium. However, the trustlands are really a much murkier line of tax burden. I could definitely be wrong here, but as I understand it, the government never paid anyone for these lands in the first place. They have just been appropriated as government property since statehood. So I agree they could have been in private or state hands and possibly be contributing to private industry, and thus in some indirect line, could be seen as coming out of our pockets, but claiming the dollar amount paid out to schools now as some sort of tax burden now is a stretch.

The real problem with the UTA's methodology is that their statewide lump-sum method is actually inaccurate for any specific school district and makes voucher funding and charter school funding harder for everyone to understand--Joe Q. Public and legislator alike.

It is only useful in the broadest sense of comparing the education expenditures of states with different populations, and even then it is only a fizzy picture. If one state has enough schools to house their students, and the neighboring state is paying millions for the construction of many schools while the same number of kids currently are crammed into over-crowded facilities, the first state would actually be serving their students better while the second state would come off much better in per-student spending if calculated UTA style.

UtahTeacher said...

Anon,

I will write a longer post about UTA's current $7,009/$7500 in the next couple days. I have been wanting to write about that anyway with UTA's newest newsletter out and the charter school funding bill that was part of SB2.

Anonymous said...

If it is money that could have gone to the private sector, it has to be seen as tax dollars.

And as I said previously, these are still tax dollars no matter what the source. If government did not spend these dollars on education, they could

- spend the money elsewhere
- cut our taxes

Anonymous said...

As far as "one state serving their students better", I think you are missing the point.

If government is going to forcibly tax our property to fund school construction, then these dollars should be included in our tax burdens. And if government is going to tax us and spend the money on education, then it should at least give taxpayers credit for coughing up the money.

In the interest in open government, should school districts be required to state "even though we will be raising your taxes to build these new schools, these REALLY aren't tax dollars nor are these dollars going to be counted towards education spending."

Anonymous said...

If we are going to assume that school construction costs are just "pretend" money, should we count capital costs when evaluating transportation spending?

And if you reply that transportation spending is largely capital-driven, should we then exclude transportation M&O costs?

Anonymous said...

UTA's spending report, or at least the ones I've seen in the past, have a district-by-district breakdown.

Anonymous said...

If you are going to criticize UTA's lump-sum comparison, then you must also criticize NCES and Census state-by-state lump-sum comparisons as well.

It seems to me that the only useful comparisons in your opinion are those that demonstrate that Utah isn't spending enough.

UtahTeacher said...

If you are going to criticize UTA's lump-sum comparison, then you must also criticize NCES and Census state-by-state lump-sum comparisons as well.

It seems to me that the only useful comparisons in your opinion are those that demonstrate that Utah isn't spending enough.


I believe all 3 of those state-by-state comparisons put Utah last. And all 3 are useful for general, blunt comparisons of state spending on education, but give very little detail. UTA figures just obscure the mater slightly more than the other two.

This is not meant to argue that we should fund education up to the national average--I don't think it's possible. My particular beef with UTA's methodology is how those numbers are then twisted to misrepresent how money is actually distributed among the students, which then impacts understanding and discussion of voucher funding and charter school funding.

Cameron said...

"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?”"

It's an increase in total funding.

This is the problem that the class size reduction fund had. They allocated "extra" money specifically for class size reduction, but since enrollment increased more than even the most generous estimates, class sizes weren't reduced. But that doesn't mean the money wasn't spent, or that the effort wasn't made.

Anonymous said...

How does UTA's comparison obscure the matter when UTA's report doesn't do state-by-state comparisons?Theirs is district by district and state total for Utah only.

UtahTeacher said...

Hi Cameron.

But the legislature often misrepresents that effort and spins it as more than it is, or claims that the districts are wasting the money rather than admitting growth is absorbing it. And the Utah Foundation has found that the percentage of state funding going towards public ed. has decreased measurably in the last 10 years.

Look at a simple world where a state schools 10 kids for $1000. Polls of the simple public consistently find that funding education is their #1 concern. 10 more kids move in and the legislature increases the funding to $2000 dollars which pays for the teachers and the same programs once the district citizens vote for a 10 year property tax bond to build a new school to alleviate the crowding of the original. The legislators then run for re-election as the candidates that "doubled education funding." It is true in that "damn statistics" sort of way, but not as ennobling as they would have you believe.

The past three years in Utah have seen percentage increase beyond that, but the basic level of funding is required by the state constitution and the legislature's own funding formulas. The added salary on top of that has been much appreciated, but as I said, the largest surpluses in state history made those no-brainers.

Cameron said...

Hi UT. Good to read your posts again. BTW, I'm not the anon poster.

"but not as ennobling as they would have you believe."

It's a very good point. And it relates to this next point:

"the Utah Foundation has found that the percentage of state funding going towards public ed. has decreased measurably in the last 10 years."

That's a real statistic. I just printed off one of the UF's papers, but I haven't read their stuff yet. It sounds like I need to pronto.

The Leg rightly says that total monies have increased, but if the percentage of the total budget that goes towards education actually decreased, well, that's a big deal.

UtahTeacher said...

Cameron,

Good to be back. School is out now and I would have posted even more if my wife wasn't out of town. I hope to hit quite a few things over the next couple weeks. And I never had the slightest suspicion that you were my anonymous discussion partner. I need to get him/her to register a handle just to keep things straight.

Here's the July '07 Utah Foundation report:
http://www.utahfoundation.org/research/rr680.html

I am planing to agree/disagree with their most recent report about classroom size reduction in the next couple days. By the way, I learned that at least half of current classroom is reduction monies are by rule earmarked for K-2 classes as you suggested.