Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Education Budget

If someone had asked me a couple months ago what I thought the chances were that I wouldn't blog about this year's legislative session until the 2nd to last day, I would have replied "About the same as the Jazz signing a guy named Sundiata AND a guy named Othyus this year..." Oh well. As always, I hope to blog about some stuff that I saw, but we'll see. I have some things to do, and I realized today that I fell in the same trap as David. It's hard to be both a consistent blogger and balanced otherwise, but once I fall off the wagon, sitting down and composing a thought or argument that I'm happy with becomes more daunting. Then it just becomes easier to follow the session and occasionally stew about it, rather than really buckle down and compose my thoughts.

I was fairly happy with the education budget. Before I criticize him, even Howard Stephenson stepped up early in the session. In this video (which you now can't access unless you're willing to pay well-to-do Republican lobbyist/shill, LaVarr Webb, even more money. I'm not, but I bet a lot of blog regulars are still subscribed to UPD.), he explained to a policy group that a proposed 5% cut on top of not funding growth was actually going to be an 8% cut. And he was even willing to publicly disagree with his red meat buddy, Greg Hughes, when he fought for preserving as much as possible the base WPU budget that hires teachers to keep class size down. I agree with his stated position that the programs are peripheral to this.

Public Education will not receive funding for the approximately 11,000 new students entering the system next year, which depending on which article you read, ends up being a 3 to 4% cut in funding as the new students are absorbed into the existing budget. Then last week, the Senate Republican Caucus decided public ed. needed to share more of the pain and proposed a further 1% cut. It looks like Stephenson's view prevailed, and the programs mentioned in the KCPW article were the principal ones on the chopping block as the budget debate continued. Finally, it appeared that a compromise was reached between the House, Senate, and Governor Herbert to cut only $10 million, or about 1/2 a percent from the budget. I frankly think this is reasonable given the circumstances and was happy with the result. As much as I believe cuts in school nurse funds or having no new library books will hurt next year, I think they are very much preferable to further increasing our class sizes which are already going to increase next year.

That hard fought compromise was upset again when Stephenson slipped in a last minute rider to the budget bill, SB 2--a defeated concept from 2 years ago year, making districts pay more for the education of charter schools students within their boundaries.

Now this is where I really have problems with Stephenson, independent of the concept of the charter school funding shift which I also strongly disagree with. He himself has sponsored anti-federal resolutions this year and decried the lack of transparency in decisions made by Congress. I happen to agree that the backroom meetings, earmarks, and constant vote-buying in Washington are wrong. But Stephenson turns around and proposes a HUGE change in charter school funding that he knows is controversial, and he does it on the second to last day of the session by attaching the change as a parasite to a budget compromise bill arrived at after extensive negotiation. This however, is becoming a standard tactic for Stephenson and charter school funding. The original attempt to shift charter school funding to districts was part of Stephenson's SB 2 in 2008, the omnibus bill, which also was first debated on the 2nd to last day of the session. I guess that makes this year's SB 2 the "minibus bill", smaller and just as ugly. This planned attack was no last minute priority that popped up. Stephenson could have run a charter funding bill and put this through the process just like anything else, but he purposely waited until the last minute to try and ramrod it through. It is dishonest and hypocritical. I have pointed out Stephenson's and other legislators' hypocrisy on this score in the past--they hate hardball tactics and procedural games when someone else does it, but the end justifies the means when it comes to their own pet proposals. Margaret Dayton, an even more strident critic of government interference, also tried to slip her defeated SB 77 into the bill as an amendment. Just because it's allowed doesn't mean it's ethical Senators!

As to Senator Stephenson's rationale for the charter funding changes, I believe he is very disingenuous with his phantom student explanation on the Senate Site. State funds are distributed from state income tax revenues to districts on a per student basis called the WPU. Lose a student, lose the allotment of WPU. Those funds are already given to each charter school and are not the subject of this change and Stephenson knows it. Local property taxes, in contrast, apply only to the residents of a specific school district and are implemented after a vote by those residents in a general election. They are collected to fund specific building projects or as a certain percentage to fund local schools, and make up a chunk of each district's funding over and beyond WPU. Local education property taxes are not collected by nor distributed via the specific number of students. They pay for the general program of classrooms and teachers, and a specific allotment is not saved or spent when a student leaves or enrolls in the district. You can use a blunt fraction to say that there is so much more money per student when a student leaves to a charter school, but claiming that "we are funding phantom students" or that this is some huge "bonus" when a student leaves is willfully deceitful. It is not the same formula as money coming in from the state.

Since the charter boards are not made of publicly elected officials and do not represent geographic areas that could hold a vote, they do not have the power to assess these local taxes. The difference in how much local property tax is coming in is the center of the debate between Canyons and Jordan Districts and one of the fundamental difficulties with funding charter schools. The state has eased that burden for charter schools in the past by sending Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILT funds), to help them have more to spend beyond WPU.

So the true wording of Stephenson's analogy should be "We authorized charter schools as individual districts within a district, but without publicly elected officials or natural constituencies. Their lack of ability to raise local funds has demonstrated the deficiency of state funding when trying to run even a pared down school lacking common facilities such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, or grounds to play soccer. We want to allow these non-elected bodies to access funds the voters approved at the ballot box for their local public school districts. We fabricated "phantom students" in order to justify this "phantom funding" to schools without accountability to our locally elected school board." (To be clear, I have no problem with charter schools themselves. I just hate that the legislature sets public ed. districts and public charter schools against each other and worry about funding problems. Well, I also have problems with the attitudes of some legislators who profit from charter schools. More on that in another post.)

1 comment:

JBT said...

Very well said. There hasn't been a year gone by that Sen. Stephenson hasn't tried to "stick it to" public schools or the UEA in one fashion or another.