Monday, February 1, 2016

Think-About Things

Our fair state of Oklahoma has been undergoing a crisis recently regarding funding of our public education system. Although a little more diversified than 30 years ago, we are still heavily depending for revenue on the production of a primary product, oil. You may ask any Latin American country in the early and middle part of the 20th century how well that works out for revenue when the bottom drops out of the market for your primary product. Be prepared for extensive scoffing.

In addition, our legislature recently passed a series of measures that would trigger tax cuts when projected state revenue collections hit certain levels. When the price for the black gold was high, we hit those targets and the cuts were triggered. But soon afterwards, the price dropped and in addition to the funds we lose from reduced production revenues, we also take a hit from the decreased state income because of the lower tax rate. Every state agency has been directed to cut expenses because the money coming from the state isn't there, and schools are among those hardest hit. A ballot measure from 1992 puts any tax increase to a popular vote if it doesn't get a 75% supermajority in the state legislature, which means that rescinding the cut is an uphill slog.

The president of one of the state's two large universities, David Boren, has gotten a measure on the ballot that would impose a statewide one-cent sales tax to fund education, focusing mainly on teacher salaries, which are lower here than in surrounding states (Edit: This measure is not yet on the ballot but is collecting petitions to see if it can be. My apologies). Sales taxes, of course, are regressive because the amounts take a larger percentage of smaller incomes. They're also often one of the few ways small towns and counties can raise revenue, and this man who lives in a free house and gets paid pretty well by different corporate boards in addition to his university check is president of a place that pays its football coach about 135 times the average salary of a public school teacher.

Recently, the meme at the top of this post gathered some views after it used information from a news story that compared Oklahoma legislators' ranking among their peers to Oklahoma educators' ranking among theirs. The figures used place our lawmakers at 15th in the nation and our teachers at 49th, and the meme then closes with the snarky, "Time to change the pay SAID NO LEGISLATOR EVER."

The meme highlights several things. One is that public policy discussion by meme is as useful as spouse-hunting by restroom wall graffiti. You select for the lowest amount of serious thought and you target people whose goals are probably not your own.

And I'm not at all sure it's a valid comparison. Teachers are generally paid according to a salary system, in which the income they are due is divvied up weekly, biweekly or monthly and then paid out on a nine-month or twelve-month schedule. But while Oklahoma also pays its legislators via salary, some states don't. They pay per day for days the legislature is in session, and all but five of them offer per diem reimbursements for expenses incurred while in session or mileage costs. One, New Mexico, pays only the per diem, and its state legislators receive no compensation. How do you compare actual legislative pay between states that base it on days in session or days worked and those which use annual salaries? What would the rankings look like if you found a good working formula and did that? We'll get right on that, SAID NO MEME EVER.

You can choose to ignore my point of view if you like, and you may want to even more once I tell you I think just about every ranking of teacher pay or per-pupil expenditure is of very limited value in trying to figure out what's needed to repair or improve a public education system. Dollar amounts alone do not tell the whole story: Teachers in Chicago have an average annual salary about 50% higher than Oklahoma's and I don't know of any metric that puts their student performance at 50% better. Of course Chicago teachers face a lot of problems Oklahoma teachers don't, or they face much worse versions of them. But that just highlights how a strict dollar-for-dollar comparison doesn't really tell us what's needed to fix the respective schools.

Solutions like President Boren's will wind up solving very little. Pumping more money into a broken system is like pouring more water into a leaky bucket. It will raise the level briefly but the holes will still drain it, perhaps faster than it comes in. The state legislature and the governor worked together in 1990 to pass an education reform act that allotted half a billion dollars to the state school system over five years and earmarked several revenue streams for the Department of Education alone. Did it do enough to fix the problems? Obviously not. And the subsequent passage of the supermajority requirement for tax increases meant that there was next to no chance of following up the cash infusion from the 1990 act once it ran out, guaranteeing that the same problems the system faced in 1990 would one day resurface.

The problems with salaries and school funding are real: Our teachers are not paid what they should be, nor are our schools funded at the level they should be.

The problems with the revenue stream are real: The tax cut was an iffy idea at best considering how hard it would be to go back to the higher rate when need arose. And it made no sense whatsoever to tie the triggers to projected future income instead of to past or current income or to an average of them over several years.

But the problems with a 19th century educational system are real too. It's organized for an agrarian culture without the ability to artificially cool buildings during summer. Its funding and governing structures assume myriad small populations near to but mostly isolated from each other by slow travel. Its methods and instruction principles have as much to do with the Procrustean production of two-legged voting and tax-paying citizen widgets as they do with educating students for their own growth and flourishing as thinking human beings. That many teachers manage to bring about 21st century people testifies to their ability to work in spite of the system that employs them, not because of it.

Do I know how to fix those problems? It's been 25 years since I followed and covered education for my newspaper and had thorough knowledge of its issues on local and state levels, so no, I probably don't. But I'm not the one who's taking taxpayer money to keep an eye on those things. Elected, appointed and hired public employees are, and it's hard to argue against the idea that they're failing as miserably as did most of their predecessors over the last 50 years to do anything about it.

Given the human ability to la-la-la-la-not-liiiiisten I fear solutions won't come until something completely breaks down and brutal necessity mothers enough invention and courage to try to construct a public education system with the world of the 21st century student in mind. And I also fear that if the state somehow manages to find a Peter with a wallet fat enough to let Paul boost teacher salaries and per-pupil expenditures from their rank in the high 40s to the low 40s or even high 30s, the people who can make that change happen will smile and wave and say they've handled things and la-la-la-la their way long enough that when the problem reappears they'll be sipping retirement coffee and shaking their heads at what the world is coming to and why their barista can't make change.


CGHill said...

This may be the single best commentary on the subject I have yet seen.

Friar said...

Thanks, Charles. I was a hair from not publishing your comment because it felt self-serving, but I've followed your writing for a long time and wanted to be public in saying how much I appreciate the compliment.

CGHill said...

If you'd prefer, I can throw some random words into it and make it look like comment spam. :)

Friar said...

Next time ;-)