Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Thirteen K and What Do You Get?

Ah fall, the season when your local educationa establishment’s fancy greedily turns to thoughts of how they can pry more money from your wallet. All across our fair state local school districts will once again be bringing forward educational referendum for voters to increase levies so that they can “invest” more in our most precious resources. The children are our future don’t-cha-know?

And when these calls for increased local education spending are presented in the most simple terms of investing in our children, they are quite popular. Paul Peterson explains in a WSJ piece called How the Education Spendthrifts Get Away With It:

It's easy to see why candidates promise more money for schools. As long as taxes are ignored and no mention is made of current levels of expenditure, calling for more spending is a political no-brainer. In the recently released Education Next poll of a nationally representative sample of the public, for which I serve as a co-director, 60% of Americans say they want to spend more. Among parents, 70% want more spending, and 75% of teachers agree.

More local education spending for the sake of children? Sure, why not? Well, there are a few pesky details to consider:

But if one drills down, much of that enthusiasm evaporates in a cloud of confusion and inconsistency. We discovered this by dividing respondents to our survey into three randomly selected, equally representative groups.

The first group was asked whether they thought school spending "to fund public schools in your district should increase, decrease or stay the same?" The second group, though asked that same question, was first told the level of expenditure per pupil in their district for 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available from the Education Department). The third group was given that same information but was asked whether they thought "taxes to fund public schools in your district should increase, decrease or stay the same?"

Support for more spending fell to 44% from 60% when respondents were given information on current amounts of spending. Levels fell further to only 26% favoring more spending among the group asked if they favored tax increases to fund higher spending.

So once people are exposed to the real picture of the situation, including how much their district already spends on education and how much they will have to pay in taxes to fund further spending, support essentially collapses.

We just happen to have such an education referendum to vote on in November:

Robbinsdale Area School District voters will see two school funding requests on the November 4 ballot, based on the School Board’s unanimous approval of the election resolution and ballot questions at its August 4 school board meeting.

Question 1 is a request to renew the existing operating levy, with no tax increase if approved by voters.

Question 2 is a request to approve a new technology levy. Robbinsdale Area Schools is one of the few school districts in Hennepin County that does not currently have a voter-approved capital project levy to provide funds for technology.

“We take our responsibility as stewards of the community’s resources very seriously,” said School Board Chair Sherry Tyrrell. “Based on our thorough review of District finances and educational program, we believe that asking our community to renew the existing operating levy and add a technology levy is the best way to most effectively and efficiently meet our students’ learning needs.”

Renewing the operating levy (question 1) would provide approximately $20 million per year to help maintain lower than average class sizes and fund daily school and district operations such as classroom supplies, staff salaries, building maintenance and transportation. $20 million is 13% of the total operating budget and is the equivalent of 225 teachers or the entire staffing costs of five elementary schools.

Adding a technology levy (question 2 – which is officially called the “capital project levy to fund technology”) would provide a stable source of funding to increase technology access for students and staff, support personalized learning and expand technology for teaching and learning. If approved, the tax impact on the median value district home ($195,000) would be $7 per month.

So the first question would only maintain the current levy and accompanying taxes that we pay to support it? Mighty generous of the district not to hit us up for more there.

And the second question would ONLY ding us for $7 a month, assuming we live in median value district home (pretty easy to figure out how much more or less you’ll owe if your home value deviates from that). And more technology is obviously a good thing, right?

Well, it depends on exactly what we mean by technology. In this case it’s not entirely clear, but part of that plan apparently involves providing Chromebooks for students in grades five through eight. The younger kids would benefit too:

-Continue implementation of SMART Boards, data projection, classroom sound systems and assessment devices for classrooms.

-Expand the use of integrated learning systems to manage remediation and enrichment specifically in reading and math.

-Expand the use of video conferencing to enhance student access to global experts and experiences.

-Increase e-books as part of a comprehensive media center and guided reading resource collection.

-Subscribe to e-textbooks as an interactive, searchable and customizable instructional resource.

-Develop, align and manage online supplemental learning objects and content that support and extend district curriculum.

-Facilitate personalized learning by building unique learner profiles, managing custom learning pathways and monitoring proficient-based progress using a Learning Management System.

-Provide additional classroom-based wireless computers and tablets for student use.

-Upgrade out-dated classroom and school computers.

This list of what more spending on technology would mean doesn’t come from District 281, but rather from a site called “Yes 281” which advocates in favor of the referendum (duh). It’s well designed and is part of a coordinated effort that includes lawn signs and volunteering to get the referendum passed. Not surprisingly there is no “No 281” equivalent which provides a pretty good indication about what the outcome will be come November.

There really isn’t a strong effort to justify this spending on technology other than “they have it and we don’t”:

Q: Why do we need more money for technology?

A: Technology is a vital tool for students to be career and college ready. Technology-literate graduates are prepared to thrive in our digital world and join a highly skilled 21st century workforce. However, Robbinsdale Area Schools is one of the few Hennepin County school districts without a voter-approved capital project levy to provide funds for technology. A technology levy would provide a stable source of funding for the technology tools that students and staff need to succeed in today’s digital world.

Whether any of the other local districts have achieved anything with their spending on technology is not discussed.

Okay, so where are we compared to Peterson’s original breakdown of how support for education spending varies depending on how informed people are about it? We know why they want to spend more money. We know that it will increase our taxes. The missing variable is how much District 281 currently spends.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics the key number for District 281 is that it already spends $13,164 per pupil. And we’re to believe that’s not enough. Not if we want our children to have the vital technological tools they need. And there’s no way we could scrimp on any other portion of the over $13K per kid that we’re already spending to get those tools without having to raise taxes.

I’m not buying it. But I fear that the majority of voters in District 281 will and still would even if they had all the relevant facts at hand. It still doesn’t hurt to try to get that $13,164 per pupil number out there though. Because at some point I have to believe people will say enough is enough.