L. Neil Smith's
Number 285, August 22, 2004

Maybe we should have simply started speaking Mandarin?

Will They Ever Learn?
by Lady Liberty

Special to TLE

The state of Ohio has a problem. On August 3, special elections were held around the state. On the ballots were more than 100 requests from school districts for tax levies. Historically, school funding has been well tolerated by voters who seem to think that a "yes" vote is "for the children." This time, however, three quarters of the levies failed. One Ohio newspaper called the results a "massacre."

Of course, the histrionics began the morning of August 4. Published articles warn of significant cuts to extracurricular activities, employee lay-offs, and a down surge in the quality of education. Many districts are scrambling to get another try at a levy on the ballot in November. Analysts—from both sides of the issue—are dissecting the tallies and talking about "what went wrong."

In the "massacre" story, the reporter concludes that Ohio residents are "maxed out on taxes." But other published accounts suggest that voters are trying to send the state legislature a message. You see, school funding in Ohio has been in trouble for years. In 1997, the Ohio State Supreme Court found the state's method of school funding to be unconstitutional (the court has made the same ruling twice since then). Because school funding there is based on property taxes and thus property values, districts with higher property values—meaning wealthier residents—get more money than poorer districts do. The Court found that to be discriminatory, but didn't suggest any way to fix the problem. The legislature, which considered putting all of the state's property tax money into a slush fund and then doling it out equally based on student population, was roundly chastised for "playing Robin Hood." But no other real solutions have floated to the top, either.

Another facet of the problem is that people with no children—or few children—resent footing the bill for other people's kids. Of course, it's not politic to mention that you don't like paying for something "for the children" whether they're yours or not. But the fact remains that the resentment is there, particularly when property taxes in many places have gone up significantly even without new funding levies of one kind or another.

What may prove to be the biggest problem of all is not whether or not people think their taxes are too high (though they are) or that they shouldn't be forced to pay the bill for children not their own (they shouldn't be), but rather the perception that schools aren't spending the money they do get wisely. For example, in one local school district in my own part of the country, a school administration lamented that it might have to get rid of its swim team and all other pool activities because it couldn't continue to pay some $40,000 a year in pool maintenance fees. But some citizens who questioned that figure did a little research of their own only to learn that an area pool maintenance company would perform identical chores for a quarter of the cost. It would be more than a little surprising if this discovery—and its subsequent announcement—didn't make voters consider just how many other significant and relatively painless cuts could be made if money weren't pouring in without thought.

Ohio isn't alone in its dilemma (although the unconstitutionality of its funding process and the legislature's ongoing inability or unwillingness to address the problem is fairly unique). Other school systems in other parts of the country are experiencing similar difficulties. Seattle residents can expect to see a levy on their special election ballots in September that will, if passed, almost double the amount they're currently paying in property taxes toward school funding. In Oregon, upcoming school levies aren't just for education purposes, but in one instance is intended to help build sidewalks near a school. Kansas and Missouri residents will also see levy requests. Only Minot, North Dakota did the reasonable thing when the school district there looked at the money it had, the money it didn't, and created a balanced budget accordingly.

Meanwhile, a certain area of Texas is doing just fine at the moment, but is busy setting itself up for the same problem in years to come. Property values and taxes there have increased, resulting in a windfall for the schools. If past history is any indicator, the schools will spend every nickel. So what happens if property values decrease or some of the biggest taxpayers leave or close their doors? You an bet officials won't tighten their belts, but will—much as everywhere else—plead poverty and beg voters to bail them out.

Although the problems are complex, the solutions need not be. One big step in the right direction is the establishment of charter schools. These schools are typically a combination of private and public, and are often administered by private companies which, unlike public schools, are held accountable for both their expenditures and the results they get (although the levy failures provide at least a peripheral argument that accountability may have finally arrived). According to the Center for Education Reform, charter schools have a good success rate with their students, and are doing the job for less money than are the public schools. Private schools, too, offer a better value in both terms of quality of education and the cost to provide it (according to a report from The Heritage Foundation, the national average cost per public school student per year as of 2002 was $7,524; private school tuition averages just about half that for elementary school students, and about $1,500 less for secondary school attendees).

Even if Ohio's legislators would take a good look at some of the most viable alternatives to lower school costs in the state, they're going to have almost as hard a time developing that option as they did when they threatened to take from rich districts to give to the...less rich. The Heartland Institute says that there's significant opposition in Ohio to the idea of charter schools. And where is all that resistance coming from? From the state teacher's union, which opposes the very concept of a school that's non-union (although charter schools can be unionized, they're not typically started that way). Charter schools are suffering similar difficulties for similar reasons in Minnesota and in Michigan.

If taxpayers and lawmakers alike really want to solve the school funding problem, they're going to need to stand up to those union factions which oppose the idea of school choice (and for their own selfish reasons, not "for the children" even if that were an argument taxpayers would blindly accept). The Cato Institute has analyzed the circumstances, and says that school choice will not only improve the quality of education but solve many budget woes as well. In its report, the group even suggests that it might not be a bad idea for states to pay private school tuition for those students who want to go. Costs are, of course, cheaper per student than in public schools, so the state would actually save a substantial amount of money by footing the tuition bills, money that could then be spent to address budget shortfalls in other areas.

Better still, why not get taxes and the state out of school funding all together? Give all of the tax dollars used to fund schools back to the taxpayer. And then let those taxpayers with children pay to send their kids wherever they'd like. (Yes, more kids would cost more money, but responsibility would dictate you don't have children you can't afford, and irresponsibility ought not be the problem of the state or, for that matter, your neighbors.) Those who can't—or won't—afford tuition can homeschool, an option that also, by the way, typically offers a higher quality education than does a public school.

Lower taxes. Better education. Teachers who have to perform like other employees or who will get fired like other employees. Parents taking charge of and responsibility for their own children's education. It's simple. It's cost effective. It offers demonstrated quality. And it's eminently logical. Unfortunately, the reasons for undertaking such reform are precisely the same reasons government institutions almost certainly won't do so. If you want to teach a few lessons yourself, try to keep that fact in mind whenever it is you vote again.

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