Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Unfunded

It's hard to find anything wrong with a recent administrative rule change enacted by the State Board of Education that now requires seat belts on all new school buses purchased after October 1, 2019. Of course at the same time there wasn't anything preventing Iowa schools from doing just that prior to the change in rule. But as this proposal began to go through the vetting process and the public momentum for seat belts began to grow, many school districts decided to accelerate purchasing plans and get new buses on order prior to the change in rule. That is because the estimated cost of seat belts on new bus units is expected to increase the cost by roughly $8,000. We weren't in the market for a new bus this year anyway, since we purchased new buses the last two years in a row (and typically we only purchase every other year). But considering our last 78 passenger unit came in at $82,252 I can understand why a 10% cost increase would force some districts' hand to move up their timeline. Nonetheless, when we purchase our next school bus we'll happily pay the upcharge for seat belts because it is the safe thing to do.

Oftentimes in schools new  mandates are introduced without regard for how the district is going to pay for them. Perhaps the school bus seat belt mandate is a poor example. After all, most schools purchase school buses from either their SAVE or PPEL fund. During the last legislative session our lawmakers took steps to extend the sunset of the SAVE to 2051. For that we are thankful. Maybe their intent here was that this extension would make it more likely schools could handle the costs associated with seat belts in school buses. But at the same time, most school districts have been (or will be) leveraging SAVE funds for infrastructure projects. Case in point: that is how we are paying for our Phase III elementary renovation project. Once we finish that we'll start having a conversation about using some of those funds for Phase IV, which will be the renovation of the high school. Indeed there are a number of strains on that fund outside school buses and infrastructure projects. That is how we fund our connected learning project, purchase vans for the school, pay for emergency repairs that come up over the course of the year. Buy new desks for classrooms. You see, there is always going to be something.

Maybe this is a poor example because generally we are talking about unfunded mandates that impact the operating fund. The most recent mandate was a rule that high school students have a credit of financial literacy as a requirement for graduation. Kind of like the seat belt rule, who is going to say that is a bad idea? We've all heard horror stories of young people going off to college and getting ensnared in a credit card scheme that ultimately creates an unnecessary and quite burdensome debt load for young people. That was the litmus for this requirement. Again, this is one in which we were happy to comply with, and had made plans to begin requiring it absent the change in law. (Kind of like the seat belt rule, there was nothing preventing schools from doing this in the first place.)

Look, I'm not saying any of these things are bad ideas. Quite the contrary. They are great ideas and ones that no one can argue with. The fact of the matter is, the local public school is the one place where we can properly address many of these issues. Getting our students to and from schools safely is of primary concern. We just hope that more time is spent considering the fiscal impact of these decisions. And it is just too easy to say that our low supplemental state aid will be adequate, or that we moved the sunset of the SAVE.






Thursday, October 3, 2019

Acceptance Accountability and Accreditation

Each year someone in the legislature files a bill that would funnel public money into nonpublic school programs. These infamous voucher programs would allow parents to apply their 'cost per pupil' allocation to any school of their choice. Framed as a way to give families options, a common argument is that parents should be able to have the choice to send their children to school wherever they wish, without regard to zip code. The problems with these type of schemes are numerous, but for the purpose of our discussion here I'll focus on what I refer to as the three 'As': Acceptance, Accreditation, and Accountability. 

In an effort to contextualize the argument in the proper paradigm, it is necessary first to underscore a key flaw, which is the idea that competition in our educational system will make the entire system better. Truthfully, I can understand this logic; albeit flawed. Educational systems are unable to fit the mold of a capital(ist) tradition because the missions of each are so contrary to one another. Even so, if we were to capitulate to such an argument there is no mistaking the harsh reality that students [[or] our 'raw material'] for lack of better terminology; are imperfect. Each student is different, unique, and has needs unlike their counterparts. And thank goodness for that! On the other hand in the traditional business model, all the raw material is the same. Quality control measures are employed which ensure raw material meets exacting standards before it is turned into a finished product. What happens when this raw material doesn't meet the standards? It is discarded, or sent back. That is not the case in your local public school. When our students don't meet the 'exacting standards' or in our terminology the Iowa Core Curriculum, we don't simply discard them. We work with them. We try a different strategy. We take them from where they are and help them to grow. Yet that is not the requirement for our nonpublic counterparts. In fact, legislation that has been proposed in the past gives them the right to refuse acceptance into their institution based on academic standards. 

Accreditation standards refer to the general programming that a school district is required to provide in order to be considered a school. In order for a school to be considered a school, it has to meet certain assurances. For example, certain courses have to be part of the program and highly qualified teachers must be properly certified and licensed in the content they teach. Granted, the majority (but not all) of the nonpublic schools in Iowa meet general accreditation requirements. But when evaluated side to side, the programming provided at Iowa public schools is very robust. Perhaps the most glaring of examples is a lack of special education programming at most nonpublic schools. Certainly this shouldn't be surprising considering the fact these schools have the right to admit based on academic standards.

Finally we have to acknowledge the fact these are public tax dollars we are talking about. Every public school entity in Iowa has the duty to operate with the utmost of transparency. We have to independently audit our books annually. The bills we pay and those to whom we have debt are published each month in the newspaper. The compensation we pay for every employee in the district is a matter of public record. If our governing body wishes to have a meeting, proper notice must be given to the public. If we want to discuss something in private, it can only be done under a very narrow scope of circumstances and we must announce in advance what we are discussing, and any action taken as a result of that discussion is done in the open, public eye. Those rules don't apply to our nonpublic counterparts.

So help me with this argument. We want to 'level the playing field' because of a belief competition is good for the system. But, we are going to have the competitors operate under two separate sets of rules. For our public schools, you must accept everyone who comes your way no matter what. The other schools can selectively cherry pick those who provide them the best academic advantage. Second, public schools have to offer a robust program that encompasses a broad range of curricula. If the other school so chooses, they can instead offer whatever they so desire. The public school must be accountable for every penny they spend, and you must be able to demonstrate that it was spent on a public purpose. The other school can pretty much do whatever they wish because no one is looking. Who do you think would win that competition?