June 18, 2007

This is Progressivism: When Government Makes Bad Decisions, Make Government More Powerful!

Carroll Andrew Morse

Matt Jerzyk of RI Future offers these long-term recommendations in response the Rhode Island House’s decision to REDUCE -- not level-fund -- statewide education aid…

  • Consolidate and merge school districts to some smaller level (perhaps five districts).
  • Eliminate the funding of schools by property taxes and fund them solely through the state.

Two immediate thoughts in response…

  1. These suggestions are a perfect example of how contemporary liberalism/progressivism views just about everything in terms of government not being powerful and centralized enough. Progressives accept this dogma so uncritically, even after local governments have been forced into a tough position by the bad decisions of a bigger and more remote branch government, the progressives still want to make the remote branch of government more powerful -- and make the local branches of government more remote!
  2. Specifically with regards to the second point, if we did end up funding schools 100% through the state, what arguments would there be against a full-on public choice program, where money is not allocated according to either a funding formula or legislative whims, but according to the choices that parents make about what schools they want to send their kids to?

    San Francisco, population 750,000, runs a successful public school choice program. If Rhode Island was reorganzied into one or even five mega school districts, why couldn't we put something similar together for the population of about 1,000,000 here?

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I think this is very interesting, and a bit more complicated. Conservatives tend to favor fiscal responsibility and restraint, right? They also favor local control. Consolating schoold districts would advance one of those goals, but sacrifice the other. I have Republican friends who want consolidation for efficiency's sake.

I think the current situation requires looking beyond partisan and/or ideological boxes. Right now, we have a conservative governor seeking a modest 3% increase in school funding. He opposes spending $71M on a court house while denying $19M for schools (That would be only slightly more than inflation. Even the Governor thinks that's not enough.)

In the House last friday, 13 Republicans were joined by 12 Democratics (including some of the most liberal!) to vote against level-funding education.

I would like to make a plea here for a bipartisan approach to the current situation. If the Governor got together with the Mayors, and the bi-partisan team of House members who voted against Article 21, there's a good chance that the Senate might restore the cuts from the Governor's budget.

Wouldn't it be amazing if Republicans and Democrats could get together to agree that investing in education is a top priority?

Posted by: Thomas at June 18, 2007 2:52 PM

Proposal A in Michigan is my starting point: http://www.mackinac.org/pubs/mer/article.asp?ID=4847

Posted by: Matt Jerzyk at June 18, 2007 5:26 PM

In the House last friday, 13 Republicans were joined by 12 Democratics (including some of the most liberal!) to vote against level-funding education.
Don't get too excited. These leftists want to raise taxes to throw money at the unions under the guise of "it's all for the kids" BS-it's all about the pay, benefits, pension and soft job.
Here's my reply to those like Jerzyk who want to fund education statewide:
And you propose to raise the 2 billion a year (and rising exponentially thanks to the AFT and NEA) by what method?
Raise the sales tax to 18%?
Triple the income tax?
Start a brandy new statewide property tax IN ADDITION TO the property taxes at the municipal level to support the bloated police, fire and public works?
Maybe some combination like raising the sales tax to only 13% and just doubling the income tax?
All these would bring in roughly 2 billion annually by my rough calculation and could be raised (at the usual triple the rate of inflation) annually. Maybe the Seekonk and North Attleboro chambers of commerce could be recruited to fund promotion of the plan.
Hey, while we are it let’s raise the cigarette tax another couple of bucks for the 20% of smokers who haven’t wised up and starting buying their smokes from the Indians by mail for $1.50 a pack delivered. Also charge a 200% luxury tax on country clubs and marinas. No one will drop them or be smart enough to go to Mass. or Connecticut. Maybe a $50 fee to anyone entering Twin River. They probably don’t know about Foxwoods or Mohegan. Maybe even a tax on fire hydrants.

Posted by: Mike at June 18, 2007 7:17 PM

Very imaginative, Mike.

And those 13 (ie all of them) Repbulicans who also voted to restore education funding, and the Governor who proposed it in the first place? I suppose your comments apply to all of them too?

Or, could it just be that they all recognize that investment in education is what the state needs to grow?

Posted by: Thomas at June 18, 2007 7:46 PM

The solution is NOT to create five mega-school districts. Eliminating local autonomy will be the final nail in public education in our state. Look how large our state educational bureaucracy is already, and ask any teacher how effective or efficient RIDE currently is. I suspect from most you'll get the same answer.

We should, however, centralize to cut costs. Negotiating contracts statewide, using professionals rather than school committee members elected six months ago, would turn off the spigot teachers' unions have been drinking from for some time. The larger the group, the cheaper the health care costs and purchasing power, so centralization here makes sense too.

The state and feds continue to place heavy burdens on local districts, specifically in testing and special ed, but in many other areas as well.

The costs add up, and then liberals complain that districts can't manage. So they ask for more state government control? Ridiculous.

Local districts can best handle the educational decisions for their children. The state and feds need to get off their backs and allow them to do so.

Posted by: mikeinRI at June 18, 2007 9:00 PM

I can agree with much of what you say:
1) Centralize purchasing, health insurance etc for cost efficiencies
2) Leave much of the control of curriculum to local districts
3) Reduce unreasonable state mandates. Eliminate all unfunded state mandates.

None of this is about how we fund. Policy and funding source are separate questions. At the moment, some areas (with a lower tax base) have pushed their property taxes to the limit. The state funding process is totally unpredictable, which leads to massive inefficiencies. (Providence has to pink-slip a third of it's teachers each year, then it hires them back in the fall. What do you suppose that costs?)

Do you really want local funding, though? That means propoerty taxes will increase radically. Every republican in the house voted to increase state ed funding by 3% because they know that failing to do so will increase property taxes.

Posted by: Thomas at June 18, 2007 9:55 PM

"that investment in education is what the state needs to grow?"

Hello, Thomas. Perhaps you are new to this state, in which case, welcome.

If you do a little research, you will find that most school budgets in Rhode Island have at least doubled over the last ten years. (As you know, around 80% of school budgets are salaries and benefits.)

This sharp spike in "education" expenditures has not been matched by student performance, however one chooses to measure it. Not even close.

Adding all local (including property) and state taxes up, Rhode Island is the fourth highest taxed state in the country and property taxes are the fifth highest in the country. Clearly, Rhode Islanders have been exceedingly generous in their investment in education, as reflected by this remarkable stream of revenue.

The next step in education reform is not the collection and expenditure of more tax dollars; this is almost unmatched by any other state. The next step is to begin weeding out the bad (and, eventually, the mediocre) teachers in the system by introducing merit pay to school contracts.

In view of the lengthy spike in school budgets and the corresponding flatness of student performance, there are those of us who believe that merit pay should, in fact, be retroactive. It is unclear to us why bad and mediocre teachers should be making the same as that most valuable and praiseworthy individual - the good and talented teacher. I hope you can appreciate and possibly even share this view.

Posted by: SusanD at June 18, 2007 11:22 PM

Thomas and MikeInRI,

If we went to statewide funding (which I'm not endorsing, just taking as a starting point for this discussion), the idea would be to change the system so that the fundamental unit of the system would become the school itself instead of the district. Teachers and principals would be given a wider latitude in setting curriculums and policies for their individual schools. Aid would be allocated based on the number of students that chose to attend a particular school. The San Francisco district that I keep mentioning even figured out a way to combine these ideas with a "weighted-student formula".

I agree in the ideal that it makes sense to consolidate certain administrative functions. I'm just not sure this current legislature can do it in any sane way. And if we move towards greater statewide funding or more consolidation while keeping the current geographic monopoly system, it's just going to turn into a new chapter of urban-money-grab politics.


The page that you provided a link to also talks about charters and public school choice, in addition to funding ratios. Are you willing to consider implementing the entire Michigan package of reforms?

And one other detail about the statwide funding suggestion. The CRIPs are fond of pointing out that the presence of many vacation homes in RI owned by out-of-staters can distort tax statistics. Doesn't this also mean, if we went to a statewide funding system, middle class communities would get creamed, having to pay for 1) their own school systems 2) the urban subsidies and 3) the lost property tax income in the more resort-oriented areas of the state?

Posted by: Andrew at June 19, 2007 9:59 AM

"The CRIPs are fond of pointing out that the presence of many vacation homes in RI owned by out-of-staters can distort tax statistics"

You're right, Andrew. We should just confiscate their homes and have done with it.

Posted by: SusanD at June 19, 2007 11:00 AM


I've been in RI for 6 years. Thanks for the welcome, though I hope that when you begin by saying "you may be new to the state" it's not a way of saying you think I don't know what I'm talking about. :) I know Six years isn't long by RI standards, but I pay attention and I'm a quick learner. It's actually an advantage to have lived elsewhere; it gives one perspective.

Likewise, I appreciate your suggestion that I "do a little research", but, actually, I have.

I won't try to contradict your premises that RI has the 4th highest taxed state, that it has the 5th highest property taxes, or that student performance is below what we should expect. Instead, let me add a few more facts that I think shed some light on yours.

RI is 47th in the nation in terms of the proportion of education funding that comes from the state. That is to say, we are 3rd in the nation in our reliance on local (property taxes) to fund education. Thus, to a large extent, our local taxes are so high precisely because we rely on them so much for education, not because we spend so much on education overall.

Do we spend too much on education already? RIPEC points out that we are 7th in the nation in dollars spent per student and 8th in teachers' salaries. But raw dollar comparisons are misleading, because dollar buys a lot less in RI than it does in, say, Arkansas. If you use a simple cost-of-living adjustment to RIPEC's numbers (like the MERIC-COLI), it turns out that RI actually spends 50 fewer indexed dollars per student than the national average (I'll even email you the excel spreadsheet if you like). Meanwhile, RI's indexed teacher salaries put it at 33rd.

So no, I don't think it's clear that we are spending too much. It says a lot to me that our Governor gets this. In the House vote on article 21 last Friday, ALL of the Republicans were joined by liberal democrats, including a teachers' union president, to support his proposed increase. It's a non-partisan issue. And remember that the Governor's increase was only 3%, which is just over the inflation rate. The flat-funding that was done is actually a cut.

Money spent on education is not just an expenditure, it is an investment. It returns many times its value in increased productivity, social capital, and lower crime, unemployment, and welfare rate. Businesses move to where they can find an educated workforce, and managers move to where they can find good public schools for their kids.

Of course, this investment must be made wisely, and I can agree with you that we are not always doing this. I agree with you that current contracts sometimes protect bad teachers. I've seen it happen. I also agree with the idea of merit pay. There are other reforms that should be implemented as well.

As for student peformance, I agree it is disappointing and could be improved. Reforming teacher hiring and retention is one step in this direction. We could also stiffen the standards at our teachers colleges and our licensing requirements.But, if we're going to be fair, we have to recognize that RI has a challenging student population. High levels of poverty in our cities and large numbers of English-language-learners make the task of our teachers harder than in other states.

Cutting funding isn't going to produce reforms. They must be made directly. The House leadership's idea that, if we cut their budgets the schools will reform themselves is wishful thinking. I actually don't think even they believe it. The only result will be that our kids will get less, and those nasty property taxes will rise. When that happens, don't blame your local officials, it's a consequence of the General Assembly's refusal to fulfill its responsibility.

I support the Governor on this. I won't say "do it for the kids", I'll say do it for the economic and social well-being of the state.

Posted by: Thomas at June 19, 2007 2:23 PM

You are right to be hesitant Andrew. While funding schools through the state may seem a good idea, it's ridiculous to think the state bureaucracy won't infuse itself into decision-making, curricula development, etc.

Truly effective schools are those that are given the most autonomy under strong and trusted leadership. Any new educational funding formula must take this into consideration, or is doomed to fail.

Posted by: mikeinRI at June 19, 2007 5:06 PM

Michigan went from a 4 to 6 percent sales tax rate. Are we really saying we need to move from 7 to 9 percent?

Is that the solution here when CT is at 6 percent and MA is at 5?

I think many progressives have 'feel-good' ideas that often don't work in the real world. And they often seem unwilling to address real problems.

Property tax funding of our educational system is horrible, but raising our already worst-in-market sales tax does not seem to be the answer either. Instead of taking money from Rhode Islanders, we need to take a look at our expenditures and see where there is room to cut the fat, as it were. If we do not do that and do not force areas of government to become more efficient then we'll just be here in another decade or two.

At that point, do we move the sales tax to 11 percent?

Posted by: don roach at June 19, 2007 11:51 PM

"Instead of taking money from Rhode Islanders, we need to take a look at our expenditures and see where there is room to cut the fat, as it were. If we do not do that and do not force areas of government to become more efficient then we'll just be here in another decade or two.

At that point, do we move the sales tax to 11 percent?"

Exactly! This is what Democrats on the local and state level stubbornly refuse to face. If your solution doesn't involve the problem, you are not going to get anywhere.

Posted by: SusanD at June 20, 2007 6:47 AM

OK, let's concede that property taxes can't go higher. And let's say that we are able to break the teacher's union.

Then what?

How does that help our ed system? Do we all believe in the free market? If so, doesn't that mean we have to pay more for a better candidate? And if you drop the price for the "mediocre" teachers, won't that simply dry up supply?

There are two very inconsistent thought tracks here. One, that teachers make too much money. But, if you pay them less, the brighter candidates, per market theory, will go elsewhere. So you get rid of the wheat and keep the chaff.

Cuz let's face it: there is no incentive possible that can overcome the fact that the majority of teachers are average. Using merit pay cannot change that fact. So, you will be rewarding the top 20%, but what are you going to do with the bottom 20%? Fire them? How long do you really think a system like that will last?

So what is the point here? That we pay too much in taxes? OK. So you kill the schools. Then what? What are you proposing? Aside from breaking the teacher's union, I don't see anything like a coherent proposal put forth here. It's just a lot of carping--that may be justified--about how bad it is.

Let me give you a hint: bad as the current system is, you ain't gonna win many converts until you have something positive to put in its place.

And PS. Go over to the Tax Foundation website and look at the trend in state & local property taxes. They have shot up twice since 1980: after Reagan's tax cut, and again after George II's tax cut. That is called "perfect correlation" and probably can be read as causation. That is:

Fed "tax cut" = big increase in state and local tax rates.

Posted by: klaus at June 20, 2007 9:03 PM
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