Friday, June 01, 2007

LIFERsuction And The Dismantling Of Public Education

A Report On the Recent Forum Held By Long Islanders For Educational Reform (LIFER) -- Or, If Frank Russo Only Knew That Thomas Jefferson Was An Ardent Advocate Of The Seperation Of Church And State, And, Arguably, An Agnostic

Brian Brennan of reports (republished below) on the May 7th meeting of LIFER.

LIFER supports an expansion of the charter schools in New York, as well as tax credits/rebates for private school parents, tantamount to the wholesale diversion of tax dollars from our public schools.

They haven't formally come out with a whitepaper denying evolution, calling for the teaching of creationism in our public schools, and banning homosexuals from the classroom, but something tells us LIFER is working on it.

LIFER's goals, at least on the surface, may appear lofty, but lurking just below in the muddy waters of the school finance debate, is one Frank Russo, Director of the New York Chapter of the American Family Association -- the folks who dissed the American Girl doll and urged us all to boycott businesses that refuse to endorse Christmas.

Yes, the same hate-spewing, ignorant, arrogant nut jobs -- the holy rollers who, following the Virginia Tech Massacre on April 16, 2007, released a video in which "God" tells a student that those killed on campus were not saved because God isn't allowed in schools anymore [the video claims that the shootings at Virginia Tech, Columbine, and elsewhere, are the result of, among other things, no spankings, no prayer in schools, condoms, and a woman's right to choose] -- are now in the business of "reforming" the education system on Long Island.

Yes, the followers of Falwell, Dobson (the guy who "outed" Sponge Bob), and George W. Bush's Leave Every Child Behind dogma, are now at the schoolhouse gate.

God help us all!

With the likes of LIFER taking up the cause, can the dismantling of our public schools, the very foundation of free-thinking and the backbone of democracy, in the name of "family values" and "moral decency" -- let alone as a tax-saving measure -- be far behind?
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School Daze: Funding Education
By Brian Brennan

A panel of minds met at the Hilton Long Island in Melville last Monday evening to discuss Long Island’s school taxes. The five-member panel took turns addressing the crowd and then fielded questions. First to speak was conservative Newsday columnist Raymond Keating. He was followed by Dr. Charles Murphy, superintendent of the Sachem Central School District (which has a tax levy decrease in its proposed 2007-08 operating budget). The third speaker was Edmund J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for New York State Policy, followed by Suffolk County Legislator Lynne Nowick (R-Smithtown), and Nassau County Conservative Party Chairman and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Roger Bogsted. Moderating was Peter Kohler, editorial services vice president for Cablevision Systems Corp.

With school budget votes looming, the panel was assembled by Long Islanders For Educational Reform, or LIFER. LIFER’s website has the banner statement “Educational Excellence and Fiscal Responsibility” and describes the organization as “Long Islanders dedicated to improving educational quality while getting better control of our runaway school costs.”

In a nutshell, these people feel that Long Island’s property taxes are too high and that irresponsible spending on the part of school districts is at the root of it. And while it was a very rightward leaning panel, the criticism they expressed was bipartisan. “We have a state legislature that is absolutely addicted to spending,” Roger Bogsted said. He added that legislators lose sight of their priorities while negotiating over pork barrel member items. And he agreed with Raymond Keating that New York’s Republicans have failed to live up to conservative fiscal principles.

Mr. Keating actually praised the frugality – as he did in a recent column – of Suffolk County’s Democrat county executive, Steve Levy. And it was former Governor George Pataki’s bending to pressure from his fellow Republicans, Edmund McMahon said, that allowed for the implementation of a watered down STAR local property tax relief program in 1997.

The body that received the most criticism from the panel was NYSUT, the New York State Union of Teachers. At least some on the panel felt that it is disproportionate influence wielded by the union at state and local levels that has stifled tax reform. Roger Bogsted called NYSUT “the 500-pound gorilla of New York State”.

Asked why there hasn’t been a cap on annual state tax levies, Edmund McMahon said, “In a word – NYSUT.” Superintendent Murphy said that school boards have too often put the desires of teachers ahead of the needs of a community. Teachers, he said, have a powerful and well-financed union looking out for them; it is students, parents and taxpayers first who need the school boards to be thinking of them.

Raymond Keating said that school boards need to be tougher when it comes to negotiating teachers’ salaries and benefits, and that the union’s “monopoly” needs to be broken.

Keating’s Big Four
Mr. Keating then went on to outline what he says are four myths that hinder reform in education spending and funding in New York State.

The first is that “you get what you pay for”. “You get what you pay for in the private sector. You don’t get what you pay for in government,” he said. The private sector is consumer-driven, with payment based on performance. Mr. Keating said that the government pattern is all too often to throw more money at underperforming schools, and that teachers’ pay scales are not based on performance.

The second myth, he said, is that aid from the state is great for taxpayers. He reiterated an analogy made in a recent column saying that elected officials have too often regarded state aid as “manna from heaven”. The reality, he said, is that the government simply recoups tax relief by raising other taxes. He argued that Long Islanders should not expect to pay smaller taxes if aid from Albany causes them to see their property taxes reduced. He added that looking at the rise in both school aid and tax revenue from 1994 to 2004 illustrates this.

Mr. Keating’s third myth is that district consolidation would provide tax relief. “Is bigger government really going to save you money?” he asked. He and Edmund McMahon addressed the issue again when the panel was asked by an audience member why consolidation wouldn’t weaken unions’ power. Mr. Keating said that there would still be competing elements in government to contend with. Mr. McMahon pointed to New York City public schools, which make up the largest district in the United States and have a powerful teachers union. The biggest fans of regional consolidation are unions, Mr. McMahon claimed.

The fourth myth prevalent in the public’s mind, Mr. Keating said, is that schools should be funded in some way other than property taxes. There are those who advocate funding schools through income taxes rather than property taxes. Mr. Keating said that this would create at least as many problems as the current system, and probably more. According to him, income taxes have historically acted as fuel to government spending, and increased income taxes would hurt the state by scaring away prospective residents, businesses and investment. STAR,

McMahon’s Missing Link and Proposition 2½
The State Senate this week passed a bill – which has yet to be voted on by the Assembly – to increase STAR rebates for lower- and middle-income seniors. Governor Eliot Spitzer opposed the bill, which otherwise received wide bipartisan support. Governor Spitzer feels that the state can’t afford the reforms.

Edmund McMahon feels that the state couldn’t afford the STAR program to begin with. According to him, STAR was dead in the water after the four percent cap on annual levy increases authored into it by Governor Pataki were filtered out of it during pre-vote budget negotiations in 1997. He faults the Republicans then in the legislature with failing to support the cap, and the former governor with only half-heartedly trying to save it from being struck.

Since then, Mr. McMahon insists, STAR has only treated some of the symptoms of high taxes, but none of the causes. By 2010, he claims, $6 billion will have been spent on the program, though taxes and spending have continued to rise. The “missing link” in school policy, according to him, is that policymakers have yet to realize that the “surefire” way to control spending is to cap the rate at which property tax levies can increase from one year to the next.

As evidence of this, he points to the experience of Massachusetts. In 1980, Massachusetts had the second highest state and local property tax burden in the country, with New York State occupying first place. But that year, Massachusetts implemented Proposition 2 ½, which decreed that municipalities could raise property taxes no more than 2 ½ percent each year (barring several types of exclusions, or a majority of a municipality’s voters opting for an “optional override”). In 1982, Massachusetts’ tax burden ranked 13th in the nation, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and it has continued to drop ever since. It is currently 28th in the nation, and has dropped as low as 35th. Meanwhile, the state has remained – with New York – among the nation’s top per-pupil spenders.

Mr. McMahon asserted that Massachusetts’ income tax rate is lower than it was in 1980. He did not mention, however, that the state remains among the highest in terms of its personal and corporate income tax rates.

As NYSUT sees it “If schools were supposed to be lowering taxes, LIFER would be the in the right place. But if schools are supposed to be educating, then I’m confident NYSUT is in the right place,” NYSUT president Richard Iannuzzi said over the phone.

“I guess it’s the lens you look through,” Mr. Iannuzzi said. As he sees it, education necessarily costs money, and there’s no getting around that the money required is increasing. He attributes this in part to the number of special needs children in schools, the number of students who are not fluent in English, and to government mandates such as President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, which outlines various testing and monitoring initiatives that schools must fund themselves.

Mr. Iannuzzi believes the majority of Long Islanders are looking through the same lens he is. “The difficulty here is that you have an organization and a panel that assumes that property-tax-payers are looking for one thing only and that is how to cut property taxes, and looking to use the school system as the vehicle to do so,” he said. “The reality is that many of those taxpayers…are also parents and grandparents and progressively-minded community members who understand the value of a quality education.”

NYSUT strongly advocates against both charter schools and private school tuition tax rebates, which LIFER supports. LIFER’s belief is that the competition would spur school districts to improve on both their academics and their cost-effectiveness, and would also help alleviate their burden.

“If they were really interested in lowering taxes and that truly was their only issue, then it fascinates me that they’re okay with charter schools that drain money and cause increases in local taxes,” Mr. Iannuzzi said.

In addition to diverting much-needed resources from public schools, NYSUT argues, charter schools often have under-enrollment of special needs students and students who are not fluent in English. The union claims that private school tax rebates are a stepping stone to private school vouchers (which it also opposes) and use public money for institutions that are often exclusionary. LIFER also supports reducing tenure and coming down harder on teacher salaries.
Mr. Iannuzzi said that NYSUT supports Governor Spitzer’s objective of tightening tenure guidelines, and that salary increases reward teachers for hard work. He also noted, “The salaries on LI that always make the paper are the ones that come with thirty years of teaching and Masters degrees, plus 60 or 75 credits.”

The superintendent speaks
Dr. Charles Murphy’s presence on the panel was owing to the Sachem School Board’s proposed budget including a decreased tax levy. This is Dr. Murphy’s second year in his position. Last year, the Sachem budget included a 1.5 percent levy increase.

A successful (i.e. reduced) budget, according to Dr. Murphy, requires a clearly-defined, long-term plan; transparency with the public; tax sensitivity; and a good relationship between the school board and the superintendent. “They gave me the tools to do my job,” he said of the board he worked with. The board was strong, he said, in the face of opposition from parents and teachers to program cuts.

Other keys to smart budgeting he highlighted were realism, frugality and a savvy bargaining ability. Nothing was done simply because it always had been. The budget was started over from scratch and programs cut that had been in place for 30 years. Dr. Murphy stressed several times that a board’s objective is to do what is “appropriate” rather than do what is “best”, and that it is important to remember that the words are not synonyms. As an example, he said the district should refuse to pay for alternative schooling for a special needs child when the district offers the child an education that is good, if not the best.

Dr. Murphy said that boards should look closely at what they spend on special ed, making one of the few references to that costly and contentious topic during the event. He personally approves every purchase made by the district, and said that furniture and technology are two major sources of waste. Technology soon becomes obsolete, he said, and faculty requests things such as computerized “smart boards” – or “glorified chalk boards”, as he called them – that they can just as well do without.

Dr. Murphy points to the deal struck over one software program – it was initially offered to the district for $300,000 and was eventually obtained for $60,000 – as proof that boards should always be prepared to haggle and to walk away from a prospective deal after the first offer. A key thing to remember about state aid, he said, is that there is no knowing that it will be around from one year to the next, and should be handled cautiously.

A few more suggestions
The panel indicated that a key to reforming school funding and spending is to get the message out. All too often, they complained, school budget votes are not adequately publicized and a disproportionate number of voters are parents. Raymond Keating said that parents of children who attend private schools should be reaching out to each other more and uniting in their effort to obtain tax rebates.

As it stands now, school districts whose proposed budgets are rejected by districts must fall back on contingency budgets with automatic 3.6 percent increases. Roger Bogsted wants to see the increase done away with.

Legislator Lynne Nowick was on the panel in her capacity as founder and co-chair of the 17-member Suffolk Homeowners Tax Reform Commission. The exploratory commission examined numerous methods of reforming taxes. Some – such as funding schools through additional income taxes and sales taxes – were deemed unfeasible. Others are still being kicked around.

Among these are increasing state aid to 50 percent (it can be assumed others on the panel weren’t thrilled to hear this put forward), raising caps on the amount of money districts are allowed to have in reserve, creating a one-percent luxury tax on purchases of homes valued at over $1 million, and introducing VLTs (video lottery terminals), which Ms. Nowick says reaps hundreds of millions of dollars annually for Yonkers.

Ms. Nowick said that although she has no jurisdiction over school policy, she and the other commission members felt obligated to explore ways to raise money that could be earmarked for education. NYSUT’s Richard Iannuzzi might think it would be better for everyone if they hadn’t bothered. “We’re in a time where the Governor and the [state] legislature have made historic commitments to education and they’re looking for a system where those resources drive reforms and results,” he said. “NYSUT supports that and it’s not going to help achieve those goals if we’re going to be distracted by charter schools, tax credits and LIFER.”

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