by Laurie H. Rogers
I was asked recently to articulate to a legislator my thoughts and concerns about public education funding and accountability. Ah, so much to say â¦ about funding; accountability, the Common Core initiatives, and the McCleary Decision on education funding.
Legislators love to give more of our tax dollars to K-12 education, but they aren't good at pursuing accountability or transparency from administrators and school boards. That's partly because they listen too much to the Edu Mob, and not enough to We, the People.
What legislators hear from the Edu Mob is usually contrary to what actually needs to be done for the children, so we advocates have little hope of ever nailing down solutions. After six+ years of advocacy, I'm profoundly tired of hearing legislators state, year after year, "Education needs more money!"
Question #1: What basis do legislators have for saying that K-12 education is underfunded, or that funding has been cut, or that more money will produce a better education system?
Does anyone in the legislature know how much money is spent on K-12 education, including the school districts, the Educational Service Districts (ESDs), and the state education agency (OSPI)? Does anyone know how much is spent on capital costs and technology? Can anyone provide a comparison of how much was spent for all of K-12 education in 2002 vs. 2012? No? Then why are legislators so sure that districts need more money?
When we ask OSPI for the total costs of K-12 education in Washington State, the numbers we get likely won't include capital costs or the costs to run OSPI. We might have to ask a few times for a total cost, and even then, we'll probably have to dig out the truth ourselves. It's a pile of money, even accounting for inflation, and 40-50% of it does not go to the classroom.
Question #2: Does anyone in the legislature intend to find out where the money is going?
Do legislators plan to hold administrators accountable for expenditures, seek transparency for outcomes, or ensure that those who lied to the people about expenditures or outcomes are forced out, and that those who violated open-government laws (i.e. regarding public meetings, campaigning, and public records) are held legally accountable? I ask because I see very little legislative interest in any of this.
Question #3: Does anyone in the legislature care that the recent "McCleary Decision" on school funding was based on an undefined word?
The McCleary Decision resulted from a lawsuit filed against the State, which argued that the State is failing to live up to its obligation for "ample" funding of K-12 education. Driving this lawsuit was an organization called NEWS (Network for Excellence in Washington Schools). NEWS says it represents "students, parents, teachers, administrators and other citizens who are united in advocacy for public school funding." (Obviously, the folks behind NEWS believe that increased public school funding will bring excellence in the schools.)
NEWS is largely made up of school districts and their unions (which would be happy financial beneficiaries of any decision for the plaintiffs). The president and former president of NEWS are, respectively, school superintendents Nick Brossoit, Edmonds; and Mike Blair, Chimacum.
In 2010, a Superior Court judge ruled for the plaintiffs, and in January 2012, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the decision. In an unusual move, the Supreme Court also retained jurisdiction over the case as a way to ensure that legislators would cough up the money.
The argument behind the lawsuit doesn't paint an accurate picture of the funding situation, however. What does "ample" mean? School districts across the state have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on layers of administration, academically useless "professional development," never-ending purchases of unproved or deeply flawed instructional materials and supplementary materials, techno toys, contracts, legal advice, food for adults, travel, consultants, new systems and programs, new assessments, administrative raises, and a plethora of other things that don't help academic learning one bit. And when we try to find out exactly where the money went, some of them don't want to tell us.
Just one legal firm, for example, has received millions of taxpayer dollars from Spokane Public Schools, and this district uses several legal firms. Those legal expenses aren't itemized in the publicly released budget. School districts also are allowed to report expenditures within the intended program, not as a line-item expense, so they can throw all sorts of things into program categories, and they do. Expenditures for "instruction," therefore, include non-instruction items such as professional development, administrator salaries, travel and food. I requested a list of expenditures by line item, and I was told they "don't break it down that way."
There is a huge amount of waste in public education, much of it hidden from the public.
Question #4: Has anyone in the legislature attempted to hold education administrators accountable for their decades-long failure to produce well-educated students?
In education, failure begets more money. Administrators therefore have a perverse incentive to not succeed. I'm not saying they deliberately try to fail, yet there are few consequences for failure, and there are huge financial gains resulting from failure, so they have little motivation to weed out incompetent administration, eliminate bad programs and curricula, or install products, people and programs that are PROVED to succeed. They don't have to police themselves, and there is no way for the public to police them. They seem to feel no sense of urgency to get it right. They just keep failing our children, patting themselves on the back for their "hard work," while fueled by an increasing number of taxpayer dollars.
Question #5: Are any legislators well versed on what a successful academic program looks like? Or, are they all taking as gospel what they're told by administrators, unions, policy makers, pro-money groups and the federal government?
Do legislators listen to parents? Do they listen to math advocates? Do they not realize that children are NOT coming out of the K-12 system well educated, despite all of the fake numbers produced by officials every spring and fall? Do they not see the physical and emotional toll on the children from not having enough academics to progress, graduate, go to college, get a job, join the military, or even fill out a job application? Do legislators not feel a sense of urgency to fix this problem now? If they feel the same urgency I feel, they certainly don't show it.
Question #6: Does anyone in the legislature care about district accuracy in reporting, with consequences for those who don't engage in it?
In 2012, local administrators told the public (while promoting their upcoming levy) that their operating budget had been cut over 10 years by just more than $45 million, while the truth — easily located on the OSPI Web site — is that the operating budget had grown by about $80 million over that decade. The difference is massive. How do they get away with it?
It's hard for citizens to know where public dollars go, when expenditures are allowed to be shoved into dark recesses of the budget or hidden in the category of "instruction," and when so much money every year is hidden, not reported or misspent.
As for academics, state and local reporting on student academic outcomes is annually preposterous. Happy numbers are reported with breathless, self-congratulatory enthusiasm each year, always on the rise, always worth celebrating — and awards are handed out for amazing improvements — yet little of it bears any resemblance to what we see in the children's actual levels of academic capability.
The overall deceit is so huge, most people refuse to believe it.
THE COMMON CORE INITIATIVES:
Question #7: Has anyone in the legislature initiated opposition to the prospect of spending at least a billion taxpayer dollars on the Common Core initiatives — an arguably illegal takeover of public education by the federal government?
The Common Core initiatives are unproved. There are no student data behind them to support them; they are national pilots of unknown and politically biased products. They were adopted in Washington State under a shady process, and they will cost Washington taxpayers at least a billion dollars and the nation at least a trillion dollars. They've already removed much local decision-making power, pushing parents farther out of the process, while promoting a biased political agenda and still not providing students with sufficient academics. They're already leading many districts back to more math programs that lack direct instruction or standard algorithms, and to more English programs that lack sufficient grammar or classic literature.
As everyone complains about money, why are legislators spending a billion taxpayer dollars on unproved, unnecessary and politically biased products? Sorry to be blunt, but this is not bipartisan leadership; it's bipartisan foolishness. No successful business would operate like this.
And by the way, the coming charter schools in Washington State will be using Common Core products. How does that represent academic "choice" for parents and students?
THE MCCLEARY DECISION ON EDUCATION FUNDING:
Question #8: Do legislators realize that no one involved with the McCleary lawsuit had to explain where the previous money went, or why it failed to produce well-educated students?
I can efficiently teach my daughter algebra at the kitchen table with a used textbook, a piece of paper and a pencil. Why can't schools do the same with $12,000 per student? No one involved in the lawsuit had to itemize district, ESD and OSPI expenditures, or explain the academic failures.
No one is to be accountable for how the new money will be spent, either, or for any new failures in academic outcomes. Instead, the McCleary Decision means many of these failed administrators will get a financial windfall. Some are already counting it, preparing to spend money on things that have little or nothing to do with the classroom.
Question #9: Did anyone in the legislature question why the Supreme Court retained jurisdiction over the funding of education, essentially replacing the role of the legislature?
Legislators now must answer to the Supreme Court on funding, and they must do what the Supreme Court has decided, rather than answer to the people and do what the people have decided. As NEWS puts it, the Supreme Court ordered the State to "make annual progress reports to the court" and allowed "NEWS to respond to each of the State's reports to inform the Court of the accuracy of the State's claims."
The fox now guards the henhouse – NEWS officials advised the Supreme Court on how much more money they want. You won't be surprised to know that – on behalf of school districts and unions – NEWS decided that education requires billions more dollars, increasing each year. Legislators were ordered to pay up.
Thomas Ahearne, a lawyer for NEWS, reportedly suggested that the Court could punish legislators for not coming up with the money, by "imposing fines, cutting utility service to the legislative building or docking the pay" of legislators. What's next? Cement shoes? An "offer they can't refuse?" Meanwhile, We the People don't count at all. We have nowhere to go for help or recourse.
This Supreme Court decision to retain jurisdiction over funding is a bad precedent, a vast overreach, and it must be appealed. Legislators must not allow it to stand. In Tunstall v. Bergeson (2000), the Supreme Court itself expressly warned against judicial overreach into education decision-making.
Does this country still have a Constitution and a governing system of checks and balances, or doesn't it?
Question #10: Does anyone in the legislature know that the lawsuit resulting in the McCleary Decision was funded in part by district dollars – by taxpayer dollars?
When school districts wish to become a NEWS member, NEWS asks them to "make a public statement of support by passing a resolution" and by providing "a financial contribution to NEWS." NEWS helpfully "invoices" school districts for this "contribution."
Taxpayers therefore unknowingly helped pay for a lawsuit against the state – which is publicly funded – resulting in forcing more taxpayer dollars from taxpayers. How much money did this lawsuit cost taxpayers, not including the McCleary Decision itself? Where in district budgets are these costs? That's a true pile-on – public agencies, their unions, their money advocates, their lawyers, and their multitude of quasi-public associations â¦ And now the Courtâ¦ Who was there to speak up for the taxpayer?
Citizens in other states have attempted to get legislation written to outlaw being able to lobby like this with taxpayer dollars. This should happen in Washington State.
Much of the leadership in K-12 public education has repeatedly proved itself to be self-serving, unsuccessful, certain it's brilliant, mostly deaf to the public, overpaid, overfunded, not transparent and not publicly accountable. When will the legislature stop chasing after failure, wasting gobs of taxpayer dollars on those who care mostly about money, ego and power – and who don't even produce well-educated graduates?
This is the end of my rant. Public education, structured as it is, will never result in well-educated students. The Edu Mob's list of priorities begins and ends with money and power, and the legislature has tended to cater to those priorities every legislative session. Things will continue this way until enough of us have a) left the broken system, and b) voted for legislators who care more about student academics and district accountability than about getting more votes and donations from the Edu Mob.
Laurie H. Rogers has a bachelor's degree in mass communication and a master's in interpersonal communication, emphasizing the evaluation of argumentation and logic. In 2001, she founded Safer Child, Inc., a nonprofit child advocacy information resource. In 2007, she narrowed her advocacy to public education, and in 2010, she founded Focus on the Squareâ¢, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving American K-12 education.
Laurie is the author of the blog "Betrayed," located at http://betrayed-whyeducationisfailing.blogspot.com/. Her book Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America and What You Can Do about It (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2011) is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Besides serving on the executive committee for Where's the Math?, Laurie has a background in finance, journalism and child advocacy. She has volunteered in schools – tutoring children in literacy and math, and teaching chess, argumentation and knitting. She lives in Spokane with her husband, daughter and two cats.
Contact Laurie Rogers at [email protected].