Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Misplaced priorities: full-day kindergarten revisited, and other random thoughts

Montana Headlines had other priorities for a Memorial Day post, but there was an important article by Mike Dennison on Monday that deserves some commentary.

His article details all of the ways in which school administrators aren't happy with the school funding produced by the recent legislature. While there is $180 million in increased state funding, much of it is one-time, and some goes to reduce local property taxes in certain districts.

While there may be questions raised about how wisely individual school districts allocate their one-time spending when they have the money available, there can be little question that at least in places like Billings, there are infrastructure issues that need addressing. Parents and taxpayers should scrutinize how these funds are spent.

There is a problem, though, with at least one part of the increased funding, as pointed out by Superintendent Jack Regan in Miles City:

"If you start full-day kindergarten, yeah, that's a lot of money (this year), but we have to start a new program," he said. "It's not helping with teacher salaries or anything like that."

Indeed, and that is something that Montana Headlines repeatedly pointed out during the legislative session: full-day kindergarten may not be what a district needs most. Of the $180 million in increased school funding for the coming biennium, nearly $40 million, or 22%, is for full-day kindergarten. Of this, $10 million is start-up money and $30 million is ongoing funding for the biennium for the program. If Montana schools are so underfunded, was this really the best way to spend nearly a quarter of this new money?

We are told that we are at a big competitive disadvantage in recruiting teachers compared to Wyoming and Idaho. It is most interesting, incidentally, that the Gazette somehow neglected to compare Montana teacher salaries and workloads to those in our other two adjoining states -- North and South Dakota -- perhaps because Montana teachers make more, spoiling the theme. It isn't just the Gazette article, since today Helena Independent Record has an editorial that highlights the same comparisons with Wyoming and Idaho -- but no mention of the Dakotas.

But in this situation of competitive disadvantage, would we not want to allow schools to spend their part of that $40 million on something besides starting up and funding full-day kindergarten? For that matter, would we not want to give schools the option of eliminating kindergarten altogether but still get the same amount of money they would have been given for half-day kindergarten? All of that money could go toward paying higher teacher salaries. Schools who wanted lower salaries but full-day kindergarten could choose to spend their money that way.

Full-day kindergarten is sort of like "No Child Left Behind," AKA "No spring-break left intact due to testing days." There is money given, but it has to be spent on a new program, and there is no proven long-term benefit.

In fact, full-day kindergarten is worse. "No Child Left Behind" is federal money -- and Montana does pretty well when it comes to federal money in general, getting more than $1.50 in federal money for every $1 in federal tax paid. In addition, school districts have to come up with their share of the full-day kindergarten funding. Every year. This is apparently money they don't have, if they are already strapped for cash.

Of course, it is all the Republicans' fault according to the MEA:

Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union representing schoolteachers, said schools were starved for state money for nearly 15 years, from the early 1990s until 2005.

"You can't replace 20 years of bad budgeting in two legislative sessions," said Feaver...

Hm, weren't Republicans running the legislature for only 10 years? If so, that means 5 bad Democratic years -- or 10, if you use the "20 years of bad budgeting" number. Regardless, it is clear that Feaver considers it his job to give an apologia for the Democratic party's school funding budget, rather than to advocate for higher teacher salaries.

And when Feaver cites full-day kindergarten as a victory for teachers, it is hard not to suspect that his priority as head of the MEA was to create more teaching positions statewide, and hence more members of his union -- rather than to advocate for better pay for the union members he already had.

Likewise, we have the highest ranking educator on the state payroll weighing in with similar thoughts:

Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch said she always wishes schools could get more money, but that the 2007 Legislature approved many good things for schools.

The former teacher said state funding of full-day kindergarten is "the first statewide education reform initiative in anyone's memory we've done," and that it's a big step toward increasing the quality of education.

Leaving aside the arguable assertion that full-day kindergarten is a "reform initiative," let alone that this program was a good candidate for being "the first statewide education reform initiative in anyone's memory," we again see an emphasis on the expensive and ephemeral Shangri-La of full-day kindergarten.

The Montana educational establishment shouldn't be particularly surprised if voters don't turn a friendly ear toward them when they are clamoring for more money for teacher pay. Montana Headlines supported the recent initiative to raise the mill levy for schools in Billings. We did so knowing full well that much of the money was going to be spent (or rather misspent, in our view) on full-day kindergarten rather than on things needed much more -- infrastructure and better salaries.

What we find disappointing is that much of the Montana education establishment is going to spend money on a new program for which it agitated -- and yet perhaps simultaneously complain about not having enough money for existing programs. It's hard enough to convince voters that $32,000 (with the opportunity to make more at a second job during the summer vacation) is an unfair starting salary in Billings -- especially when the median income for males in the 2000 census was $32,525 and $21,824 for females.

Yes, the issue always brought up is competitiveness -- but we don't see many empty teaching slots in Billings, and our schools are full of excellent teachers. So where exactly is Billings failing to compete? There may be schools going begging for teachers -- in rural areas and small towns, for instance. There are real competitiveness problems there.

But every time Republicans proposed a school funding formula in the last session, it seemed that a common refrain from Democrats was that Republican formulas favored small schools and rural schools too much.

Given that the Democratic caucus is an overwhelmingly urban one (well, urban by Montana standards, anyway,) it is understandable that Democrats wouldn't want rural schools to have a funding advantage. But it seems a bit odd to have educators get on a soapbox about salary competitiveness after the party their union overwhelmingly supported ditched formulas that would have helped those schools most in need of help on the competitiveness front.

If one wanted to design a formula for ensuring a long wait before Billings voters approve another school funding initiative, it would start with having educators begin complaining about funding right after both local voters and the legislature approved funding increases.

If there is a silver lining, it is that at least some school administrators, such as Superintendent Dick Cameron of Broadus, are blaming Democrats for a change:

Cameron said many in the school community feel betrayed by Democrats, who had promised good increases in school funding if they came to power.

Yet with Democrats in control of the governorship and the state Senate, schools received a relatively small piece of the $1 billion surplus, he said.

"I can't think of a single superintendent of schools in the state that would vote for (Gov.) Brian Schweitzer again," he said.


Anonymous said...

Montana really does need to do some consolidation of school districts. I know that is not a popular topic and it is always a bloody mess but it does help get the funds to where they can do the most good. (Out of administration and into classrooms.)

Montana Headlines said...

Consolidation certainly seems to be a factor in the efficient use of funds in states like Wyoming, from what is reported.

School districts can be consolidated for administrative purposes, however, without being physically consolidated.

Here in Billings, every elementary school has a Principal and an assistant principal, for instance.

During the recent teachers' strike in Billings, one of the things that was publicized by the teachers was just how many administrators we have and how much they are paid -- we supposedly have a disproportionate number of administrators compared to most school districts.

Even in rural schools, administrators can cover small schools in neighboring towns. You don't have to nail plyboard over the windows of one school down and bus everyone to the other one in order to share costs and save money.

Inefficiencies in how money is used puts a big damper on people's willingness to vote for more funding.

ayn rand said...

We should remember that OPI makes a lot of regulations for schools.
For instance, a school with a campus concept, ie, middle school bldg, K-2 bldg, & 3-5 bldg, is required to employ three certified librarians rather than 1 certified librarian and two aides. Superintendants are required for a certain number of students and buildings and on and on. We have teachers in Missoula that make 75 K per 187 day contract. Can you say 400 Dollers per day? Also, I am under the impression that the Billings strike was settled soon after the teachers salerys were published, in a PAID ad verses a news item.

Anonymous said...

One incorrect statement is that federal government provides more money than we send--In education Montana only receives 18 cents from the federal government out of every dollar spent for special education, but the feds make the rules. Education dollars go to administration and not the classroom with the state regulations (accrediation standards)taking local decision making away from creative "local control." All day kindergarten was not about kid's education, but the 400 new union dues paying teachers the education bureaocracy was lobbying for.

Montana Headlines said...

No Child Left Behind was the thing being specifically referred to. It had been my understanding that the federal funding pays for the program and little else -- and that the state doesn't have to come up with much of anything for it.

In other words, the federal funding for NCLB is "free money," but it pays for a worthless program that we would be better off without.

That may not be a correct assessment.

Other federal dollars for education are probably as unfavorable as you say.