Three ideas for public school districts facing massive budget cuts.

Yesterday morning I entered the following search terms into Google News: “budget cuts school district.”  I didn’t stop perusing the articles until I got through 40 of the more than 7,000 listed, and the articles were still dated May 21 and May 20 (the two prior days).  I skipped ahead to the 120th article and we were still on May 18 (less than a week ago).

The 40 stories over a two-day period to which I linked came from all over the country, including South Berkeley, Michigan;  Great Falls, Montana; Iowa City, Pennsylvania; Levittown, Pennyslvania; Logan, Utah, the Meridian School District in Idaho;  the Plymouth School District in Sheboygan, Wisconsin; and the Pendleton School District in Oregon.

Most of the articles bemoaned the fact that state and federal budget cuts were leading to teacher and support staff layoffs and the curtailing of programs.  Of special note are these shockers:

While there are a handful of stories about districts raising taxes (usually the millage on property taxes) or doing fundraising, the tone of virtually all the stories favored defeatist and discouraged hand-wringing.  School boards, parents and teachers seem to accept their fate in an oddly disoriented, almost catatonic way. We’ve seen some anger, but not as much as I think there should be among either parents or school districts. 

In fact, I think we should be seeing people everywhere up in arms!

The anger should be directed at our politicians for preferring the interest of one group of Americans above all others: the wealthy.

Board members tend to be smart, educated and media savvy.  They must know these well-documented facts:

  • If Americans, and in particular the wealthy, paid in taxes today what they did 30 years ago, we wouldn’t have the tax shortages that are forcing these terrible cut-backs, which will hurt children, and in particular children in the poorest school districts.
  • The recently negotiated budget cuts are paying for the two-year extension of the temporary tax breaks for those making more than $250,000 per year.
  • While many Americans bemoan the many “failures” of education in this country, an overwhelming majority think their own children are getting or had a fine education in their public schools.

These facts form the basis for action by school boards and calls to action to residents of the school district.

I want to recommend the following actions to school board members. Some provide immediate funds to staunch the bleeding, while others can help to build towards a more permanent financing solution. 

1. Immediately raise school taxes, even if it’s a temporary move.

Most school districts have taxing authority, often over real estate.  The rationale for increasing the millage or other taxes is straight-forward: Everyone is paying less than they should in federal taxes now and we need this money to educate our children.  To make the tax increase fair, school districts could consider a number of ideas: in many school districts it might be possible to exempt retired people with houses under a certain value from the additional amounts or to add a tier of additional taxes on those properties worth more than a certain value.

Raising taxes in the current environment will take a lot of courage.  In many school districts, there are sure to be recall campaigns, financed by those who have abdicated their responsibility for educating all our children in return for a few, or many, pieces of silver.  But I would hope that voters whose children’s lives are improved by the increased millage will offset the “taxes are always too high” bunch. 

2. Close down all charter schools that do not perform better than the public school.

That will mean closing down most charter schools, since all studies show that most charter schools underperform both in the classroom and on standardized tests. Charter schools take money from public schools, much of which is turned into profit for the charter school operator.  By returning charter school students to the public school classrooms, the public schools can put this “profit” back to work to educate children.

3. Make sure the voters know whose fault it is.

School boards (perhaps jointly with teachers unions) should send to all voters a monthly update of the following lists:

  • State and federal legislators and announced candidates who have voted to cut education or proposed such cuts.
  • State and federal legislators and announced candidates who are voting to cut taxes or to continue temporary tax cuts or who support such moves.

People need to know just who it is who continues to transfer wealth from the poor and the middle class up the ladder to the wealthy by extending a three-decades-old low-tax regime while demanding draconian cuts to education (and to alternative energy, infrastructure improvements, the elderly and health care).

Most school districts have a public relations budget.  I recommend that over the short term, most of it be dedicated to a campaign that communicates one message: “We need to raise federal income taxes to support the education of our children.”

The last election saw right-wingers who want to lower taxes more and cut funds for public education sweep into office, but they didn’t win because an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with their views.  They won because their voters went to the polls and those who would prefer a more equitable distribution of the wealth in the United States stayed home. 

The right-wingers were, of course, aided in the last election by the mainstream news media, which consistently framed issues in conservative terms, gave far more coverage to Republican candidates and events and kept hidden key facts that might have energized Democratic, young and minority voters to come to the polls. But school districts can speak directly to voters, with notes to parents, the monthly newsletter, the district website and school meetings.  Moreover, school districts are too big to ignore in the local news media.  School districts can build a let’s raise taxes to where they once were so we can educate our children message into everything they send the media, from the announcement of how the kids did on standardized tests to the cute feature on careers day.

It’s time for school boards to take a stand in favor of the constituency they are supposed to represent: the youth of America (as Casey Stengel used to say).  Those who say that the school boards in fact represent the entire community have said the same thing because the school board’s charge from the community is to ensure quality and cost-effective education.  It is the fervent and ethical pursuit of that mission that school boards owe to their communities.  The special interest group that school boards represent are not those who want a low-tax regime or selfish, but the children in the district.  That representation demands that school boards take a stand today for higher taxes.

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