By William J. Mathis
“With small flags waving and tinny blasts on tiny trumpets, we shall meet the enemy, and not only may he be ours, he may be us.” — Pogo
With tinny trumpet blasts emanating and echoing from Montpelier and Washington, our policymakers do not realize that they may be the bigger part of the problem. Ironically, they also have the keys to the solution. Yet, they continue to demonstrate about what is convenient rather than what is necessary.
Contrary to current political proposals, imperial decrees commanding school costs to stop rising have little effect upon these tides. We must look deeper.
Beginning with the federal government, the U.S. Department of Education’s own inspector general says there are at least 588 state and local compliance requirements in the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Unnoticed in Vermont’s cost debate is that federal education funds have been level or decreasing for the past three years. Using national added cost factors, these mandates are estimated to cost Vermont schools $360 million in new, hidden, or displaced costs. To pay these costs, the feds give us $61 million.
While the sensible decision would have been to turn down such a bad deal, our state policymakers accepted the law — and then complain about local schools’ bad spending habits.
Subtly, these factors ooze into school cost increases. For example, the governor has said Vermont school staffing has increased 22 percent. The state Department of Education official records report a more modest 1.8 percent increase between 2003 and 2006. Digging a little further, teacher and aide numbers have gone up less than one-half of one percent. However, data processing staff has increased 126 percent, and business office clerks have shot up by 33 percent. What do these new people do? They fill out state and federal forms, count beans, and comply with mandates.
In 2006, the Vermont Department of Education sent 410 memos, 166 “advisories” as to how programs should be run, and issued 92 separate requirements or orders compelling local review and action. Twenty-four more mandates spewed forth that required actions of some group.
Certainly, state mandates regarding bullying, hazing, harassment, action plans, school quality surveys, air quality, emergency drills, testing, etc. have laudable purposes. While schools are stretched to meet these requirements, they are buried beneath an avalanche of paper — and at the same time our state policymakers say that local districts are spending too much money.
The governor, for example, calls for caps on school spending increases that would step down to 3.5 percent per year. Some legislators, apparently unaware of the natural variation in costs, have proposed that citizens in towns that spend 15 percent above the average should pay a tax penalty.
Sadly, this kind of thinking punishes the victim. Neither the federal nor state government has distinguished itself on health care reform (although Vermont has taken some steps).
During the last 10 years, health costs alone added an average of 1.8 percent per year to school budgets. Likewise, federal and state special education mandates increased the budget an average of 1.2 points annually. New technology needs, mandates, and paper pushing add another point. If we give teachers and staff a 3 percent cost of living increase, that adds another 1.8 percent per year. That’s 5.8 percent per year.
The governor’s proposed cap of 3.5 percent is busted by outside budget pressures alone.
Yet, the state could do something about the real problems. They could push aggressively for relief from pass-through federal mandates or for adequate federal funding. They could say “no” to programs that cost more than we get. They could remedy school and business health care costs. They could eliminate mandates in their own laws and regulations. They could relieve dubious process and reporting requirements. Caught in the convenient, they don’t do the necessary.
Certainly, school spending has increased faster than inflation. But only a part is within the control of local schools. Most notably, we hear about small class sizes. However, these are often requested by parents, and are shown to improve academic and social outcomes.
Fundamentally, school costs can only be addressed by resolving the real drivers of these costs. At the same time, policymakers must recognize that blaming the victim leaves only barren ground.
If we merely wave small flags and blow tinny trumpets while proclaiming solutions that don’t solve, we will have met the real problem — and it will not be the schools.
William J. Mathis is the superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union.