Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Addressing Public Education in Alaska - Part One: A Learning Moment

--- by Andrew Halcro

January 25, 2012: Dear Mr. and Mrs. Alaska, we regret to inform you that critical thinking died a tragic death in the House Education Committee this week. I'm sorry, but today's blog wasn't supposed to turn out this way.

To be honest, today's blog was planned to be a simple rewrite of a column I did on school choice over six weeks ago. I had originally intended to recycle the piece with some quotes and pithy observations from Tuesday's House Education Committee meeting.

But then the bigger, more troubling picture came into focus.

With ninety percent of Alaskan children attending public schools, lawmakers are considering adopting legislation along with amending the state constitution that would turn Alaska's public school system on its head. The bill would allow public money to be used to fund private and religious schools.

My previous column (linked above) describes exactly why the legislation (HB145) raises serious concerns regarding fairness, finance and unintended consequences. All of which are clearly visible to those who aren't blinded by the idea of a religious renaissance in Alaskan education.

However, shortly after Tuesday's committee meeting, it occurred to me; the real story wasn't about this short sighted legislation, it was about the alarming absence of critical thinking exhibited by lawmakers who were discussing the most dramatic shift in education since Alaska became a state.

What the hell did I just say?

The committee discussion sounded like the mob had executed a hit on critical thinking.
Leave the gun, take the canole. 

The debate about vouchers, school choice, or whatever you want to call taxpayers money flowing to private schools has been around for more than a decade. Ten years ago former Rep. Vic Kohring (R-Wasilla) was the standard barer of the public cash to religious organizations cabal. Today it's his successor, State Rep. Wes Keller (R-Wasilla).

The theory has always gone that kids will get a better education if government embraces competition and allows parents to use taxpayer money to pay tuition at private and religious schools.

It's a bad idea. This year we're paying private tuitions, next year were funding private school improvements. Anytime you give groups with political power direct access to state coffers, you're in for a penny in for a pound. Consider the recent controversy over tax exemptions passed for a politically connected religious group.

But it's not just the bad public policy, it's the way the bill was handle by committee members which made me ask; when did we stop thinking?

During the committee discussion, the issue arose regarding how the money allocated to pay for these new private tuition scholarships would be accounted for. One Republican stated they should just fund education in one pot and let the free market sort it out.

The free market? Really.

The free market has already sorted it out. The private schools that exist today are products of the free market where sellers established their product and pricing and attracted willing buyers. They built their schools by taking risks and hinging their success based on their ability to compete in the marketplace.

That's a free market.

What this legislation will do is inject a massive government subsidy that will distort market dynamics and create government sponsored winners and losers. This is AGIA with a backpack.

And while some want to frame it as an issue of competition, this bill would allow parents who are currently paying private school tuition, to get reimbursed with public dollars. This isn't fostering a free market, this is a bailout.

It's even more distorted when you realize recipients will receive state tax dollars when they don't pay any state taxes.

But not one committee member asked about the economic sense of this commitment. Especially with budget deficits projected in just a few fiscal years.  

Later in the hearing, the same lawmaker went on to advocate for combining the annual education appropriation into just one big pot so it would be easier to debit the public school money and credit the private school account. So for every dollar we spend supporting private schools, we'll automatically deduct a commensurate amount from public schools.

This is never going to happen.

Every district in the state is struggling to make ends meet including Juneau where they're considering laying off teachers. Alaska's communities are not going to stand idly by as state education funding is siphoned away to private schools that bare none of the costly burdens but get all of the bounty.

There were two other major components of this legislation that also should have drawn serious concerns from committee members.

In addition to paying tuition, the bill calls for the state to pay for the student's transportation cost based on the same cost per student as the host district. In Anchorage the allocation is $384 per student, per year.

Here's the thing; the $384 dollars the Anchorage School District gets per student will not come close to covering private school transportation costs.

The cost per unit paid by the ASD is base upon moving tens of thousands of students around Anchorage every school day. There is no way private schools can compete with the ASD's economy of scale in providing the same city wide transportation for the same cost.

Point being: How long do you think it takes before private schools begin lobbying lawmakers for an increase in transportation funding? 

The bill also allows private schools to enjoy an exemption from having to meet the state's required minimum number for a recognized school. The current state minimum for continued state funding is ten students.

Look, if you have less than ten students to start a school, then you don't have a school - you have a very large family. However this legislation would allow for a two year grace period to allow start ups to achieve the minimum standard. 

But not one committee member raised questions about the cost utilization of funding such small start ups and then throwing in transportation. And not a single member asked if making exemptions to the student minimums impacted public schools.

Nor did anyone bring up the predictable cost shifts to the state treasury while oil production is falling faster than you can say vouchers.

Since the sponsor testified the money for the program "has to grow," and since there is no way to play a zero sum game with existing education funding, more money would have to be appropriated every year for the tuition scholarships. That means an expensive new entitlement program at a time when the legislative finance director testified to the House Finance Committee that state government needs to reign in spending.

But again, committee members could barely muster an ounce of critical thinking.

Towards the end of the hearing, the issue surrounding the mechanics of funding the program resurfaced, prompting Rep. Keller to convince committee members that their concerns would be addressed in the next committee.

Keller's comments represent the single biggest cop out lawmakers take in the legislative process; defer to another committee. Nothing pisses me off more than when I hear a committee chair say a topic of discussion should be deferred to another committee. It's a convenient excuse for not having to understand the total impacts of the bill. It's also why so many bad pieces of public policy pass into law.

In this case, education committee members appeared to be all to willing to ignore the pesky little details like how do we financially sustain this new program and how will this impact the public school system which serves ninety percent of Alaskan students.

This is a cop out because everything is relative when it comes to public education policies.

Do these education committee members realize that the financial impacts on education in Alaska is their purview? Do they realize that this bill will have significant impacts on every other component of the state's education system from the base student allocation to pre-k and higher education? Do they understand that such a monumental piece of legislation should pass a more rigorous examination than simply waving it around as if it were a base runner sprinting for home?

The real tragedy is that at a time when lawmakers should be looking to strengthen a public school system that serves ninety percent of Alaska's school students, they're proposing to decimate it.

I can still remember the day I was in ASD Superintendent Carol Comeaux's office a few years back, interviewing her for a column I was writing. She told me the story about how the previous morning ten newly arrived Hmong children, who didn't speak a word of english, were enrolled in an East Anchorage elementary school.

This story highlights the irony and the audacity of Rep. Keller calling his proposed legislation school choice.

Until private and religious schools have to accept all students without exception like public schools are required to, this isn't about competition and it certainly isn't about true school choice.

It's an expensive mirage packaged as school choice that will allow private and religious schools to feed off the public trough while not having to meet any of the responsibilities that their public school counterparts must.

Again, not one word from education committee members questioning the long term impacts on Alaska's public school system. Not one to question how we fund a new program when we're currently struggling to fund our existing education obligations. Not one word to question why the state should fund schools that get to pick and choose what students they accept.

Yet these are the hands that hold Alaska's education future.

In the words of a famous fictional educator, "Bueller, Bueller, anyone, anyone."

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