Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Wyoming! Wake Up and Smell the Coffee!

The School Funding Recalibration committee meeting in Casper, WY apparently went better than expected. There was little talk about raising taxes, although that may simply be a smart tactical maneuver by the committee. In fact, with some notable exceptions there were a lot of heads stuck in the sand up there in Casper...

The Casper Star Tribune reports:
Lawmakers and educators met Monday to begin the process of adjusting — or fully replacing — the state’s education funding model, which faces a $400 million annual shortfall in the coming years. 
So now it is only $400 million...? I guess the $1 billion scare tactics did not work.
But the total deficit is still on track to reach $700-750 million by 2020. After that, it will stabilize, barring, of course, any productive measures to increase growth and reduce government spending. 

Apparently, our state's school administrators and school-board politicians have stuck their heads in the sand and intend for them to remain there. The Tribune again:
The meeting comes as educators begin grappling with recent cuts and lawmakers plan the next move in dealing with the crisis. At least one school district has already passed a resolution authorizing a lawsuit in the future, while other boards are poised to do the same. Educators have said recent cuts by the Legislature have exceeded what is statutorily and constitutionally allowed.
With all due respect to the constitutional scholars of this world... You can make gravity unconstitutional. That does not mean gravity will cease to exist. You can stipulate whatever government spending you want in a constitution - if the economy cannot deliver the resources, then there will be no government spending. That's it. Period. End of story.

Maybe it is time to rewrite the Wyoming constitution on this point. After all, making entitlement spending - and K-12 education belongs in that category - a constitutional mandate is a safe way to economic ruin.
House Bill 236 [the school omnibus bill] enacts more than $34 million in cuts to public education. Those reductions are set for only the coming school year, and the bill implicitly states that they’re temporary because of the hopes being pinned on recalibration. 
I am not entirely sure I read HB236 exactly the same way, but let us assume for a moment that the Tribune is correct. This means that the legislature, when it passed HB236, was really hoping to buy itself some time and get out of the session spotlight. Now that the session is over, it would be easier to begin a quiet push for higher taxes. 

If this is indeed true; if this is the reasoning behind HB236; then it is getting pretty crowded with all those heads down there in the sand.

Before we continue, a brief report from inside the School Funding Committee meeting. Please disregard the first short segment; the committee meeting starts at 50 seconds, and the committee members begin talking about the future of our school system at approximately 3:15. 

After this brief intermission, now back to the story from the Casper Star Tribune:
Generally speaking, lawmakers, with the advice of consultants and input from educators, parents and other stakeholders, can decide to continue with or tweak the model they’ve used for more than a decade, known as the evidence-based model, or pick a different, potentially cheaper, alternative. Educators and some lawmakers warn that picking a cheaper option solely because it costs less is not what recalibration is intended for. “In the end, are we here to do a comprehensive solution?” House Speaker Steve Harshman asked at the beginning of the meeting. “If we think recalibration is going to somehow find $400 million a year in savings, I think we traveled here for the wrong reason today.” 
Speaker Harshman is correct. The funding deficit is structural in nature. Therefore, only structural reforms to the school system will solve the problem. But I am not sure that Speaker Harshman fully understands the meaning of structural reforms: it does not mean rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic - it means getting off the boat and finding a new one.

Put bluntly: it means fundamentally redesigning the way we deliver K-12 education in our state.

There is actually a glimmer of hope that the committee might move in this direction. Senate President Bebout and a couple of others asked the very first question that would open for a candid structural-reform debate. The Tribune again: 
Bebout, who joined the meeting by conference call, raised a broader question: Given that Wyoming spends significantly more per student than its regional neighbors, is the state getting a reasonable return on its investment? Sen. Dave Kinskey, R-Sheridan, agreed, saying the evaluation of the current model or any new ones should begin with a focus on student achievement. In recalibration, “we need to look at the overall cost of education,” Bebout said. “What we have now simply isn’t working when we spend the amount of money we’re spending and we don’t perform any better than we’ve been performing.” Bill Schilling, the executive director of the Wyoming Business Alliance, testified to lawmakers that he wasn’t sure if Wyoming’s students would be worse off academically if it didn’t so richly fund its education system. 
Glad to hear Mr. Schillling bring this up. Unfortunately...
[Schilling's] solution to the $400 million annual deficit was to cut $200 million from education and raise $200 million in new revenues. “That’s about 5 percent, or 6 percent, for K-12,” he said. “This is the reality. And the reality isn’t going to go away.” 
He is wrong on the precentages, but more importantly: could Mr. Schilling please explain what $200 million in new taxes would do to Wyoming families? Who is going to pay those taxes? May I remind Mr. Schilling that the tax well is drying up. It does not matter if you raise property, sales or excise taxes - nor does it matter if you introduce an income tax; at the end of the day, all the money paying those taxes come out of the same personal income.

If you raise taxes on businesses, they will only pass that on to employees by cutting their hours, and customers - as best they can - by raising prices. They will continue to do this until they have become so uncompetitive that they either close the door or move to another state. Either way, the state ends up losing tax revenue. 

Hopefully, Mr. Schilling will take another look at the idea of a $200-million tax increase. Others who should rethink their current education-policy ideas are the aforementioned administrators and school-board politicians who have decided that this is the right time to sue the state for not drawing enough blood from taxpayers. The Tribune explains:
Added to the drama is the real possibility that the state could again be dragged into court by school districts. Last week, the Campbell County school board passed a resolution allowing the district to sue the state, in direct response to recent cuts and ahead of recalibration talks. 
Sure. Suing the state will suddenly, by means of a magic wand, replenish the Wyoming economy with taxpayers. New private-sector income will descend like manna from heaven, ready to be squeezed for taxes like ripe oranges.

But, as the Tribune reports, no head was stuck more deeply in the sand than that of the superintendent for Sweetwater School District 2:
Donna Little-Kaumo, the superintendent for Sweetwater County School District No. 2, said last week that her board will consider a nearly identical resolution. On Monday, she sat in front of lawmakers and testified that other states that might outperform Wyoming might have eliminated their arts programs. She lamented the cuts to funding for instructional materials, like textbooks, that will hurt districts like hers, which had to layoff three employees. “What do we want our kids to have in Wyoming?” she asked. She said later that she was disheartened by the early discussions at the meeting, which educators said last week could determine whether districts file suit against the state. She felt there was a “distaste” for education by some lawmakers. Sweetwater 2 and Campbell County are part of a coalition of roughly a dozen districts, and Little-Kaumo said that other members of the group were considering resolutions that would clear the way for future lawsuits. 
Three employees. 

Three. 1, 2, 3. 

In the past four years, Sweetwater County has lost 2,650 private-sector jobs, more than 70 private establishments have closed their doors, and county residents have lost almost $26 million in wage earnings.

In 2015 the average annual earnings on a private service job in Sweetwater was less than $39,600 per year. That was a drop by more than three percent in one year. In the meantime, school superintendents like Ms. Little-Kaumo make over $132,000 per year, all courtesy of hard working, low paid employees in private businesses.

Wake up and smell the coffee, Ms. Superintendent. 

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