Thursday, November 24, 2005

No Child Left Behind -- How do you pay for it?

Still no well-developed thoughts yet, but one angle hit me this morning: Does NCLB place any requirements on a school system that should not be there?

Let's forget about administrative costs for the moment, and just think about what outcomes NCLB is after. Are there any of those outcomes which are bad or fruitless?

I hear school administrators (including the ones in my family) say NCLB is an unfunded mandate, as though that is something new, or something necessarily bad.

There are all kinds of requirements placed on school systems that aren't necessarily followed by funding from the government entity that issues the requirement. For example, school buildings are required to have fire alarm systems and sprinklers for the safety of the students and staff. This requirement is usually set by the state or municipal building code. But there is no expectation on the part of the school administration that either one of those government entities will provide the money to add the fire safety systems to the school buildings.

After all, the people that would be taxed by the municipality are the same folks who get taxed by the school system. So in the end, it doesn't make any difference which entity collects the tax, the same people are paying for the safety systems.

Maybe we should think of NCLB as a "safety standard." What one labels things can make a big difference in how others think about it (you can sell “manure” at the garden store, but not “feces”). The intended purpose of NCLB, at least as I understand it, is to ensure that school systems don't just give up on the kids that are challenging or expensive to educate.

Like the installation of a fire safety system, implementing NCLB will cost more in districts that don't already pay attention to the kids on the margin. The question is where that money should come from, and that question takes us back to libertarian vs liberal political views (more labels).

My view, which I guess you could label as libertarian, is that you should leave local matters up to local governments, and the more localized the better. In the case of NCLB, I can accept that the federal government has the duty and power to set national education standards that have to be met if you want to run a school. I’m also supportive of the concept that every American kid must have access to a decent education.

So now the question becomes: To how small a government entity can we delegate the funding duty?

A single school system is too small, at least here in Ohio. The approach of having urban, suburban and rural school districts, funded primarily by property taxes, means there is a broad diversity in the economic capacity across districts. So you need to have some kind of Robin Hood taxation system which pulls money from the wealthiest areas and gives it to the poorest ones.

In Ohio, we perform the redistribution function at the state level. Another choice is at the county level, and that might work pretty well here in Franklin County. But then Madison County, our neighbor to the west, might be in trouble. It is almost all farmland, but with suburban sprawl moving over its borders. That means more kids but an insufficient tax base, because of the lack of significant commercial activity in that county. I suppose that we could contemplate school funding zones which are comprised of multiple counties – something on the order of economic zones as defined by the US Dept of Commerce. Maybe we match them up with Congressional districts – wouldn’t that put on new spin on gerrymandering?!

That bring us to exactly where Ohio is today – overlaying the district level funding with a statewide funding system. It may not be working well, but it could if our elected officials fulfilled their duty. Ohio has a broad enough economy that we should be able to fund and administer our NCLB duties entirely within the state.

But what about my home state of West Virginia? The population of the entire state is about the same as Greater Columbus, but WV has very little commercial underpinnings, and it is shrinking every day (one bright spot is the major presence Toyota has established near Charleston). WV schools need help from other states to if they are to operate at higher standards.

Seems to me that if you argue that the federal government should fund any standard they put in place, then you are saying that the Robin Hood system for school funding should be broadened to the federal level. In other words, there are states which cannot raise the money to fund NCLB within their own borders.

Remember, every school system in every town, in every county, in every state has to meet the same standard. Every citizen of the US that the federal government would tax is also a citizen of a state, a county and a community.

If we think NCLB should be funded at the federal level, then why not federalize all public schools?

Which brings up situations like New Orleans. At what point does it become the duty of the head of a household to say, “it sucks around here, let’s move someplace better.” During the middle of the 20th century, there was a mass migration from Appalachia to the manufacturing centers in Ohio and Michigan. During the Depression, waves of people moved from the Ozarks to California. Those folks didn’t wait for the government to come make their life better – they lashed everything they could to the pickup and headed for the promised land.

When we use federal money to rebuild cities wiped out by natural disasters or to fund schools in failing economic zones, it seems to me like we are underwriting the bad decisions and fear of risktaking (in terms of moving) on the part of folks who want to stay in those areas. Maybe one of the key problems in America is that we built such a comprehensive social safety net that folks no longer feel at risk for much of anything, expecting someone else to bail them out (a thought planted by a friend). If insurance doesn’t cover our loss, there’s always someone to sue for insult and injury.

Without that sense of being already 'at risk,' we've lost our motivation to take risks. It was that motivation that caused our ancestors to come to America and give the great experiment a try. I bet the Fall of Rome began when the Roman citizens lost their fear of being invaded. I think that's where we are in the US today.

Fat, dumb and happy indeed.

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