Waffling on Student Funding Reform

Jim Rex Waffles South Carolina.jpg

Full Size Photo: Jim Rex and Sandy Smith were against reform before they were for it (but only once they knew it wouldn’t pass)

In the South Carolina House, Representative Jeff Duncan has been a leading advocate of the common-sense reform called “smart funding” which aims to allocate money exclusively on a per-child basis. This formula, also termed “backpacking” is designed to ensure that public resources follow the child as he or she ascends through the grades, moves from one school into the next, or transfers between schools.

On the other end of the spectrum, Superintendent Jim Rex is taking the position that ever more money with ever less oversight is the only solution to the countless problems plaguing his one-size-fits-all government schools.

The fact is, funding levels do not, and never have, correlated with public school performance in South Carolina, despite the fact that failing schools (those termed “dropout factories” by Jim Rex) spend nearly $20,000.00 per student. Still, a simplification the irrational and wasteful funding “mechanism” is long overdue.

Smart funding would be a good first step in the right direction.

Rather than finance dozens of  fiefdoms and esoteric programs, each student would have a single dollar total “attached” to them, that would follow the child through the school system. It might take into account the characteristics of the child (such as low-income or special needs) but would follow them if they moved districts, finished elementary school, transfered to a charter, or enrolled at a magnet school.

While this type of “smart funding” or “back-packing” proposal has been advocated by policy experts across the nation, education bureaucrats like Rex have been fighting back, but can’t seem to get their complaints nailed down.

In order to defend the entrenched, top-down style of the State Department of Education, administrators initially wanted to keep local principals and teachers completely out of the decision-making loop. Department of Education employee Sandy Smith testified before the Legislature’s student funding study committee in late 2008. She argued that the existing district-based funding method should be “preserved,” even if the total money allocated was based on a stricter per-student formula.

This totally undermines the merits of smart funding. Only when the money stream is sent straight to the child are parents and educators free to innovate and improve. Classroom teachers and local principals will always be in the best position to make choices about instruction – not full time administrators at a district office or Columbia-based state employees.

When questioned for further details on solutions for specific funding issues such as the disparities between funding for growing school districts and increased funding for poor school districts – who are already receiving tier three funding – the Department of Education could not provide substantive answers to the committee, and maintained that the status quo model was “working well enough.

Only if by “working well enough” Smith means a sloppy system of payments to school districts that is  chaotic and ineffective.

Now Smith (and presumably the Education Department) is taking a slightly different tack. From the Island Packet (6/13):

“Sandy Smith, deputy superintendent for policy and legislation at the state Department of Education, said several legislators from coastal areas want to eliminate consideration of property values in a reformed education formula.

Some have instead proposed using median income as a measure of wealth, Smith said.

A reform proposal by Rex earlier this year called for distribution on a per-pupil basis with additional resources allocated to students who live in poverty, those with disabilities, those with limited English proficiency and those who are artistically or academically advanced.”

In other words, Sandy Smith and Jim Rex seem to have finally concluded that their “spend-more” and and “ask-for-even-more” approach to funding the System (not the Student) is unpopular.

Why the change of heart?

Two related reasons (quotes from the Island Packet article) both situated in the context of the state revenue downturn:

1. Angry District Officials only want “reforms” that translate to “more money” -

Local [lowcountry] officials say that disparity proves measuring wealth solely on property values is an inaccurate way to assess a district’s need. Superintendent Valerie Truesdale said about 50 percent of students served by the local district live in poverty, despite the county’s high property values.

“Poor children in Beaufort County are just as poor as poor children in Berkeley County,” [Superintendent Valerie] Truesdale said. “Why is there a difference?”

2. Local Legislative Delegations are angry when “reform” is actually a codeword for “redistribution” -

“What’s going to happen (with reform) is you’re going to have winners and losers,” said Rep. Richard Chalk, R-Hilton Head. “And counties that are going to be losers are not going to be willing to give up any money to give others a larger piece of the pie.”

…and…

But reform would be opposed by many counties — particularly those in the Upstate with large manufacturing tax bases –that benefit from the current formula, [Republican State Senator Tom] Davis said.

Counties with large corporations that pay fees in lieu of property taxes have an artificially depressed tax base because that wealth isn’t considered by the funding formula, Davis said.

It will be hard to persuade lawmakers from those counties to change a formula that favors their constituents, he said.

“It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue,” Davis said. “It’s a ‘whose ox is being gored?’ issue.”

Jim Rex and Sandy Smith are self-styled savvy politicos using taxpayers money to defend a failing government school System in South Carolina. Waffling and pandering on student funding -and using public resources to challenge real reform- again demonstrates their total lack of credibility with parents and classroom teachers.

Realizing that they can’t waste more money until they have more money to waste, now they are making the case for raisingreforming” tax collection…

jim rex tax hikes.jpg

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