From Merriam-Webster Online:
Re-form: a ; to put or change into an improved form or condition b ; to amend or improve by change of form or removal of faults or abuses.
In order for public school finance reform to occur change must be accepted. There must be an acceptance that the current system is faulty. There must be a willingness to improve.
The current system in Illinois is heavily dependent upon property tax as the primary source of revenue for public schools. It is flawed and therefore in need of change but opposition to shifting the burden away from property tax is bipartisan. Conservatives view property tax as their strongest source of local control on school spending. Liberals see it as the most reliable source of income. Efforts to shift the revenue source meet stiff resistance in the suburbs from conservatives and in Springfield by the teacher union and administrator association lobbyists.
No reform initiative is genuine if it fails to address spending. Almost 80% of the 894 public school districts in Illinois are in deficit spending. The cry foul complaints that the State does not pay its share are diversion from the fact that no one, not State nor property tax payer, can keep up with the rate spending has increased.
Examination of the relationship between spending and student achievement, conducted at the University of Rochester, The Brookings Institution, and DePaul University, suggests that variation in spending is unrelated to student success. The average public school in Illinois spends more than twice as much per pupil as the average private school. Yet student achievement in public schools lags behind that in private schools.
There are those who cry foul about the salaries and benefits received by public school teachers. It’s easy to criticize what someone else is worth. If we demand, and we should, high standards for teachers we should grant them high reward while holding them accountable to those high standards. It would be far more productive, for the sake of reform, to concentrate on the number and the make-up of the current roster of teachers.
The arguments for low teacher-to-student ratios and class sizes might well come more from job protectionism than from concern for student achievement. The correlation between class size, per pupil expenditure and student achievement has no consensus agreement among the many subjective and few independent researches done to date. It takes but basic math skills to reason that lower class size increases demand for teachers. The baby-boomers, as students, created a high demand for teachers. As teachers they demand lower class sizes.
A large percentage of teachers in Illinois are near retirement. The time is now to invest in, embrace and make precision use of advancing technology to assist in the education of our children. The incoming generation of teachers was born into the information technology that is rapidly expanding. They are well equipped to receive proper training to employ that technology in their teaching methods.
Teachers replaced by computers? No. Enhance teachers with the capabilities offered by computer technology. Who is more likely to gain higher academic achievement; twelve children exposed to a poor teacher, or fifty taught by a great teacher enhanced with digital communications?
Salaries for administrators have skyrocketed. Contracts for superintendents are absurd with extravagances including new homes bought by private donors to huge bonuses for finding a higher paying job and voluntarily resigning. To suggest that a superintendent’s salary be commiserate to CEOs in private companies with similar size budgets is juvenile. If a superintendent wants to make Michael S. Dell’s salary let them reduce property tax by creating such a demand for their high school graduates that the universities and employers pay a premium to their districts for the right to recruit them.
There must be restructuring in administration. It should begin with the hiring process. National search firms hired by local school district boards are common place. This head hunter industry, driven by the “suitcase” mentality held by many school boards, has a vested interest in higher superintendent compensation. It has become rare for superintendents to be hired from within.
Is the local pool of talent too low for consideration for superintendents? Using DeKalb School District #428 as example there is evidence to indicate otherwise. Former #428 staff members, Charles McCormick, Jack Barshinger and Jo Ann Desmond are or have served as superintendents in other school districts.
The brunt of the current faulty school finance system is unfairly shared by volunteer citizens elected to the school boards. It is they who must sift through the reports and background material provided by academics, a field that enjoys paperwork. They are placed into the spotlight as the decision maker between meeting collective bargaining demands or sending children home due to strikes. They are often placed in the frontline of public relations, and scrutiny, when a referendum is proposed. School board meetings far too often are attended to by a litany of staff members and perhaps one or two disgruntled parents. There is no more thankless job in the public sector.
For school finance reform to happen school administrators must learn a new buzzword: Replacement revenue. Property tax relief will not occur, for any length of time, unless other revenue sources are viewed as replacement and not as additional revenue streams.
Sales tax is not a feasible option due to its volatility and its unfriendliness to healthy business competition. The internet makes sales tax even less attractive as its global nature makes enforcement and monitoring virtually impossible.
Income tax is the most viable solution. Illinois could raise its flat tax rate, if all such increase was, without loophole, earmarked for education but it must be treated as replacement revenue for property tax.
Conservatives must hold themselves accountable as they are wont to demand from school administrators. Property tax has failed miserably as a tool for local control. The PTELL tax cap laws did nothing but create loophole after loophole for the creation of a plethora of new fees and variations of taxes placed upon the homeowner. Again, 80% of the school districts are in deficit spending. What control?
A shift towards income tax as the primary source of funding would eliminate the awkward and counterproductive position school districts find themselves in as non-team players in their community’s economic development efforts. Property tax abatements used for commercial/industrial attraction would cease to be that necessary evil. School districts would likely become willing partners in bringing new jobs to the community. They would have a vested interest in doing so.
Property tax as it stands today goes against the founding principles of American taxation. It is not in any way based on the ability to pay. The dramatic rise in property taxes has a corresponding social cost. It places a greater pressure on the family variations of today than earlier generations experienced.
Class sizes were almost twice than what they are today in the 1960s. Yet it is generally accepted that kids today are more difficult to teach than they were in the past. But the average IQ of children in the U.S. has been steadily increasing, probably due to higher levels of education attained by their parents. The financial pressures require both parents in many households to work fulltime and many single parents to work more than one job. Is there any wonder why it is the behavior of today’s children that makes the task of educating them more difficult? How much does this financial pressure add to the inability of our public schools to maintain discipline?
Finally, if education finance reform is truly to be attained, parents must be given more options in the education of their children. Turf wars between public education, charter schools, private schools and home schooling must cease. The competition that exists now between these factions is unhealthy. If the competition was for the achievement of our students our children would be well served.
All options must be carefully considered and we must be willing to change.