Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Act 25: a different perspective

Over on her blog, Josephine Posti, school-board president, writes about the recent passage of Senate Bill 330, now Act 25 of 2011.

The legislation, depending on who you ask, is either good or bad. The “good” view is that Act 25 closes loopholes in the “Taxpayer Relief Act” of 2006, loopholes which school districts have been exploiting to increase their spending beyond what is sustainable. The “bad” view is that Act 25 removes important safety valves that allow school districts to function while under financial pressures from sources they cannot control, such as unions and legislated mandates.

Unsurprisingly, Mrs. Posti subscribes to the view that Act 25 is bad, writing, “My immediate reaction concerning how this will effect [sic] education in the Commonwealth is: negatively.”

This view focuses on the short-term, direct effects of the legislation, without giving consideration to long-term, total effects. When you consider the bigger picture, the legislation appears both bad and good: bad at first, but good in the long run. In the short term, yes, it will force spending cuts on many school districts which are unprepared for them, and there will be collateral damage. Some students and parents are going to get hit. That’s bad. In the long term, though, it will force school districts to finally do something, however painful, to reduce their spending growth, which is probably unsustainable. That’s good. Pain now is better than collapse later.

So the question is, Are you willing to take some pain today to avoid disaster tomorrow? If you’re a school director or other elected representative, you have a strong incentive to answer No. That’s because, when things get painful for the community today, who’s going to suffer the public wrath? You are. Immediately and intensely. But years later, when things don’t go wrong, who’s going to remember to say thanks? Nobody. That’s because nobody notices when disasters they weren’t looking for don’t happen. It's perverse: if you do the right thing and then succeed at it, most people will think you made them suffer for nothing. So, if you're an elected representative, choosing the short-term pain for the long-term gain has a strongly negative payoff.

That’s why legislation like Act 25 is necessary. It’s virtually impossible for school directors, the community’s elected representatives, to do what is best for the community in the long term. If they force reform on the community, they’re going to get clobbered. But, if the community forces reform on them, which is what Act 25 makes possible, then reform might actually happen.

If those are the short- and long-term perspectives of the legislation, there are also narrow and wide perspectives. In another part of her post, Mrs. Posti writes the following:
Critics might claim that if local communities support education they’ll support construction, especially when student populations increase, buildings become inadequate, or program needs evolve. The reality is, they don’t... School referendums often fail because the majority of any electorate do not have school-aged children and, when given the choice between raising their taxes or not, they choose not.
That’s the narrow perspective, focusing on how the bill will block school construction because voters almost always say No at these referendums, for what Mrs. Posti suggests are the wrong reasons. The wider perspective, however, takes in that these referendums occur within a democratic society, and when voters reliably say No to something, that’s not a failure of the system: that’s a message from the people, a message that the government is supposed to hear and take seriously.

In this case, what that message is saying is that the way our government runs and pays for public education is something that the public increasingly finds unaffordable. What that message is saying is that it’s time for reform.

But that message, for reasons I’ve explained above, is one that school directors have difficulty acting upon. Further, the reform we need is bigger than Mt. Lebanon. That’s why I can sympathize with school directors who take the short and narrow view of the situation. It’s not like they can do much about the long, wide view, themselves.

But, thanks to Act 25, citizens can do something about it. They can say No at the voting booth and force reform to begin, however painful.

Toward the end of her article, Mrs. Posti issues a challenge:
[If] you can help me understand how these cuts and restrictions are good for education and help school districts prepare kids to compete in a global market, please share your thoughts with me.
It’s easy to meet this challenge: just think long term, just see the wider picture. It’s not about what’s happening to our schools right now; it’s about what’s going to happen to our entire public education system in the coming years. If we don’t find a way to make it affordable, we’re not going to have a public education system.

Act 25 certainly isn’t a solution to the bigger problem, and it certainly isn’t without problems of its own, but it is a step toward much-needed reform. And if our elected representatives have trouble taking the next step on their own, we’ll probably see more legislation like Act 25 to help them along.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom Moertel's article, “Act 25: a different perspective,” is right on the mark. The only way to discipline a government – and a school board is a government - is to deprive it of as much money as possible.

If I may, let me suggest that there's another dynamic at work here – the fact that Act 25 might just force the public and Pennsylvania's school boards to rethink the entire education delivery system. In a time when you can watch TV, listen to the radio, book a flight, order an anniversary gift for your wife (which I just did), read the latest novel, and do all of these things on your phone, it is a scandal that we still herd our young into 19th century style learning centers; fiber-optic cable and a different seating arrangement notwithstanding!

Mrs. Posti not only fears Act 25, she is also terrified of school choice. She can breath a little easier on that one – for the time being – as the voucher issue and the expansion of Charter Schools seem to have been defeated. But I find it ironic that if a graduating high school senior wishes to continue his or her education there are over 4,000 institutions of higher education in this country to choose from; but K-12 kids are sentenced to attend a school based on their ZIP code, and their parents have extremely limited choices in the matter.

Are there no new ideas about how to educate our young people? Of course there are - and many of these ideas would dramatically lower the cost of education. Unfortunately, the Mt. Lebanon School District seems more attuned to the philosophies of John Dewey, Francis and Edward Bellamy, and Margaret Sanger, all of whom had very specific ideas about education and “the State.”
Richard Gideon

July 14, 2011 4:18 PM  

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