Tag Archives: education

Kids and Cattle: Washoe County School Bond Issue

cattle grazing The concept of an AUM is well understood in northern Nevada, that’s the Animal Unit Month, or the amount of forage needed for one cow and calf, one horse, or five sheep or goats for one month. The current grazing fee for 2016 is $2.11 per AUM.  Further, not all grazing land is created equal. First class produces enough feed on 4 acres or less for one grown cow. Second class during an average year produces enough feed on 4 to 6 acres for a grown cow. Third class during an average year will sustain a grown cow on 6 to 12 acres, and fourth class during an average  year produces enough feed on 12 acres or more for one grown cow (1/12 or less animal units per month.) [AgBulletin pdf]  The point here is that good grazing land sustains one animal/month on four acres.  Would that we were this concerned about our children.

School crowding The Washoe County School District announced that there are several schools in the Reno/Sparks area which are on pace to require double sessions and year round scheduling to meet their demands.  There are eight schools hovering near the “trigger.”

“Tuesday’s trigger, detailed in Regulation 6111, puts middle and high schools on double sessions once they exceed campus capacity by 20 percent. Portable classrooms are not counted in these campus capacities.

No schools meet the trigger, yet. But four middle schools and four high schools are projected to get there over the next five years. All these schools are already over capacity or near it.”  [RGJ]

squeeze chute Not that children and cattle are analogous, but we do recognize that cattle need at least a minimum amount of space for grazing while the file photo shot from the Reno Gazette Journal above seems to indicate that a few squeeze chutes might be handy for funneling the little calves into their classrooms.  Might be handy? We could vaccinate them while they’re in the chutes? Check their vital signs? Wash and brush them if necessary? Check for medical and dental problems?

Back to the serious side for the moment – The Washoe County School District is asking voters to support a bond issue in the next election for capital improvements and renovations.  

“The committee based its requested increase on tax revenue projections, which would allow the district to issue $781 million in bonds over the next decade for school renovations and new campuses. District officials have said $781 million is what they need to meet demands of student enrollment forecasts. The district would pay off the bonds over 20 years using proceeds of the sales tax increase.” [RGJ]

There are always excuses for a “no vote.”  Some people would vote “no” on any proposal if it requires a penny more in sales or property taxes.   This, in spite of the fact that northern Nevada has one of the lowest tax burdens in the entire country:

“As compared to other major cities around the country, Reno property tax rates are some of the lowest in the United States at an effective rate of about a dollar per $100 of assessed value. While supporting an especially high sales tax rate of 7.75%, much of that bite is ameliorated by the fact that Nevada only taxes 37.4% of its goods at sale. Further savings are found in a state tax code that allows for the deductions of state and local sales tax payments.” [movoto]

Those facts won’t prevent some people from loudly complaining, “They’re Taxed Enough Already.”  Then, there’s the always provocative and ever annoying, “Why should I pay for someone else’s kids?”   Gee, I don’t know, perhaps it’s because we don’t want to be known as the Land That Education Forgot, populated with the ignorant and ill-educated.  Or, the antagonizing, “The Schools waste money on _____________.” Fill in that blank with, say, “administration,” or “football fields,” or any other convenient complaint.

Another obstacle is the “alternative” suggestions popping up before election day.  “Why don’t we have year round schools?” Or, “Why don’t we do double sessions and year round schedules?”  The only one I haven’t heard yet is for about $1700 a school could install a squeeze chute to handle the crowding in the hallways —

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Filed under education, nevada education

Really? There’s a teacher shortage. “Now a warning?”

Now A Warning There was that memorable moment in “Death Becomes Her” (1992) —

“Glamorous musical star Madeline Ashton’s (Meryl Streep) incredulous response to Lisle Von Rhuman’s (Isabella Rosselini): “But first, a warning…” after Madeline has already drunk the potion: “NOW a warning?!”; the jaw-dropping, award-winning visual effects used to comic effect, including the “backwards walk” when Madeline’s head is rotated 180 (and later 360) degrees, and her shocked cry: “My ass! I can see my ass!” [Filmsite.org]

And now the chair of the Nevada State Board of Education can see a teacher shortage in Clark County.

“Never has Elaine Wynn, president of the Nevada State Board of Education, felt so alarmed in her job as she did after hearing details of the Clark County School District’s teacher shortage.

During a board meeting Thursday, the former casino company executive and longtime philanthropist told district officials that she would clean house at any private business with such a “horrific” human resources crisis.” [LVRJ]

Before I get out my hankie – there is nothing new about a shortage of qualified teachers.  The problem is that it’s getting worse.  [WaPo]  Not sure? Take a gander at pages 95-98 of the Department of Education’s list of shortage areas in Nevada. (pdf)  Further, it’s not like we haven’t figured out why this is happening:

“What’s going on? Pretty much the same thing as in Arizona, Kansas and other states where teachers are fleeing: a combination of under-resourced schools, the loss of job protections, unfair teacher evaluation methods, an increase in the amount of mandated standardized testing and the loss of professional autonomy.” [WaPo]

That pretty well sums it up. Interestingly enough, most of the proposed “solutions” to the shortage don’t address any of the problems listed above.  First, there is the turnover rate factor – we can offer alternative licensure, up to almost allowing anyone who can fog a mirror and work for minimal wages to be employed in a classroom. However, if they don’t stay there then that’s not really a solution.

Secondly, even if the turnover rate is relatively low (as in Clark County) having people stay isn’t the solution if they can’t be recruited in the first place.   Let’s review: If salaries are lower in public education – especially in secondary specialties – and student loans are becoming more burdensome, then why would we expect a person to select education instead of electrical engineering?  Or, an elementary education major instead of business management? [DB] [DB] [DB] Add under-resourced schools, evaluations based on standardized test scores, the loss of professional autonomy, and taking a huge chunk of the day to do little but Test Prep – and what did we expect?

Recruitment/Turnover and Trends

A comprehensive study by the CPRE (pdf) updated in 2014, listed seven trends “transforming” the teaching force. Abbreviated, they describe a force which is (1) larger, with a high percentage of the increase involved in special education; (2) grayer, as in aging but not to such an extent as to cause shortages; (3) greener, with more rookies in classrooms; (4) more female; (5) more diverse; (6) consistent in academic ability, and disturbingly (7) less stable, less likely to remain in the profession. Of first year teachers who left vacancies in their wake, 20.8% resulted from school staffing action; 35.4% for personal or family reasons; 38.9% to pursue another job; and, a hefty 45.3% because of dissatisfaction.  Among the factors related to dissatisfaction: school and working conditions, low salaries, lack of classroom resources, student misbehavior, accountability issues, lack of opportunities for development, lack of input into decision making, and factors related to school leadership.

Solutions That Don’t Match The Problems

School “reform” is a popular topic on the hustings, but all too often it appears that the solution doesn’t match the problems incurred by our school systems.

(1) Punishing Poverty and Paucity.  Consider for a moment a district or school which has a high percentage of “at risk” students, and the usual paucity of funding for school resources.  What’s the next step?  We read newspaper articles and listen to broadcasts telling us about the FAILURE of the West Moose Tail School District! Then, the next higher governmental entity swoops in to “take over” the school(s) in order to reorganize and apply various reforms.   The “failure,” of course, is to make “adequate yearly progress” whatever that might mean, and the meanings vary among the states.

The obvious question is: Progress toward what? And the usual answer is higher standardized test scores.  Granted test scores are easy to digest, but before swallowing them as a significant indicator of what is going on in a particular school the cautionary tale of Mission High School in San Francisco, CA is in order. [MJ]  The emphasis on test scores creates its own bias – we pay attention to what we can quantify and ignore most of the rest, including classroom work, homework, grading, classroom examinations, the opinions of students and parent, and the school’s relationship to the community.

The default technocratic response is to blame the staff, then offer such reforms as charterization, massive staff layoffs, administrative replacements, and  curriculum changes.  There are issues within these One Size Fits All solutions.  Not the least of the issues is, as the Mission High School example offers us, whether we’re using a relevant definition of “failure.”  In the backwash of all the attention paid to the formulaic news about school failure, based on reports of test results, there is little attention paid to the conclusion of the 2012 Brookings Study (pdf) which reported there is no correlation between testing standards and student achievement.

The disconnect is also related to political rhetoric, of the kind in which critics of public education speak of “tossing good money after bad.”  This talking point is exceptionally handy for shielding the speaker from actually having to explain (1) how we measure success, (2) how we allocate resources between and among schools, and (3) how we analyze the performance of students by any other metric than standardized test scores.   For public education critics, the purpose of test scores is to punish poverty and paucity, not to identify where additional resources might be allocated to their best advantage.

(2) It costs money to be a teacher.  How to recruit the next generation of teachers?  Perhaps it might be a bit easier IF student loans weren’t such a financial burden on young people fresh out of college.  It might have been helpful if Republican members of the U.S. Senate hadn’t blocked S. 2432, a bill to allow those with student loans to refinance them. [TheHill]  And, also helpful if the Republican version of a student loan bill wasn’t a handout to the bank-based loan system. [TP]

It could also be helpful if local school boards weren’t trying to shave pennies at teachers’ expense for health insurance, and other benefits. [C&L]  And, if teacher retirement programs were defined benefit plans instead of less satisfactory defined contribution plans, hybrid plans, or other manifestations of financial industry subsidization.

We might also consider that “Capitalism Works.” If we want more young people to enter the field then money talks.  Teach Biology or enter one of the health care professions? Teach Algebra or enter into one of the  tech fields? Teach Business or enter finance? Teach in an elementary school or go into marketing?  Guess which will ultimately pay more?

“Solutions” which eventually created a down-draft in teacher pay and compensation packages is exactly the opposite of what common sense (and the free market) say will generate greater interest in the profession.

(3) R-E-S-P-E-C-T  is not just a song in Aretha’s repertoire.  What did teachers say were the causes of their dissatisfaction? Once more: school and working conditions, low salaries, lack of classroom resources, student misbehavior, accountability issues, lack of opportunities for development, lack of input into decision making, and factors related to school leadership. If we remove the money elements, there’s “accountability,” “lack of input into decision making, and school leadership.”

Let’s assume the old saw is correct, “10% of the students will cause 90% of the problems.”  How does the school administration handle disciplinary cases? There’s always the “pipeline” solution, it’s easier to suspend and even expel than to find the resources to deal with troubled youngsters.  However, that “solution” doesn’t do much more than to shuffle the youngster into another setting wherein he or she becomes someone else’s problem.  How many elementary schools in the country have full time counselors? Full time social workers? Access to full time psychologists? How many school districts have fully funded alternative education programs?  Again, if the “solution” is “removal,” then we’re not dealing with students, we’re dealing in statistics.

“Lack of opportunity for development?” Classroom teaching is one of the few professions in which in order to move up a person has to move out.  The “merit pay” solution might be effective IF the salaries were what they should be in the first place.   And, even “merit pay” gets tied to things which are not necessarily  indicative of quality teaching – again, test scores.  Perhaps instead of tossing bird seed into a grain silo we concentrated on how we organize our schools, how we utilize the experience and skills of exceptional teachers to mentor and advise the rookies?  How about if we gave classroom teachers more access to the decision making process about community relations? Budgeting priorities? Disciplinary and counseling options?

How about instead of announcing the Failure of West Moose Tail, and then imploding the whole institution, we ASK the people directly involved what needs to be done to improve the school’s performance on more than just standardized test scores, instead of simply firing the lot and hauling in a new batch of the graying, the greener, the females, the diverse, and the likely to leave in five years?  This “solution” doesn’t change much except the identification cards of the people who are supposed to be in the building.

Perhaps instead of doing the politically expedient, the economically parsimonious, and the socially conformative – we actually tried to find solutions to fit the problems?  Then, just maybe, we wouldn’t have to keep repeating, “Now, a warning?”

*Previous Posts: The Numbers Game Part II, The Merit Pay Mirage,  (note the discussion of the Ladue School District (MO) and merit pay criteria) The Ultimate Game, February 20, 2011. The Wrong Answer Can Always Be Found, April 10, 2011.  “Silver Bullets at Moving Targets” April 3, 2011.

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Filed under education

Happy Fourth of July: A More Perfect Union

Flag July 4th

It’s a good 4th of July weekend.  The benefits of citizenship have been affirmed for members of the LGBT community, but as the founders told us we’re on a path to create “a more perfect union.”  Therefore, there’s more work to be done to insure that housing, employment, and other areas of American life aren’t stumbling blocks of discrimination. We will have to keep up efforts toward building that “more perfect” union.

Ravenal Bridge

There may be some dead-enders, some battle flag flying remnants of blatant racism, but no matter how hard the Klan and their allies try, their proposed demonstration will be nothing compared to the thousands who walked along the Ravenal Bridge in Charleston, South Carolina.  We’re closer to being a nation of people who are taking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message to heart:

“When evil men plot, good men must plan.  When evil men burn and bomb, good men must build and bind.  When evil men shout ugly words of hatred, good men must commit themselves to the glories of love. “

At least two churches in the south have been the target of recent arson attacks, so in order to form that more perfect union it’s time for people of good will to build and bind.   It’s been a long walk from the bridge in Selma to the bridge in Charleston, but we’re getting there.  We still have to acknowledge the often painful accuracy of Winston Churchill’s backhanded compliment, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they’ve tried everything else.”  

In a more perfect union, we’d not have maps showing that a person earning minimum wages cannot achieve a point at which only 30% of his income can pay for a one bedroom apartment.

Rent map

The darker the blue the worse the problem.  We’ll have a more perfect union when we address the complications of living on inadequate wages.  It does no good to march behind banners proclaiming that hard working Americans should “save for the future,” – when simply meeting basic needs for food, housing, and adequate clothing consume all the family’s income. It takes us no closer to a more perfect union to proclaim, “if the poor would just work harder they’d get ahead,” when elements of our judicial system, parts of our educational system, and the myopia of commerce combine to force workers into multiple jobs at minimal wages.  We are no closer to forming a more perfect union when we reward those who prosper at the expense of those who produce.

Unassisted graph

In a more perfect union this graph would be significantly lower.  How do we care for the least able among us? The learning disabled young man with nerve damage, but not quite enough to meet disability standards?  Unmarried, with no dependent children, unemployed except for odd jobs paying about $10 per hour?  A victim of child abuse, and now a victim of a system in which he doesn’t qualify for benefits because he’s never been able to find employment which sustains them. [Reuters]

We’ll be a more perfect union when we are more aware that the able-bodied are not necessarily able to fully function in our modern economy.  In a more perfect union there is more educational, job, housing, and food support for those who live on the margins of despair.

I look to the diffusion of light and education as the resource most to be relied on for ameliorating the condition, promoting the virtue and advancing the happiness of man.” Thomas Jefferson to Cornelius Blatchly, October 1822

And yet:

“About seven in 10 (69%) college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2013 had student loan debt. These borrowers owed an average of $28,400, up two percent compared to $27,850 for public and nonprofit graduates in 2012.   About one-fifth (19%) of the  Class of 2013’s debt was comprised of private loans, which are typically more costly and provide fewer consumer protections and repayment options than safer federal loans.”  [TICAS]

In a more perfect union, education advances the “happiness of man,” not merely the bottom line of banking institutions, and certainly not the unrestrained avarice of some for-profit operations who once having the federal funds in hand look to more recruitment without much concern for those already recruited.

And, then – predictably – there’s the Wall Street Casino, which has created SLABS (Student Loan Asset Based Securities).  While certainly not in the mortgage meltdown class, these are problematic because:

“What I find most disturbing about SLABS is that they create a system where an increase in tuition (and the debt-burden on the borrower) equals an increased profit for the investor. When you consider the role that unscrupulous speculators played in the mortgage crisis, one can’t help but wonder if a similar over-valuation of college tuition is taking place for the benefit of SLABS investors. With the cost of attending college increasing nearly 80% between 2003-2013 while wages have decreased, it’s no wonder that so many people are having difficulty paying off their student loans.” [MDA]

This situation is NOT the way to “diffuse light and education.”

There are countless other topics and issues on which we might dwell, assistance for the elderly, transportation, trade, economic security, police and community relations, infrastructure issues, voting rights,  domestic terrorism, domestic violence, gun violence, climate change … the list is  as long as the population rolls, as we try to create that more perfect union of imperfect human beings.

What we need is Churchill’s optimism – that eventually, after avoiding problems, exacerbating problems, tinkering with problems – we’ll do the right thing.

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Filed under banking, civil liberties, education, financial regulation, Global warming, homelessness, income inequality, Minimum Wage, poverty, racism

Pie in the Sky Thinking

Pie in the Sky

There’s no intellectual exercise quite so ethereal as listening to members of the Something For Nothing Crowd pontificate on the glories of Self Reliance, by which they often mean that what is their’s is theirs and what is yours is negotiable.  What they really don’t want to do is pay taxes, having been convinced that they are already burdened with excessive liability for the care and consideration of others.

Basic Numbers

Someone hasn’t told them the average annual federal income tax rate for 2011 was about 8.4% [TaxFound] Or, that the average payroll tax rate for the same year was 6.7% nationally. [TaxFound]  But, let’s assume that a working person earning about $50,000 is liable for about 15.4% in taxes, and 7% in payroll taxes.  We’ll not assume, as some have, that a working person is liable for both employer and employee taxes.  Let’s also assume that the family has two children – that would be about average.  What we don’t want to do is to be misled by the brackets because we haven’t considered the standard deductions.

If our “average” family in Nevada with a median household income of $52,800 has a standard deduction of $11,400 and four personal exemptions of $3,650 each.  (If the kids are under 17 years of age then there’s a another $1,000 exemption for each.) That leaves a total of $26,800 in taxable income for the Feds.  So, the family isn’t going to pay that 15.4% rate, instead they’ll probably pay something like 7.51%. [TaxCalc]

Nevada property tax rates range from 1.77 in Eureka County to 3.66 in Mineral and White Pine counties.  Remember that the tax rate is applied to the taxable value times 0.35 to get the assessed value, and the tax is that assessed value times the tax rate. [NVenergy]

If we take the Nevada average median household income ($52,800) and break out the taxation, the family isn’t paying any 15.4% it’s more like $12.6%. There’s no state income tax, and the “average” take home pay is approximately $42,342.05. [TaxCalc]  This assumes that the median household income is the adjusted gross income of $42,500.  Now we can start playing with our food – the pie in the sky.

The average interest rate on the average home mortgage in the western states is about 3.86% for a thirty year fixed rate home loan.  The median home value is $197,600 in Nevada. [Zillow]  Using a standard mortgage calculator this yields a monthly payment of $927.

The subtraction begins. Take home pay of $42,342 means a monthly income of $3,528.50; and if we subtract $927 in mortgage payments there’s $2,601 left for other household expenses.

For the sake of the argument let’s propose that the family has one car, which means  ownership costs of $517.00, and operating costs in the western region of $236.00 per month. [IRS] Subtract another $753 from the monthly budget. Now we have $1,848 left for the remaining expenses.

Basic utilities in Las Vegas run about $175.56, and in Reno about $130.00; let’s call it in the middle and estimate monthly utility bills of $150.00; now we have $1,698 in the check book.

Now for the groceries.  A family of four can just get by on about $146 per week and eat healthier on about $289 on the higher end. [USDA pdf] Let’s settle for the “moderate” plan which will cost our average family of four about $1,062 per month if the kids are over 6 years of age.  Now there’s $636.00 left.

There’s the health insurance costs, and we’ll assume that our average family is also among those for whom the employer sponsors the health insurance plan.  Employers sponsored insurance for some 149 million people in the U.S. and the average employee annual contribution was an annual $4823, or about $401. [Kaiser]  There’s $235 left over.  (Clothing, entertainment, restaurant meals, appliances, home insurance, books, toys, etc.) The average U.S. family spends about $1,604 for clothing or about $133 per month; and $2482 for “entertainment” which encompasses sporting events, recreation, television, radio, sound equipment, rentals, pets, toys, hobby and play equipment, … [BLS] for about $206.00 per month.  Our average family is now in the hole, to the tune of $104.00.

Here’s where the PIE IN THE SKY begins.

“People should pay for their own kids to go to college!” There should be College Savings Accounts. There are.  And the proceeds must cover:

“According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2014–2015 school year was $31,231 at private colleges, $9,139 for state residents at public colleges, and $22,958 for out-of-state residents attending public universities.

The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2014–2015 ranged from $9,804 at four-year public schools to $11,188 at private schools. Colleges also provide room and board estimates for living off campus based on typical student costs.”

So, the two children of our average family are to attend a public college, as in-state residents, and the bill will probably be $18,943 for one of them.  We’ll look at a “529 Plan.”  If our average parents started a savings account for a child aged 1, at a rate of $100.00 per month then the parent would be able to cover $37,087 out of a predicted $40,687 in expenses. [Putnam]  Our average family already has to be below average in the entertainment category in order to break even, and now the critics want the family to (a) go into more debt, or (b) shave the meals, the insurance, and other expenses to the minimum in order to save an amount per month necessary to pay for college (IF the interest on the savings account stays around 6%) for one child.

“And they should pay for their own retirement!..”  With these numbers there is nothing but Social Security into which the average person has already paid as a part of the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes.  There certainly isn’t anything left over for “extras.”  Nor is there any comfort in letting any portion of the contributions fall into the hands of the operators of the Wall Street Casino – who have an interesting way of securing the profits from their Free Enterprise, and ditching their losses on the American public.

“And they should pay if they want to use the roads, a few toll roads would keep the taxes down…”

and we should add this to the transportation expenses

And they don’t need that big screen TV and cable…”  it’s looking like all those entertainment expenses are down to basic cable already.  As for the size of the screen, that depends on the family capacity to incur debt or whether they were able to find a big screen on which someone else couldn’t make the payments?

“And,  Health Savings Accounts?”  Great, if you happen to be unmarried, well to do, and very healthy.  Not so good if you happen to be our average married couple with two children, two children who are as good as the kids next door at getting sick from the latest pestilence they are shareing in the neighborhood. Not to mention their dental bills.

Not to put too fine a point to it, but all that Self Reliance, Rugged Individualism, Pure American Can Do Drivel, is just that Drivel. It sounds good over the loud speaker, sounds auspicious from the television pundits, and makes good high flying rhetoric from the politicians. There’s just one problem. IT DOESN’T WORK IN THE REAL WORLD.  Only in Pie In The Sky Place.

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Filed under conservatism, Republicans

The Something For Nothing Crowd in the Nevada Assembly

Nevada Legislature And Nevada’s Assembled Wisdom totters on:

“Remember what happened yesterday. Just after the Senate’s grandiose SB 252 floor vote, the Assembly devolved into pure “TEA” powered madness with constant recesses, shouting matches over those recesses, a floor fight over blatantly unconstitutional bill language, mind-numbing flip-flopping over outrageously discriminatory legislation, and an epic freakout over online sales tax. Are you scared yet? Ralston and others clearly are.” [LTN]

Why are we not surprised?  The bill now goes to the Assembly, in which the ideologically pure (sort of) and constitutionally correct (rarely) will have a whack at the funding for Governor Sandoval’s budget.

“The scariest prospect is that with a third of the session left, the biggest issue before the state has been left in the hands of a body populated by some GOP members who don’t understand policy, who don’t live on the same planet the rest of us do and who are the most embarrassing legislators the state has ever seen.” [Ralston/RGJ]

For those keeping score, Steve Sebelius provided a handy list of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the almost comprehensible measures before said Assembled Wisdom this season. It’s a handy reference.  … Which gets us to the Something For Nothing Crowd.

Consider this release from the Assembly Policy Committee, and its spokesperson Assemblywoman Michele Fiore (R-Bundyville):

“With all due respect, much of the governor’s proposal is based on the mistaken idea that the way to fix public education in Nevada is to pump more taxpayer dollars into the existing failed system rather than dramatically reforming that system and providing far more school choice to Nevada parents, including the financial assistance necessary to exercise that choice for low-to-moderate income families.

“That said, the unemployment rate in Nevada remains, as Bill Anderson of the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation put it last week, ‘stubbornly high’ at 7.1 percent.  As such, the last thing the Legislature should be doing is taking money out of the private sector, where it’s needed to create jobs, and transferring it to the public sector so that government can continue to spend beyond its means.

“Conservatives in the Nevada State Assembly cannot and will not support  SB252 as passed out of the Senate today.”

Let us Parse. First, nothing good ever happens after someone begins with “with all due respect.”  Thence to the heart of the matter – the old privatization refrain, which goes back to the 1874 Kalamazoo Case.

“Kalamazoo Union High School, which many believed to be a necessity for bridging the gap from common school to university, operated with some minor opposition, until 1873. In January of that year, three prominent Kalamazoo property owners filed a suit intended to prevent the school board from funding the high school with tax money. They argued that the 1859 state law had been violated when the high school was established without a vote of the taxpayers. Charles E. Stuart, a former United States Senator from Michigan, along with Theodore P. Sheldon and Henry Brees, initiated the suit. At the time, it was believed to be a “friendly” suit intended to settle the issue legally in favor of the school. However, Stuart’s comments to the Kalamazoo Board of Education years after the suit had been settled, suggest that he and his companions sincerely resented the tax burden that the public high school placed on them. Stuart, like many others of his time, believed that a common school education was sufficient for anyone, and anything beyond that should be paid for privately.” [KPL]

The School Board prevailed in the 1874 litigation, and thus we have public funding for education k-12. [MLive]  The fact that if a school board is charged with administering a k-12 system then it must have the funding to do so raises the second portion of the argument – the part concerning the level of that financial support.

Enter the Something For Nothing Crowd.  What else explains the phrase: “fix public education in Nevada is to pump more taxpayer dollars into the existing failed system rather than dramatically reforming…?” This statement assumes (1) the current level of funding is adequate, or perhaps less is necessary; (2) the schools are failing with the present level of funding and therefore no additional funding is desireable; and, (3) the system needs to be “fixed.”

None of these assumptions can be asserted without challenge.  The first problem is the general issue of the Disappearing Dollars often cited by conservatives. The notion of “pumping in” dollars infers that the dollars are a measure of educational support in themselves.  The concept is a great leap to a highly ideologically framed conclusion.  No. money doesn’t solve educational issues but it does purchase: The services of highly qualified personnel, specialists, aides and assistants, and administrators; school physical facilities, books, libraries, equipment, supplies, etc. 

It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Something For Nothing Crowd is channeling the spirit of Charles E. Stuart from the 19th century – if a family wants a better education for their children they should pay for it themselves.  Witness: “dramatically reforming that system and providing far more school choice to Nevada parents, including the financial assistance necessary to exercise that choice for low-to-moderate income families.”   The translation is fairly simple.  School choice equates to a voucher system for attendance at private schools. and “far more schools” usually equates to the establishment of private charter operations.

We’ve touched on the rationales for this thinking before:

“The K-12 schools are “failing” and therefore we should augment the resources for privatization in the form of charter or private schools.  This contention is most often wrapped in “parental choice” camouflage covering.  That the proposed choice doesn’t exist in many rural communities, or that the proposed choice is extremely limited in urban ones, doesn’t enter into the discussion often enough.  Nor is it observed often enough that school voucher programs are a way to siphon off public funds for public schools and channel the money to private ones. [DB 2012]

In addition to the questionable rational for the conservative philosophy as it pertains to public education, there’s the problem of educational standards. What’s “failing?”

The most common measurement of “educational attainment” and the one most often cited by conservatives is standardized test scores.  Standardized testing has its uses.  However, placing them at the center of the argument is to risk overemphasizing their usefulness:

“We can stipulate that most tests manufactured for use in public schools by major publishing houses are statistically reliable and generally statistically valid. What we cannot say with any statistical certainty is whether or not we are measuring what we value in public education.” [DB 2011]

We appear “not to test well” and there may be some valid reasons for that, such as the generally low salaries for teachers, “Teacher salaries have a huge impact when it comes to attracting good instructors. The innovative, smart, highly skilled people you want teaching your kids aren’t exactly in love with the idea of making $38,000 per year (the average for first-year high school teachers) when they could go somewhere else and earn more while doing less.” [ABC]

Or perhaps we should place greater emphasis on early childhood education: “

The OECD found in a separate study that 15-year-olds who had attended at least a year of preschool performed better on reading tests than kids who had not, even when socioeconomic factors were taken into account.  The U.S. spends more on preschool than other countries but money doesn’t do any good unless kids are enrolled, and the U.S. lags on that measure.” [ABC]

The ASCD offers an enlightening summation:

“For several important reasons, standardized achievement tests should not be used to judge the quality of education. The overarching reason that students’ scores on these tests do not provide an accurate index of educational effectiveness is that any inference about educational quality made on the basis of students’ standardized achievement test performances is apt to be invalid.

Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon. Tablespoons have a different measurement mission than indicating how hot or cold something is. Standardized achievement tests have a different measurement mission than indicating how good or bad a school is. Standardized achievement tests should be used to make the comparative interpretations that they were intended to provide. They should not be used to judge educational quality.”

Even if we do apply standardized test score to measure “temperature with a tablespoon” there’s no guarantee that the privatized or charter schools will achieve better results.

Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes looked at test data from charter schools in 26 states and the District and found that 25 percent of charters outperformed traditional public schools in reading while 29 percent of charters delivered stronger results in math. That marked an improvement over a similar 2009 study by the same research team.

But 56 percent of the charters produced no significant difference in reading and 19 percent had worse results than traditional public schools. In math, 40 percent produced no significant difference and 31 percent were significantly worse than regular public schools. [WaPo]

So, we have the Something For Nothing Crowd in the Nevada Assembly decrying the essence of the Governor’s budget for education with all the old clichés from time gone by, and the tautological statement that if an underfunded school is failing the way to make it better is to further cut its funding.

We can only hope that after the tempers, the tantrums, the protestations, the gnashing of teeth, and the rending of cloth the membership of the Nevada Assembly will manage some form of civility and citizenship, and recognize another time honored statement – You Get What You Pay For.

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The Old College Try: The Student Loan Bill Part II

Mortar BoardSenate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev… said that the mounting student loan burden – more than $1 trillion across the economy – prevents college graduates from being able to otherwise move on with their lives by getting married or purchasing homes. [CBS]

And so, the Senate GOP filibustered the Student Loan Bill. Let’s delve a bit deeper. There were two items from Republicans on the topic in the article quoted above.  (1) Senator Mitch McConnell said the bill was a campaign publicity stunt.   This implies two things. First, that Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) wasn’t really serious about her piece of legislation.  Somehow, this doesn’t sound like a legislator who wasn’t serious about her bill: “Mitch McConnell is there for millionaires and billionaires,” Warren said. “He is not there for people who are working hard playing by the rules and trying to build a future for themselves.” [HuffPo] Nor does the fact that Senator Warren is about to take her umbrage on the campaign trail for McConnell’s opponent lead a person to believe she didn’t want that bill to at least get a vote.

Secondly, the process of getting legislators of all stripes on the record is as time honored as the republic.  Members of Congress were vilified for voting for, and against, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798.   The charge that the bill was merely a publicity stunt allows the opponent to denigrate the value of the measure without addressing any of its provisions or the problem it attempted to address.

(2)  There was the side-step ploy attempted by Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN):

“This is not a serious proposal. It’s not going to help people. College graduates don’t need a dollar a day tax subsidy to pay off their loan. They need a job…and they’re experiencing right now the worst situation for finding a job that they’ve seen in a long, long time,” Alexander said.” [CBS]

This isn’t a serious rebuttal either.  His response ignores the fact that the students aren’t the ones being “subsidized” — it’s the lenders who agree to issue student loans because the federal government will guarantee repayment.  The subsidy, as the former Education Secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration should know, goes to the lenders not the youngsters.   Yes, we do need some legislation which would improve the job market — but changing the subject still doesn’t respond to the needs the bill sought to mitigate.

There are some options, ranging from probable to problematic, but options nonetheless.

I. Skip the “pay for” requirement.  It’s not like this hasn’t been done. For example, the bill to allow veterans to secure private health services if the VA cannot schedule their care on a timely basis passed the Senate — without a pay for element attached. [USAT] In fact, H.R. 3230 (Sanders/McCain) passed 93-3. Only Senators Corker (R-TN), Johnson (R-WI), and Sessions (R-AL) voted against it. [roll call 187]  Within the space of 24 hours one group (students) was told that a pay-for was absolutely necessary, while another (veterans) was told it wasn’t.  So, what about students who are veterans?

II. If the older Republican argument is resurrected that the more the federal government subsidizes college costs the higher the colleges and universities raise their tuition and fees, then how can higher education be made more affordable without necessarily increasing subsidies for the lenders?

As noted yesterday, one of the major problems for public institutions is the dis-investment in higher education in the last quarter of a century.   One approach to this might be to apply an Effort Test.  If a state doesn’t support its institutions of higher education, why should the federal government necessarily pick up all the slack?

The last Nevada budget, for example, included $750 million for higher education, including seven institutions.  [Bloomberg] Applying the plastic brains, we’ve agreed to spend some 11.36% of the total state budget on higher education.  There are numerous options for implementing an Effort Test. There’s the ‘deadline’ approach in which if state funding totals don’t meet a particular standard the subsidization of loans offered by lenders to its students isn’t guaranteed.  In the Nevada example, if the deadline were set to 12%, would that have met objections that the state wasn’t adequately funding some northern institutions and given the federal government more assurance that the state was serious about appropriate adequate funds for its institutions of higher education?

There are all manner of ways in which ‘deadlines’ can be approached, and these can range from solid to sliding scale.  It would take some thinking outside the box, but we’re boxed in already.

We might also think in terms of differentiation.  The College Board reports that the average level of student indebtedness for a four year degree at a public institution is about $26,500.    The average for Nevada is approximately $20,568 with about 41% of students using student loans. [PSD.org] (Debt averages for UNLV = $21,126, and for UNR = $19,500) These figures put Nevada in the “low” debt category in comparison with other states. [PSD.org pdf]

High debt public colleges and universities range from indebtedness levels of $33,650 to $41,650. The Project on Student Debt provides some comparisons with ‘high debt’ private non-profit schools: “The 20 high-debt private nonprofit colleges listed here have average debt ranging from $41,500 to $49,450. The tuition and fees at these colleges range from $12,350 to $40,450, with six charging less than the national average for this sector.” [PSD.org pdf]

As painful as it might be, it is possible to suggest that we differentiate between public institutions and non-profit private ones.  We are, after all, speaking of back-stopping student loans with tax dollars, and if so, then why are we guaranteeing the loans to students at private non-profit institutions at the same level as the taxpayer funded public ones?   We also know that more high debt  public institutions accept students from low income areas, contrasting with high debt non-profit institutions at which this acceptance rate is lower.  [PSD.org pdf]

When we get to the graduate degree level the numbers become more complex.  For example, graduate degrees in the health sciences represent about 5% of the total graduate degrees conferred by educational institutions in this country, and 87% of theses graduates owe student loan debts. Those graduates in the 50th percentile in terms of indebtedness owe $161,772.  [NAF pdf] Now we’re between a rock and a hard place in terms of differentiation — we need physicians, dentists, and pharmacists.  If we suggest that we will back stop student loans at the bachelor’s degree level but offer less to lenders to make graduate school loans, we’re treading on our own acknowledged needs.

Law degrees are expensive as well, the 50th percentile rate being $128, 125 in debt.  But try telling a municipal or local judicial department that we don’t need more lawyers.  Public defenders offices are chronically understaffed, witness the Missouri example, and often seek to refuse cases because there simply isn’t anyone with the time available to do a decent job.  Local prosecutors have to balance the demands on their staff with restrictions intrinsic in their budgets.

When discussing graduate level student loans we need to factor in such things as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.  If a person’s employment includes emergency management, military service, public safety, or law enforcement services; public health services; public education or public library services; school library and other school-based services; public interest law services; early childhood education; public service for individuals with disabilities and the elderly, then he or she might qualify for loan ‘forgiveness’ after making 120 ‘regular payments.’

There’s a balancing act in this differentiation realm as well — Do we want to reduce loan guarantees at the graduate level, or do we want to continue to offer the loans at the going educational cost rate and then ‘forgive’ them if the person is employed in an area of acknowledged national need?  This question addresses the issues regarding the medical, legal, and educational professions, but what about those who want an MBA? Or an MS in computer technology?

One of the obvious problems with differentiating at the graduate degree level among all the possible graduate level programs offered by educational institutions is that no one has a crystal ball.  How many graduates in computer sciences do we really need? How many in the bio-technology field?  What if we find out that members of the U.S. military who have MBAs make better procurement officers?

Of all the differentiation proposals made during the student loan indebtedness debate, the issues surrounding guaranteeing graduate school loans is potentially the most problematic.

We do know what won’t solve the issues — anti-intellectual biases spewed forth about pointy-headed academics and ivory towers isn’t going to get us more archivists, public defenders, assistant district attorneys, computer system engineers, civil engineers, dentists, doctors, special education teachers, registered nurses, geneticists, and veterinarians.

Bemoaning the level of pay necessary to hire and retain professors and research specialists; and, demanding to know ‘just how much’ these ‘parasites on the body politic’ are earning isn’t going to help either.  The hard sad fact of life is that grandma’ was right: You get what you pay for.   The education and training of the next generation of public defenders, civil engineers, special education teachers, and all those other specialties we need, doesn’t come cheaply and never has.  Those harboring the delusion that they can get “something for nothing” — that we can bellow we’re Taxed Enough Already and still get an emergency dental appointment really is hallucinatory.

Recommended Reading: Student Debt and the Class of 2012, Project on Student Debt, December 2013. (pdf)  The Graduate Student Debt Review, Policy Brief, New America Educational Policy Program, 2014 (pdf). “How much student load debt is from grad students?” US News World Report, March 25, 2014.

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The GOP Ignoring Two Elephants: Student Debt and Dis-investment

Mortar Board DiplomaThirty seven members of the U.S. Senate voted to sustain the filibuster of S. 2432, the bill to allow students to renegotiate interest on their student loans, including Senator Dean Heller (R-NV, banks, hedge funds, and capital management firms.)  However, by filibustering the bill the Republicans get  bonuses — the first of which is that they don’t have to have the Elephant in the Room conversation about the benefits of the capital gains tax.

The “pay-for” in the bill is required (or demanded if that might not be a better term) because the federal government would make less money from the interest payments on new student loans, and therefore would cost the Treasury in terms of expected revenue.  Beware of those tossing around the CBO estimates of exactly how much this would cost because the projections were based on S. 2292, an earlier form of Senator Warren’s bill — but the measures are close enough for the amounts not to be dismissed out of hand.  The $55.6 billion is probably a good ball park figure.  However, listen carefully to the critics because this bill doesn’t actually “cost” the federal government much of anything in terms of direct spending — it simply reduces the projected revenue from student loan interest payments.

Here’s the exact language from the CBO Report:

“CBO estimates that about half of the outstanding loan volume for federal student loans and loan guarantees (about $460 billion) would be refinanced under the bill. Because of the lower interest rates on the refinanced loans, the federal government would receive less interest income over the life of the new loans, which would make those loans and loan guarantees more costly for the federal government. Thus, CBO estimates that enacting S. 2292 would increase direct spending for federal loans that are currently outstanding by $55.6 billion (on a present-value basis) in 2015.” (emphasis added)

We could have simply said, why bother with any “pay-for” requirement?  There are some questions which might be appropriate to ask at this point.  (1) How does one ‘score’ the costs of an increasing number of young citizens being able to spend increased amounts of money in other sectors of the economy besides the financial sector?  Might not more taxes be collected as a result of more economic activity?  (2)  Higher education degrees correlate to higher incomes, and higher incomes yield higher tax revenues.  May we not increase our tax revenues by the expedient of having more people with higher incomes, because they have the education and training necessary for higher paying jobs?  The CBO report doesn’t address these two inquiries.

But political realities demand a ‘pay-for’ if the topic under consideration isn’t part of the military-industrial complex and so we move on.

What the Republicans truly objected to, such that the expression Poison Pill was attached to the proposed legislation, [LAT] was the Buffett Rule Tax.  In its simplest form the rule would have those who earn at least $1 million annually in adjusted gross income pay at least 30%.  To insure that we don’t suddenly see innumerable returns all claiming AGIs of $999,999 the Senate version phased in a general statement of “between $1 million and $2 million.” [NYDN]

Before anyone starts shouting “They’re Raising Your Taxes,” breathe.  There does tend to be some fluctuation in the number of millionaires filing tax returns over the years, but the last few give the distinct impression that the range is between 237,ooo and 268,000 filers (since the Mortgage Meltdown) reporting AGIs of a million or more. [TaxFoundation]

Now take another breath, because the IRS estimated there were 236,791,500 income tax filings for 2011, and predicted about 3 million more for 2012.  [IRS pdf]  Some sloppy cocktail napkin calculation with the numbers readily at hand would have us divide 267,996 (the number of millionaire filings for 2010) by 236,791,500 (the number of filings for 2011) and voila –> our plastic brains tell us that the millionaire filings are 0.001131653 of the total, or more understandably, 0.113%.  That’s not even 1%.  But what no one appears to want to discuss is how much of that income is earned.

Capital gains.  The most commonly accepted estimations is that while the statutory rate on interest income is 15% the actual effective rate is about 14%.  And, yes, the people earning massive amounts of income do pay a large portion of the income taxes collected — because we have a progressive tax system in which if a person earns more he or she pays more.   Remember, the idea of minimizing the taxes on capital gains was to encourage investors to buy stock in corporations for the purpose of expansion (and creating more economic activity and jobs), an idea that would work except for what the Wall Street Casino’s been doing of late.

When the financialists grabbed the tiller the ship has been redirected into creating investment products for the sake of creating investment products.   Who benefits from a hybrid class of derivatives based on derivatives based on derivatives?  What business expansion is created when corporations indulge in stock buy backs — not to create more capacity and jobs — but to keep the stock prices afloat?

At some point, whether we are talking about student loans, or SNAP benefits, or the funding of the FDA, the discussion about the equity and efficacy of the tax differentiation between ‘honest labor income’ and interest income needs to be undertaken. If we’re not getting anything desirable (like business expansion) from the differentiation, and we’re just get more destructive exercises in increasing short term  “shareholder value,” then the longer we put off the debate the worse the situation is likely to get. [The “flat tax” flat-earther proposal is a matter for another day, as simply one more way to shift the tax effort from the upper to the middle income earners.]

There’s another equally large Elephant in the Corner which can be safely ignored so long as the filibuster is in place: How did we get into the mess in which students are being inundated with debt?

That one’s not too difficult to answer.  A large portion of the problem is summed up in the word: Dis-investing.*  Demos sums it up:

Up until about two decades ago, state funding ensured college tuition remained within reach for most middle-class families, and financial aid provided extra support to ensure lower-income students could afford the costs of college.

Twenty five years ago tuition provided about 20% of the operating costs for a public college or university, today it’s about 44%.  State legislatures have been “dis-investing” in higher education for the last quarter of a century and it’s catching up with us.  Frankly speaking, it doesn’t quite do to tell public colleges and universities to keep their tuition and fee costs down when their state legislatures are increasingly reluctant to fund them out of general resources.

And at this point it’s probably time to bring up a vote taken by the Nevada Board of Regents about five days ago to increase registration fees.

“Beginning fall 2015, university and community college undergraduate registration fees will rise 4 percent per year for four years. At universities, graduate registration fees will rise 2 percent each year for four years. Nevada State College’s undergraduate fees will rise 2.5 percent in the first year and 3.5 percent each year for the following three years. Tuition was last raised by 8 percent in 2011.” [LVRJ]

What does this look like in real money?

“Registration fees at UNLV and University of Nevada, Reno are now $191.50 per credit. By the 2018-2019 school year, they will be $224 per credit, meaning students taking a full load of 15-credits per semester will pay $487.50 more per semester during the 2018-2019 school year. [LVRJ]

A garden variety BA in Math at UNR requires 120 hours of coursework.  A Math major isn’t required to calculate what’s happening.  A BA in Math now costs $22,980 in fees (we’re not counting tuition, books, other fees, housing, and food) and will cost $26,880 in 2018-19 (not counting tuition, books,other fees, housing, and food.)  In good old arithmetic, that’s a 16.97% increase.

There’s a real balancing act herein. An institution can’t keep its professors, at least not the good ones — since capitalism does work — without keeping salaries at least chasing inflation.  There are only so many “adjunct” personnel adjustments available, and a finite number of graduate students willing to work for peanuts to keep classes going.  At some juncture, unfortunately not that far off, the Band-Aid approach to college and university funding begins to spring leaks.

Somewhere amidst the dis-inclination to discuss taxing the 0.113% and the reluctance to debate the dis-investment in higher education, we have a situation in which students from middle income families, and students trying to become those middle income earners are getting squeezed by the Elephants in the Room.

* For more information on dis-investment as it specifically applies to the University of Nevada, Reno, see: “Final Commission Report – Future of the University, December 2012″ (pdf) See also: The Great Cost Shift Continues: State Higher Education Funding After the Recession, Demos, March 2014.

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