I have tremendous respect for my good friend Dr. Gerald Johnson. Recently Gerald wrote an op-ed piece that appeared in the Birmingham News. He really hits the nail on the head in his analysis of our education funding woes. I am including what he wrote in its entirety.
No Easy Fix For Education Funding Holes
After some 40 years of observing Alabama public education policy and budgetary processes and outcomes, I continue to be perplexed by the simplistic editorial prescriptions offered to solve the state’s continuing education budget problems. The latest version is the December 7th Birmingham News editorial on “wobbly” education budgeting. The News’ editorial authoritatively stated that, “There’s no excuse for not finding a better way, particularly when the better way already exists: building budgets based on trends that already happened, rather than trends that may not.” According to The News, the better way is to base the education budget on Republican Rep. Greg Canfield’s model of average expenditures over the past 15 years and place the “extra” money in good years in a savings account for lean years.
The Canfield model is based on the premise that, if the education budgetary process could be made more predictable, the state’s education budget problems would be solved. I suggest just the opposite. Not only would the budget problems not be solved, they would be worse. The proposal is a prescription for mediocrity. Let’s quickly dismiss the part of the proposal that calls for saving “surplus” money in good years to help in lean years. The state already does this in the form of several “rainy-day” funds. These funds have provided hundreds of millions of dollars over the past two years to reduce the impact of the current hard times. But, they didn’t solve the problems.
The budgetary process is not the problem. If so, the lengthy list of budgetary process reforms which I taught over the years, including zero-based, program, incremental, line-item, program planning budgeting systems and “voodoo” budgeting, would have long since solved the problems. Changes in the budgetary process will not address the real budgetary problems – inadequate funding and an unfair and unproductive tax structure. Any reform proposal should, first of all, do no harm. This proposal will do harm. Assuredly, had average expenditures been applied over the past 10 years, there would be no Alabama Reading Initiative, Math Initiative, lower class size, significant salary increases, cost-of-living adjustments, classroom supply funds or any other initiative that could only be funded in the good years. Take the good-year funding away and you have a formula for mediocrity.
If you just run the expenditure and revenue numbers for the period from fiscal year 1994 to fiscal year 2008, the proposed average expenditure model beats inflation by $10.52 billion while the current revenue model beats inflation by $13.22 billion, a loss of $2.7 billion. In just the previous four years, education would have received $2.4 billion less. That is five times the amount spent on the reading and math and science initiatives, and more than the federal stimulus stability dollars. Even worse, under the expenditure proposal, there is the possibility federal stimulus dollars would not be available to help distressed schools, because the funding caps would require the dollars to be set aside and the federal dollars would be lost, costing the Education Trust Fund an additional $1 billion.
Yes, as The News’ editorial said, “There’s no excuse for not finding a better way, particularly when the better way already exists.” A better way does exist, but it is certainly not the average expenditure model. We all know the better way. But the better way is the road less traveled and the more difficult. Thus, editorial boards muse in the abstract about changes in process, not substance, and endorse simplistic proposals, not solutions. Until the better way is achieved, the bailing wire, gum and glue, patchwork, feast-and-famine approach does the least harm and provides for some real progress.
Source: Dr. Gerald Johnson
The Birmingham News
December 20, 2009
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