Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Council votes today on change to Home Rule Act

Today the DC Council will vote on changes to the District's Home Rule Act guaranteeing all school aged residents a free, high quality education. The Post has another editorial in today's paper against the legislation.
The District may well face similar difficulties meeting a tough set of homegrown legal requirements. If it fails, it faces a potentially massive legal liability. Even if it succeeds, the best it can hope for is a budget nightmare as the school system -- which doesn't reliably record where its money goes -- stretches itself to demonstrate that it can fund the educational priorities that the council laid out, probably at the expense of many others.

And if the council tries to duck these outcomes by not defining "high quality" at all? Then the schools may find themselves before judges who will offer their own definitions, with equally troublesome results.
Others are for the change. Mark Lerner, who is one of the District's great educational advocates, is in favor, as is Marc Borbely of FixOurSchools.net.

I, however, remain an opponent (for why see this post). To highlight the type of fiscal mayhem that could result its worth reading this article from the City Journal about the problems that are facing New Jersey. Part of the article deals with New Jersey's public education system, and there are some startling similarities between the District and the Garden State.
The latest installment of this ruinously expensive mess is a court-ordered state effort to rebuild dysfunctional urban school systems. In a series of decisions beginning in the 1990s, the New Jersey Supreme Court has forced the state to boost spending dramatically in city schools. Going beyond fiscal equity cases in other states, which demand that prosperous suburban residents contribute more to poor urban school systems, the Jersey supremes mandated that each district be able to spend as much as the state’s richest jurisdictions—up to $18,000 per pupil. The court also required the state to establish universal preschool and to embark on a $2 billion school building program.

Once the courts decreed this modern-day exercise in taxation without representation, union-backed pols piled on. In 2001, the state legislature inflated the school construction program to a budget-busting $8.6 billion—a gift not only to the education lobby but also to the construction unions and other tax eaters. To evade voter approval (which the state constitution requires) for the lavish spending, the legislature created a largely unaccountable bond-issuing authority, a constitutional dodge that Jersey’s courts blessed. The patronage-ridden authority proved so corrupt that it quickly spent all its borrowed money, while completing only half of its building projects, leaving taxpayers under court order to pour in yet more funds.

By the 2003–04 school year, state taxpayers, in a colossal income transfer, were handing over a jaw-dropping $4 billion annually to support education spending in Jersey cities. Taxpayers from elsewhere in the state footed fully 90 percent of Camden’s education bill, while the city itself contributed a mere 2 percent, says the school reform group EducateNJ. In Trenton, state taxpayers paid 82 percent of the education bill; local sources ponied up just 8 percent.

Yet even as Garden State taxpayers have showered nearly $30 billion on city schools over the last decade, neither the courts nor the officials overseeing the urban school districts have demanded fundamental reform of the school bureaucracies, let alone innovative solutions like vouchers. The money thus has made little difference. True, state tests show a recent uptick in fourth-grade reading and math proficiency (though little gain for eighth-graders and high school students). But the improvements, such as they are, result at least partially from the state dumbing down its tests over the last few years. Soberingly, on national tests, Jersey students show insignificant gains for all grade levels since 1992 and considerably lower levels of math and reading proficiency than the state tests claim.

In recent state legislative testimony, the vice president of Newark’s Public School Advisory Board starkly framed the lack of progress. "There has been little, if any, real success that the minority and low-income children of my city can claim," she said, thanks to the "abysmal failure of our system." [emphasis added] In Camden and Newark, that system spends nearly $1 billion in state funds annually—to produce a scant 2,000 high school grads a year.
To recap: judge finds that schools system isn't delivering guaranteed quality education, judge takes over oversight of education system; funding skyrockets (meaning taxes skyrocket); graft skyrockets; favorable deals to politically connected developers skyrocket; student performance... well, the less said about that the better. Does that mean the same fate awaits the District? Not necessarily. But do you have confidence that the District's elected officials would do a better job of managing anything better than New Jersey's? I certainly don't.

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