May 13, 2012

School-funding debate gets divisive

Colin Read: Everybody's Business

---- — Even a cursory perusal of the newspaper's Letters to the Editor reminds us of one thing. It's school budget and board election time again.

We have for four years now witnessed the division of national politics. We now see divisions hardening within our communities.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo produced a feat many thought impossible. After years of institutionalized budget increases for schools, he knocked some legislative heads together and produced a 2 percent cap on increases in school taxes.

There are some modifiers, which can result in a higher rate if there are certain capital projects that must be funded or a lower effective cap than 2 percent in other cases where there may be some payments in lieu of taxes.

However, the overwhelming number of school boards across this state managed to cobble together budgets that respected the caps. Only the rare boards proposed budgets in excess. Some of those districts are in our region.

Such school boards offer arguments that have little to do with public finance or economics. Board members appeal to our love of our children and to the fact that a 5 percent tax increase still amounts to less than the cost of a beer or deluxe cup of coffee every day. The emotional argument goes something like this: Isn't the education of our children worth a cup of coffee?

Of course. Taxpayers in New York already spend more per child than the residents of any other state, or for that matter, more than the average spending per child in any other country. I believe many of us would pay even more if we were convinced the additional expenditure guaranteed our children a rich education that would ensure their success.

But the issue is not the cost of a cup of coffee.

What the proponents of additional education spending fail to articulate is the value proposition. They have not convinced taxpayers that the highest level of education spending in this state, and across the globe, is buying the best education.

In fact, these measures are almost never articulated. It is easy to calculate how much it costs for the inputs that educate a child. The outputs are so much harder that our school boards seem to have given up trying.

The statements that would convince taxpayers would go something like this:

For a $100 increase in spending per student per year, we can promise an X percent increase in the graduation rate or graduation from college, a Y percent decrease in unemployment or a Z percent increase in lifetime income.

I realize some readers will recoil at the comparison of education to other economic institutions. Yet, until we demand the same accountability from our public enterprises as we do from our own organizations, we will be doomed to repeat the dysfunctional discourse that has so divided us.

I suspect that those demanding a value proposition in these difficult times may prevail in the short run. Excessive school budgets may be defeated, and boards may become divided as reformist candidates win election.

The gulf will widen as boards are constituted with newly elected, fiscally concerned board members and more senior members who continue to argue for greater spending.

Instead, I hope we can all put our best ideas forward and figure out how we can create the value that taxpayers demand. Senior members of school boards can seize the opportunity to use their experience to help articulate how we can improve education quality without necessarily increasing costs. After all, throwing more money at challenges does not always lead to improvements and may even do the opposite.

Certainly, the education of our children is so important that we are determined to get this right. For too long, taxpayers' checkbooks have been taken for granted. Now, we have the opportunity to reduce the rhetoric, attenuate the arrogance and cooperate for our children.

Who knows, if we have a renewed respect for a capacity of taxpayers to pay that has been stretched too far, and the need for us to better leverage our resources, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it, too.

I bet we can discover that a great education can be had without spending a small fortune. I have my ideas, and I bet you have too.

Colin Read is the chair of the Department of Economics and Finance at SUNY Plattsburgh. His tenth book, Great Minds in Finance — the Efficient Market Hypothesists, is coming out this fall. Continue the discussion at