Good Schools Create a Stronger State

News, Summer 2017
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WHY EVERYONE SHOULD CARE ABOUT PUBLIC EDUCATION

BY KARA SCHWEISS

The quality of public education in Nebraska is clearly an important concern for families with school-age children or with children only a few years away from entering school.

But advocates for public education say it should matter to all citizens—people with school-age children, people with adult children and even people without children—because education ultimately affects everyone.

“Every problem that we face can be improved through supporting strong public education,” says Ann Hunter-Pirtle, executive director and founder of Stand for Schools, a nonprofit that advocates for public schools in Nebraska. “All of our future business leaders, doctors, lawyers—everyone else we depend on in our lives—by and large go through our public school system. There’s not a single aspect of our economy or our quality of life in our state that education doesn’t touch. So it is incredibly important to everyone that we keep our schools strong.”

Jim Sutfin, superintendent for Millard Public Schools, agrees. “I believe in the state of Nebraska taking care of its children, because we know that those children grow up to be our future leaders and we’re in a spot where we must really think deeply about what we believe in in order to keep public schools going in the right direction,” he says.

“Our schools are preparing the citizens of tomorrow,” says Nancy Edick, dean of the College of Education at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO). “Not just for our city and state, but for our country and the world. All of us need to be involved. The community needs to wrap its arms around schooling in order for it to be as strong as possible.”

Fortunately, we’re already in a good place. Public education in Nebraska is generally well regarded, even on a national scale. “Nebraska has some of the highest performing schools in the country,” Sutfin says. “We have some of the highest ACT results, some of the highest college attendance rates. We are raising successful students who become successful adults.” Edick says Nebraska is admired on a national scale for its quality of education.

“When I’m at national conferences, people are impressed when they hear how strong and independent we have been about making different choices about school change—things like making sure all teachers are licensed and have teaching degrees, and not allowing alternative certification in the state. We’ve been conservative in our approach and are nationally admired for the quality we have.” Hunter-Pirtle agrees. “Our public schools do excel,” she says. “That’s not to say they’re perfect, but people should know we have some top-notch schools in Nebraska, and we should be proud of that.”

So when starting from a positive position, Edick says, it’s important to maintain it. Currently, she adds, there is a lot of activity around public school advocacy. Metropolitan Omaha Educational Consortium (MOEC) is one champion. The organization has been in force for 29 years and has representation that includes a dozen area public school districts, Metropolitan Community College, Iowa Western Community College and UNO.

“We make sure that our districts and school boards and families are aware of things happening in the policy arena; that’s been a longstanding, long-time collaborative voice for public education that we’re really proud of,” Edick says. “It’s a broad impact, having all of those different school districts as well as community colleges working on behalf of public school advocacy.”

Sutfin says public education in the state is supported not only by direct advocacy organizations, but also other educational groups and various interested individuals.

“You certainly have your parents and the community,” he says. “Nebraska Loves Public Schools, NSCA (Nebraska Council of School Administrators), NSEA (Nebraska State Education Association), the Nebraska Association of School Boards—all of those groups are advocating for positive public educational experiences.” Teachers, administrators, parents, community members and business leaders are all advocates for education, Hunter-Pirtle says. “Something that has struck me, as I’ve traveled across the state and spoken to school leaders and parents and community members, is that schools really are the lifeblood of Nebraska communities, and that’s true in small towns and larger cities. I’m struck by how united Nebraskans are in support of their local public schools.”

She emphasizes, however, that Nebraskans need to stay vigilant and not take quality public education for granted, which also means protecting funding. “When it comes to some of the lowest-performing states, the theme you often find is the presence of a lot of school privatization mechanisms: charter schools, vouchers, tax credits—many states have all three —and diverting public funding away from public schools,” she says. “We need to start from a place of supporting and protecting our public schools and working together to find ways to make them even better. Diverting funds away from public schools toward private options is not the way to do that.”

Privatization, she says, has led to serious problems in other states. “You’re taking taxpayer dollars out of public oversight, which greatly increases the likelihood of waste, fraud and abuse. Ohio is a notable example. They’re in the midst of a huge statewide scandal involving their charter school sector, which cost the states tens of millions of dollars in payments for students who never existed.” Edick says she believes Nebraskans are careful when it comes to their educational system.

“I hope Nebraska continues their common sense approach to education. We have a really healthy brand of conservatism when it comes to change,” she says. “We look very carefully at the data and we make sure we are doing the right thing for kids and families.”

Despite all the positive indicators, there is one area where Nebraska compares unfavorably to other states. “I think our biggest risk is our funding model and our over-reliance on property taxes for funding,” Edick says. Hunter-Pirtle agrees, adding that Nebraska ranks 49th in the country for state funding for education. According to a recent report on K-12 funding released by OpenSky Policy Institute—a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focused on budget and tax policy—Nebraska’s schools are more reliant on local sources of revenue than schools in any other state in the nation. The debate continues over how to make state funding equitable between districts that have high property values for tax purposes and those that don’t.

The report also indicates that a dwindling rural population, rising agricultural land values and increased student needs have made it even more challenging to create an education finance system that fosters quality, fairness and equity. The report also affirms that there are no easy answers. This May, Nebraska lawmakers passed an $8.9 billion budget for the 2017-2019 biennium. Traci Bruckner, research and policy director for the Women’s Fund of Omaha, says an income tax cut proposal remains a looming threat. “If they pass an income tax cut bill like what was introduced this last year, it would drain $458 million per year from state revenues once fully implemented. That would have a hugely devastating impact on schools and funding levels.”

“The state faced a budget shortfall, Hunter-Pirtle says. “Schools, frankly, were less hard-hit than some of the other sectors this year, but it’s a little bit misleading. On paper, school budgets increased slightly, but that is less than the state’s own funding formula calls for, and it’s certainly not enough to keep up with student growth and growing student needs as income inequality gets worse. There are many districts that are going to be facing devastating cuts.” Sutfin’s district is one of them. “We’re reducing both certificated and noncertified positions, and we’re going to have to use cash reserve, which is how we make payroll. So we think we’re going to be able to weather it for this next year so we don’t have to borrow to make payroll. But we’ve got a one-year window. Either something changes next year or the cuts become even deeper,” he says.

And that doesn’t mean the effects aren’t already being felt. “We’re going to be down over 50 teacher/administrator positions as we begin next fall. And we’ll have had probably a little more than 1,200 or 1,300 in student growth.” It’s a complicated situation, he explained. First, state support for Nebraska schools has historically fallen short of the targets set by lawmakers. “And the number two (issue) is inside the formula. You get allocations based upon the school district, and the formula does not favor middle-class school districts. You get a basic school allocation plus additional dollars if a student lives in poverty or if a student is ELL (English Language Learner)—and you should, because it takes more to educate them—but those dollars flow to those districts. Which means somebody like us, even though the state of Nebraska increased the funding formula by 2.1 percent, we actually lost $2 million. We have $2 million dollars less state aid next year than we did this year.”

Public school advocates are keeping an eye on what’s happening on a national scale, too, Edick says, since the new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, assumed office in February. “I don’t think we quite know what’s going to happen exactly from a federal level, says Hunter-Pirtle. “But the signals are not good. I think the administration has (indicated) that they are taking grant money intended to support public schools in states and putting it toward supporting school privatization instead. That’s certainly not a good sign, but we don’t know yet how it’s going to play out in Nebraska. We’re not seeing a lot yet in the way of details. It’s something we’re watching closely.”

As it stands, however, “education is a function of the state government,” Sutfin says. “And so empower states, because states empower local school boards. Set the standards, set accountability and tell local school boards to get it done,” he says. “The state of Nebraska is run by elected officials, legislators. Schools are run by elected officials who are school board members. The more we do from the state to take away local control, the more we weaken school districts, because school boards know their community best.”

The citizens in turn have influence over their elected officials, at the state level as well as locally, Hunter-Pirtle

says. “We really are blessed to have a nonpartisan unicameral legislature,” she says. “With 49 members of the

legislature, it is possible to know all of them and they’re by and large very accessible. They’ll have a discussion with you even if they don’t agree.” Community members have an important voice, Edick says. “I think the voices of those intimately involved with schools need to be listened to. That includes parents, educators and students.” Parents in particular and educators themselves do need to speak out, Hunter-Pirtle says.

“They have a very hard, important job to do every day that takes up a huge amount of their time, but I would like parents and educators themselves to be more aware of the threats to public education broadly that we’re facing as a state, which includes charter schools, vouchers and tax credits for wealthy folks who donate to private school scholarship funds. And I’d want everyone who’s related to school communities, which really is everybody in the state, to understand that we have great schools in Nebraska but we can’t take them for granted. They don’t stay great on their own through complacency. They stay great through people advocating for them.”

Advocacy can be as involved as working with formal education groups, but citizens can support public education on a more personal level, too, Edick says. “Contact your neighborhood school. Ask them what you can do to help. If you feel passionate about something—like the arts, athletics, libraries or technology—step forward and share it with the schools,” Edick says.

“When you’re involved, you help ensure high quality and have a better understanding of the quality that exists within the schools. And when you vote, make sure you know and understand what you’re voting for. Sutfin agrees that getting involved is key. “Listen to the school district when they’re reaching out. Partner with your local school and your local district. Be cognizant what legislative items are on table and contact your representatives,” he says. “And then I would add that the most important decision a person makes regarding legislation is who they choose to vote for. We have the right and privilege to elect our officials. Take it seriously.

Spend the time researching the candidates to make sure that they fairly represent your stance and your beliefs.” Because in the end, “the public schools are about all of us,” Hunter-Pirtle says. “They function best when the public is involved and engaged.”

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