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School Boards and The Lawyers Who Love Them

It’s always interesting when school districts bring on new/more lawyers. A very good blog that follows the Atlanta Public Schools (APS), posted this blog about the recent hiring of a new legal firm for the district.

Another APS watcher, Tom Tidwell, posted this on his Facebook page:
“Two of the biggest issues during last year’s Board of Education elections were transparency and pushing funding into the classroom. I understand that change takes time and maybe I was expecting too much from the new Board but it seems to be business as usual at APS.

Last night, the Board approved a resolution to hire Glenn Brock as outside general counsel. APS has publicly stated the desire to hire Brock was intended to reduce costs and increase efficiency so more money can be directed to the children in the schoolhouse. Nancy Morrison Meister asked Davis how theses savings and efficiencies would be realized and he clearly backed away from this notion, saying it wasn’t just a cost issue. No one could explain how this was going to be good for APS, and in fact one board member suggested they should support it simply because its what the new superintendent wants. This is concerning on a number of levels, but most importantly, at least in my mind, it is another example of APS making aspirational statements that don’t have any basis in fact or reality. Why can’t we, as parents and taxpayers, get open, honest and transparent communications from the APS and the Board?

Glenn is a good lawyer and would make a great general counsel, but if he is unwilling to take the job as a full-time, in-house position, then APS should look elsewhere. It is hard to imagine how APS intends to save money by hiring a partner at a large firm. The effective hourly rate if a GC is hired in-house at $200,000 a year would be around $100/hour. The average hourly rate for Nelson Mullins paralegals is higher than that, and the hourly rate for a partner with Glenn’s skill set is probably closer to $500 an hour.

Only two board members, Nancy Meister and Steven Davon Lee, voted against this resolution, even though there was no urgency and absolutely no reason why they could not delay this until the July meeting. Do we really want to go back to the days of Beverly Hall and the “go along to get along” board?”

What is the Georgia GOP’s Platform on Education?

There are some very specific and fixable reasons that education in Georgia is not performing better when compared to metrics from other states. Georgia still spends more on education per pupil, yet has a lower graduation than every state that borders us. Ditto when you compare us to Mississippi and Texas. We are spending more and getting less.

Georgia is missing basic financial and managerial accountability at the top levels of the state Department of Education and districts around the state. Whenever I hear someone from the education establishment in Georgia speak, I wonder why more boards, elected officials and parents aren’t having a Paul Ryan reaction. Who is responsible for the architecture of failure that has brought us to our current relative status, if not those “experts” at the top of our DOE and districts? (I exempt Dr. Avossa of Fulton and Will Schofield of Hall from my criticism at this point. Avossa is relatively new to Georgia and has been a critic of the way Georgia teaches math. Schofield seems to understand the necessity of pushing down governance to the schoolhouse level and embraces school choice. It’s worth noting that much of his experience in education came from western states.)

Where is the Republican Party on the fiasco that is public education in our state? What is our platform? K-12 education is the single largest expenditure in the state budget. Why don’t we have some way to measure, rate, disclose and hold high level officials accountable for the quality of their financial and academic management? Shouldn’t the Georgia GOP have something to say about this? Some goals? A study committee?

I’m not talking about Common Core (CC) here. CC is a ridiculous idea that will increase costs and will not drive improvements in student achievement. If Georgia’s Republican Party had a vision and strategy for education, then we could have probably avoided the CC debacle, much like Texas.

I tried to find a GA GOP statement about our party’s vision for education. I tried to find a position paper, outlining a consensus view of what Republican reforms to education would look like. I found nothing. Zip.

We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Other states have policies and systems in place that we could adapt to work for Georgia. One example is the FIRST from Texas.

From the Texas Education Agency’s website:
The state’s school financial accountability rating system, known as the School Financial Integrity Rating System of Texas (FIRST), ensures that Texas public schools are held accountable for the quality of their financial management practices and that they improve those practices. The system is designed to encourage Texas public schools to better manage their financial resources to provide the maximum allocation possible for direct instructional purposes.

How refreshing is that!

And, of course, what good is any policy without consequences for failure? Many other states accredit their own schools and have consequences within their accreditation for poor financial and academic performance management. Tennessee is moving its lowest performing schools out of the hands of their local district and into a state run “Achievement District”. They are not alone. But, here in Georgia, our tacit policy is, “We subsidize failure.”

It is an economic certainty that if you spend more money on failure, you’ll just purchase more of it. We do so at alarming rates in Georgia and it hurts kids and taxpayers around the state. Why aren’t we rewarding those innovative districts that are doing right by kids and taxpayers with more autonomy and funding? If a district is continuing to bloat its administrative costs, why don’t we hold back on some of their state allocation? I mean, if they have so much money that they can hire excessive amounts of administrators, why should taxpayers around the state subsidize that? Isn’t that a sign that they are not economizing their budget? Would not their cutback be better spent on other endeavors, poorer districts or rebated to taxpayers?

While states around the nation have improved their financial stewardship and outcomes, we have fiddled. And the Republican Party is not engaged on this issue. While many observers glibly talk of disorganized Democrats, we should contemplate if we’re not as organized as we think. Are we winning by accident?

The Georgia GOP is focusing on minority outreach. That’s necessary and wise but what are we doing to keep those voters who are already with us? If we’re going to go down the path of identity politics, it might behoove the GOP in Georgia to recognize the obvious gender problem in the room. The majority of voters are women and the largest subset is white women.

Conveniently, education is a big issue for women voters of all colors and socioeconomic backgrounds. Just look at the 2012 vote on Amendment One. Despite the opposition of most Democrat politicians, the amendment passed in majority Democratic areas. School choice resonated with moms. The promise of school choice was as powerful for the mother of a child with learning challenges in North Fulton and the mom whose child is trapped in a failing school in South DeKalb.

The Republican Party could drastically improve the educational lives of Georgia’s children, provide better fiscal accountability, and capture the ladies’ vote, if it took affirmative steps to develop and advocate for proven, effective methods that deliver value to kids and taxpayers alike. Imagine if the Republican Party were seen by moms across the state as their ally in educating their child. Imagine if the GOP was responsible for bringing the best practices from other states to deliver results for kids. Imagine if the GOP was the taxpayers guardian; refusing to accept poor financial management. Moms of all colors across this state vote for candidates that help their children. Fiscal hawks could celebrate the sanity that this would bring to the state budget. Liberty types should be happy to see a heavy-handed, autocratic agency reform in favor of individual choices.

The Georgia GOP website says “Choose Freedom”. It’s time the Georgia GOP embraces its own tagline. There is little freedom in education in Georgia right now. Despite Amendment One, there are few school choice options for most families. The system is rigged to favor bureaucracy at every turn. Common Core is about centralization and uniformity. And remember what Milton Friedman said about that:

“The situation has changed drastically in the past half century. The number of school districts declined from 130,000 to 16,000; classroom teachers, from 96 percent of the total instructional staff to 86 percent; the fraction of school funds coming from local government, from 83 percent to 43 percent. During the same period, population nearly doubled, cost per student multiplied more than five-fold, even after allowing for inflation, and the quality of education plummeted. Schools are now run by professional bureaucrats. Monopoly and uniformity have replaced competition and diversity. Consumers of schooling have little to say. Control by producers has replaced control by consumers.” –Newsweek 1983

Parents have few choices and no real authority over how their schools function. Taxpayers are forced to contribute to a system with subpar results. Too many children leave school ill-equipped for their future. The Georgia GOP should take a stand on education that is congruent with the “Choose Freedom” motto. That’s a path to solid majority.

Georgia Education Per Pupil Spending, Graduation Rates, Tax Climate, Poverty Rating & Free/Reduced Lunch Percentage

In January, I posted this blog about education spending and results in Georgia.

In May, the US Census office released updated per pupil spending numbers. I have updated my regional map with these numbers, along with Georgia’s tax climate ranking, poverty ranking and the percentage of students receiving free/reduced lunch.

Georgia is still spending more per pupil and has a lower gradation rate than all of our border states. Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi all spend less per pupil, have higher graduation rates, better tax climate rankings and more poverty than Georgia. South Carolina and North Carolina both spend less, have higher graduation rates, similar poverty rankings but are rated below Georgia in tax climate. But look for both South and North Carolina to improve their tax climate rankings. North Carolina passed a major tax reform bill this year. South Carolina is working on a major overhaul.

Per Pupil Spending and Graduation Rates

Per Pupil Spending and Graduation Rates

Spending, rate and ranking data

Spending, rate and ranking data

Follow The Money

Follow the money.  That phrase was popularized during the Watergate tumult.  It is also a wise directive for all taxpayers in our state and beyond when it comes to how we spend your tax dollars on education.

So, what happens when you can’t “follow the money” because the government and the Iron Triangle Education Bureaucracy puts obstacles in your way?  The Cato Institute has released a study about the transparency in spending by departments of education.  It turns out Georgia earned an “F”.  Click here  to see their study. About Georgia, Cato points out, “Georgia is missing the most recent year of expenditures and fails to provide a table or graph that would allow citizens to easily compare changes in spending over time.”  In fact, Georgia is missing the most recent 2 years.  The financial data that is provided through the state DOE website is the 2010-2011 school year – a full 2 years behind our current fiscal year. (School districts have fiscal years that run from July 1 through June 30.  The fiscal year is referenced by the year in which it ends.)  So we are missing FY12 and FY13 on the fiscal reports.

Until we fix the financial issues that plague Georgia’s educational spending, we won’t fix education in our state. Unfortunately, Georgia’s Department of Education has not held districts accountable for how they spend your tax dollars.  It appears the DOE’s only retort is to ask for more of your money.  Our DOE continues to send hundreds of millions of your dollars to districts that do little to improve the educational lives of our children or even provide transparency in their expenditures.  It’s all a bit cozy.  Sadly, administrators have grown their take of your money over time and let smaller amounts accrue to the teachers in the classroom.  Dr. Scafidi’s study, The School Staffing Surge, on how administrative staffing has grown over time in excess of student growth.  In an upcoming “Coffee Talk”, we’ll cover the finances of education in Georgia and how they have hurt taxpayers, students and teachers all while benefiting the educational bureaucrats.  Follow the money, indeed.