IF lawmakers believe school mandates are unfunded, here's a solution: Fund them.
Instead, legislation winding through the Oklahoma Legislature would adopt a “never mind” attitude. Call it the Emily Litella Doctrine, after the old “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Under House Bill 1711, by Rep. Todd Thomsen, R-Ada, a local board of education “may elect” to opt out of any unfunded or underfunded mandate. The bill defines a mandate as “underfunded” if state appropriations cover less than 75 percent of cost and “unfunded” if no money is provided. The local board would make the funding determination and simply notify the state.
House Bill 1100, by Rep. Arthur Hulbert, R-Fort Gibson, would prohibit enactment of any school mandate unless “sufficient” funding is provided. Who determines what's “sufficient”? The bill doesn't say. That problem is noted in the official bill summary prepared by legislative staff, which should be a red flag.
Neither bill identifies an actual unfunded mandate; both measures' vagueness invites abuse. Due to the national recession, the Oklahoma Policy Institute says, state school funding declined 20 percent over five years adjusted for student growth and inflation (that doesn't include local or federal dollars). Would HBs 1711 and 1100 allow districts to declare several weeks of school “unfunded”? Congratulations, kids, summer vacation starts in April this year!
School districts have discretionary control of about $4 billion annually; the use of those non-earmarked funds isn't typically tracked by the state. As a result, under HB 1711 local mismanagement — or even embezzlement — could create an “underfunded” mandate regardless of appropriations.
It's unclear whether carry-over funds would be considered in mandate-funding determinations. School districts had a combined $676 million in carry-over funding in 2011; that figure actually increased during the recession.
We don't support unfunded mandates, but we also oppose a “trust me” policy when billions of taxpayer dollars and the future of countless students are at stake. Supporters of these bills decry “one-size-fits-all” education edicts from Oklahoma City. But students need to learn to read no matter where they live. Math is important everywhere. All high school graduates should be able to do high school work, not just kids in the suburbs.
Those goals have been the focus of recent education reforms. Opponents now want to label them “unfunded mandates,” although it's a mystery how academic basics count as “new” school expenses. Oklahoma is implementing third-grade reading standards. High school students must pass tests demonstrating limited mastery of mostly freshman- and sophomore-level coursework to get a diploma. What benefit is provided by allowing schools to opt out of those basic teaching responsibilities?
If you think that outcome unlikely, ask yourself: Which is more likely to be spiked under these proposed laws — athletic programs or academics?
These measures reflect a mindset that says government spending can only increase and savings aren't possible. We expect to hear that from President Barack Obama, but not from supposedly conservative Republicans. Private businesses routinely find ways to lower costs while improving services, allowing reallocation of funds for other uses. Public schools can do the same in tough budget times. Instead, these bills appear likely to encourage accounting games when school officials wish to evade accountability.
Blind trust is no substitute for actual oversight. “Local control” shouldn't be a weapon used to rob children of educational opportunities.