February 2006

Ophelia’s Fine Mess

The never-ending saga in Memphis continues, as the Commercial Appeal reports that investigators have found three more instances of convicted felons voting in the special election to fill the Dist. 29 Senate seat vacated by Ophelia Ford’s brother, John Ford, after his indictment on extortion and bribery charges.

That brings to 12 the number of documented illegal votes out of her margin of 13 over Republican Terry Roland. As many as four dozen more are contested by Roland on the basis of votes by people living outside the district.

The Senate earlier took a preliminary (committee of the whole) vote to void the election, only to have Ophelia storm to the federal courtroom of family pal Judge Bernice Donald — whom brother Harold Ford Sr. had recommended for the bench while in Congress. One might wonder how Miss Ophelia could get so lucky as to draw Judge Donald when federal judges hear cases on a rotating basis, but having her niece as the judge’s docket clerk couldn’t have hurt any.

The Tennessean quoted Ford yesterday, saying

“Whatever we have to do I’m going to be the senator come this fall,” Ford said Wednesday following the meeting of special Senate committee investigating the District 29 election. “I’m the senator right now and I’m the senator until the election is voided.”

Hmmm. I’m sure she means she’ll do whatever she can get away with… legal was never exactly a barrier in that family.

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SIDEBAR: the WSJ reports that the Taliban’s former ambassador-at-large is now studying at Yale on a student visa:

Never has an article made me blink with astonishment as much as when I read in yesterday’s New York Times magazine that Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, former ambassador-at-large for the Taliban, is now studying at Yale on a U.S. student visa. This is taking the obsession that U.S. universities have with promoting diversity a bit too far.

Something is very wrong at our elite universities. Last week Larry Summers resigned as president of Harvard when it became clear he would lose a no-confidence vote held by politically correct faculty members furious at his efforts to allow ROTC on campus, his opposition to a drive to have Harvard divest itself of corporate investments in Israel, and his efforts to make professors work harder. Now Yale is giving a first-class education to an erstwhile high official in one of the most evil regimes of the latter half of the 20th century–the government that harbored the terrorists who attacked America on Sept. 11, 2001.

Something is very wrong indeed with the way we think about education; hat tip to Instapundit for the heads-up. How many of us encountered, as I did, Muslim students in college who were majoring in things like nuclear engineering so that they could go home and “fight the infidel?” Silly me… in 1982, I was naive enough to have to ask, “what’s an infidel?”

Breakfast with the Legislators

Patrick Smith, Legislative Liason to Governor Bredesen, attended the Oak Ridge League of Women Voters‘ “Breakfast with the Legislators” program this morning, courtesy of Sen. Randy McNally.

Patrick reiterated the Governor’s commitment to improvements in education funding, including $95 million in new dollars to fully fund the BEP, plus $20 million in new dollars to address ELL and at-risk students (translation: ELL= students who speak English as a second language, if at all; at-risk= poor). The proposed change to a system-level fiscal capacity model is not in this year’s budget, although it remains likely, according to Smith, that it may be introduced in the Legislature. It’s possible that one or more legislators may try to redirect the new funding in Bredesen’s budget toward the proposed system-level model, which would significantly impact how the funds are distributed among the state’s school systems.

In response to a question about why Tennessee doesn’t look to how other states handle the fiscal capacity issue in education funding, Smith answered that the State Board of Education is looking at doing that through a conference, perhaps as early as this Summer. That’s needed, because as he noted in his opening remarks, there are lawsuits pending or in progress in 20-25 states based not on equity, but adequacy — a completely different (and healthier) debate.

As has been noted in the past, so long as we’re talking about equity, we’re mostly talking about equally inadequate. As pointed out in a 2003 Comptroller’s report (“Funding Public Schools: Is the BEP Adequate?“). What is adequate? From the report referenced:

In contrast to a Basic funding system focusing on inputs, Adequacy refers to a funding system that gives students “access to educational resources and opportunities adequate to achieve desired educational outcomes.”

If every school system had adequate funding, there would likely be a lot less complaining about equity, since everything above adequate would have to come from local taxpayers’ desire to fund improvements.

The general impression is that the change to a system-level model won’t happen this year. I hope that’s correct, but NOW is the time to make sure we’re working toward an eventual solution that improves education statewide, while respecting the efforts of communities that are already carrying a heavier share of responsibility than most.

If we quit working toward that goal or even relax for a few months, it is inevitable that those who seek gains for their own districts at the expense of others would redouble their efforts and likely succeed.

Difference of Opinion

Farragut_Republican asks, “are Knox County Schools underfunded?”

Well, in a word, yes. She raises a very valid concern about revenues from the wheel tax: while it was sold as funding for the schools, it seems that’s only about 16% true. Which makes me bristle all the more that Knox Co. officials keep comparing their share of State BEP funding to Oak Ridge, where local residents are paying $1,232 more per student than Knox County residents.

And I promise you, it isn’t from all those Knoxville residents driving to Oak Ridge to shop.

It troubles me to draw comparisons to our neighbor; there’s no question that the proximity and cooperation of these two cities is mutually beneficial. At the same time it’s a purely defensive position: it is our neighbor’s County Mayor leading the charge toward a change in state policy that would be devastating to us, and the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee from that same county seems to be signed on to the idea.

Mike’s Message

February 14, 2006

Dear Friend:

I am writing you to ask for your support as we seek to significantly improve the Basic Education Program (BEP)—the state’s current education funding system. Its current inequitable funding model denies our children of more than 40 million dollars each year. This is both unacceptable and intolerable.

In Knox County, our schools are good schools on their way to becoming great schools. Proper funding is one of the keys to our success. We can all be proud that we rank second among Tennessee’s 137 school systems in terms of local funding support for education. It is, however, disappointing that we rank almost dead last in terms of per-pupil dollars we receive from the state. Simply put, our children are not receiving proper funding from the state.

This is an inequity that we are working hard to correct. Our solution is simple. We need the state to return more of our local tax dollars to Knox County children.

A policy reform of this magnitude is a complex and difficult task. I compliment Senator Jamie Woodson, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, for her diligence, commitment, and support. I applaud her efforts to ensure that our children are no longer victims of inadequate funding.

Below are two recent articles from the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Metropulse regarding this priority. These articles highlight the BEP’s crippling deficiencies and show the importance of our call to action.

It is important that we make our state government aware of the BEP’s inherent problems as we continue to invest in the future of our children. Please encourage your state representatives to support the full and immediate reform of the current BEP formula. Also, please contact Governor Bredesen at 615.741.2001 or phil.bredesen@state.tn.us to voice your concern for our children’s future.

Working with the Knox County Commission and the Board of Education, we will do all we can for the 53,000 children who learn and grow daily in the Knox County School system. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at 215.HELP or mike@mikeragsdale2006.com.

Best regards,

Sen. Woodson and Mayor Ragsdale are both good people, with whom I agree on many issues. Unfortunately, they’re barking up the wrong tree on this one. When they begin paying the same property tax rates as Oak Ridgers and devoting the same percentage of those taxes to education, then I’ll start listening with a more sympatheic ear. At this point though, the argument just doesn’t fly.

Education Funding War – David vs. Goliath

Metro Pulse gives some insight on the education funding story this morning; unfortunately, it’s only half of the story. Namely, Goliath’s side.

They fail to mention that under the BEP Review Committee’s recommendations, 61.7% of all public school systems in the state would be deemed to deserve less funding. The top five winners — from millions to tens of millions — are Memphis, Shelby County, Davidson County, Hamilton County, and Knox County.

They fail to mention that every municipal school system would lose money, primarily because of the way that shared vs. unshared revenue is treated in the fiscal capacity formula. Simply speaking, cities with municipal school systems who choose to tax themselves at a higher rate in order to fund their school systems better are penalized. That loss would very likely force consolidation with county schools — a feature that many believe is the driving force behind the change.

They surely don’t mention that more than 67% of the dollar increases go to these five mammoth school systems, while some of the state’s smallest, poorest counties are left with less… places like Pickett County, with a total population of 4,999.

The data comes from TACIR’s website, and you can bring up the Excel spreadsheet by clicking here. There are several tabs, but the most relvant is a comparison of same-year (05-06) funding showing the current model, the prototype results, and the difference.

There’s no question that Tennessee needs to re-think the way it funds public education, but so long as we’re just moving money around based on the squeaky wheel principle, we’re not going to improve overall. Although one of the committee’s recommendations is a “hold harmless” provision to ensure that no system receives less than the year before, what this means is a funding freeze that denies any increases despite rising enrollment, heating costs, fuel prices, salaries, insurance, or any of the items over which local school boards have little or no control.

If the state embraces a policy that penalizes local governments for doing the right thing (funding local schools with local taxes) while rewarding those that do not, then they will surely discourage that which is in everyone’s best interest.

Food for thought: if Knox County’s tax rate was the same as Oak Ridge’s tax rate, they could easily match Oak Ridge’s per-pupil funding as well.

Day 1: the adventure begins…

With a million thoughts and infinite white space, where to begin? In the middle, of course.

We can’t change yesterday (although some certainly do try), but we can change the course of tomorrow. That’s my goal.

With rose-colored glasses from which I periodically clear the grime of reality, I remain optimistic for the future… so long as everyday people pay attention to what’s going on around them, particularly in government and community. It’s important to seek out the truth behind the sound bites, whether about education funding in Tennessee or peaceful Nigerian Muslims.

I’m a regular reader of Instapundit, Gateway Pundit, and some days Thaddeus Matthews (just thankful that I live on the other end of the state), in addition to as many newspapers as I can fit in in a day.

Expect more on education in the next few days — I’m headed for several meetings in Nashville this week.