(originally posted Sep. 9, 2003)
When Tim Eyman first announced his 25% State Property Tax Cut initiative, my reaction was admittedly knee jerk. The state property tax is a school levy, 100% dedicated to K-12 education. Our underfunded schools are already struggling to meet higher standards; how could our children possibly afford such a dramatic cut? I was outraged.
But once my knees stopped shaking, I decided to step back and take an objective look at the issue. So I steeled my bleeding heart, threw out my assumptions, and delved into the numbers. And what I found surprised me:
Tim Eyman’s tax cuts may be exactly what our schools need.
I will explain. But first, some numbers.
There are a little over one million students enrolled in Washington public schools, an increase of 100,000 since 1993. While annual state spending per student rose during that time from $4,294 to $5,024, it has lagged behind inflation by $535, or roughly 10%.
Indeed, Washington’s total per pupil spending is now well below the national average, dropping from a 1977 peak of 113% to a current low of 91.7%. School performance has suffered accordingly: Washington has fallen to 39th in graduation rates, with only Nevada and Alaska scoring worse in college readiness of high school graduates.
Ironically, this funding decline comes in the face of steady public demand for increased K-12 spending. In November 2000, voters overwhelmingly passed I-728, calling for class size reduction, and I-732, granting teachers annual cost-of-living adjustments. More recently, a 2002 Elway poll reported that 55% of respondents felt spending in public schools was growing too slowly.
Yet just this past spring legislators suspended funding for both popular initiatives, shaving $580 million from the current biennial budget, or approximately $290 per student per year.
Now Mr. Eyman proposes cutting an additional $800 million from the biennial budget: nearly $400 annually per student. It’s hard to find anybody who wouldn’t rather pay lower property taxes, and if history is any indication, this tax cut stands a good chance of passing if it makes it to the ballot.
Add these numbers together–$535 to restore 1993 funding levels, $290 to reduce class size and increase teacher pay, and $400 to offset Mr. Eyman’s tax cut–and you get a $1225 gap between what the public apparently wants to spend per student, and what the public is willing to pay. That’s roughly 25% of current state education spending!
And therein lies the paradox. For how do we honor the will of the people, when they seem to contradict themselves? How do we embrace the collective wisdom of voters when they confront us with a seemingly unsolvable equation?
And then it struck me. An equation. It’s a simple equation.
So I reached down into the 8th grade algebra of my own public school education, and found the answer: “solve to x.”
The people have spoken. Per student spending is too low, yet taxes are too high. Thus there can be only one solution:
We have too many students.
It has been said that a child’s mind is a terrible thing to waste, but the same is true of a child’s body. I have been assured by culinary experts in several obscure internet chat rooms, that a school-age child compares quite favorably to pork, and is equally versatile and nutritious. Properly prepared, it would be virtually indistinguishable in a taco filling or sausage patty… or perhaps as a substitute ingredient in turkey tetrazini.
And with one third of students now qualifying for free or reduced price lunch, it only seems fair that overburdened taxpayers turn towards the student body to help offset the cost of this growing public subsidy.
Fortunately, thanks to the WASL test, a mechanism for culling the herd is already in place. For example, if only those students scoring in the bottom 10% of the WASL were harvested to supply the school lunch program, per-student funding would instantly be restored to 1993 levels.
And the benefits don’t end there.
With 100,000 fewer students to educate, class size would drop an average of two students per room, dramatically improving the learning environment while significantly reducing the cost to fully implement I-728. Average WASL scores would rise substantially, simply by eliminating the low end of the curve. And of course, surviving students would be treated to tasty, protein-rich school lunches that bring new meaning to the phrase “you are what you eat.”
But perhaps the greatest benefit would be motivational, for if students know that their Sloppy Joe is eponymously named, they will be much more likely to put in the extra effort needed to make the academic cut.
Of course, the 10% cut-off is merely intended as an example, and we can likely achieve a similar return on disinvestment while sacrificing fewer children. After all, many of our lowest scoring students are those with special needs–the most expensive to educate–and thus the source of the greatest potential savings. And merely enacting this policy would shave thousands from the rolls as less civic-minded parents moved their children to schools in Oregon, California, and other states with lower academic standards.
Now I know some might find this policy harsh, or even distasteful. But it would be equally harsh to leave our children ill-prepared to compete in the global economy. In a free market, labor migrates to where the best jobs are, and if we want to attract and retain the quality teachers needed to give our children the opportunity to excel, then we must pay a competitive wage.
Which I suppose explains why Washington state has dropped to 49th nationally in student-teacher ratio, and 44th in teachers with more than ten years experience. For of the seven western states, only Idaho pays their teachers less; Oregon pays $3000 a year more, California $10,000. Indeed, adjusted for local cost-of-living, Seattle teacher salaries now rank 97th out of the 100 major population centers.
The math is simple. If Washington citizens are serious about improving education, serious about reducing class size, increasing teacher pay, and raising test scores, then we must increase per student spending. But if voters are equally determined to slash taxes… well then… I thank Tim Eyman for opening my eyes to the harsh reality of this dog-eat-dog world.
And so I offer my modest proposal in the hope of sparking a much needed public debate, and I trust that it will be received in the spirit in which it was intended.
(originally posted Sep. 9, 2003)