Collaboration, Not Competition

by Nancy Fulton, NSEA President

The oldest – and perhaps most worn out – talking point put forth by charter school zealots submits that "competition is good for public schools."

That misguided charter school tenet supposes that public schools operate like the free market, with consumers who benefit from more choices and lower prices. Advocates would plop charter schools here and there, and have those charters make public schools better by offering "competition."

The free market, however, operates within certain rules and regulations that businesses must follow. For instance, the Department of Weights and Measures makes certain that every gas station gives you a gallon of gasoline – not nine-tenths of a gallon – for your $2.27. The Department of Health makes certain eating places meet cleanliness standards. State and federal regulations set standards for financial institutions to make certain clients are not treated unfairly.

Yet charter school advocates hope to allow such schools in Nebraska, free of many of the regulations that apply to K-12 public schools. They contend that the "competition" that would result on that tilted playing field would make public schools better.

Fortunately, the Nebraska education family understands that our unique system offers plenty of competition on the level playing field of public schools. They understand that charters, some dogged by enormous financial malfeasance, provide no better outcomes than public schools.

Crete Superintendent Mike Waters, in a recent letter to the Crete News, said "Competition and comparison between school systems does not work if one group can choose who comes to school and the other system takes everyone."

Other educational leaders have echoed his remarks, and Nebraskans are beginning to understand that charters are a dead issue in Nebraska.

LB630 currently sits in the Legislature's Education Committee, and will be featured at a hearing on March 14. It is my hope that policy makers can move past the myth that the "competition" provided by charter schools is a panacea for the supposed failure of public schools. Instead, I hope that lawmakers will collaborate fully and completely with those of us in the education family and work to improve the public schools we have.

Same Old Problem

The late Jim Griess served 15 years as executive director at NSEA, frequently described Nebraska's system of taxation as a "three-legged stool." One leg represented income tax, another was sales tax, and the third was property tax – the primary source of revenue for public schools.

If any one of those three sources of revenue got longer than the others, the stool would be unstable. Griess often noted that the stool was unstable – schools relied too heavily on property taxes because state aid dollars (funded through the general fund sources ofincome and sales taxes) committed to public schools was insufficient.

Griess retired in 2006, and here we are 11 years later and the problem remains.

Quality Education an Imperative

Now, NSEA has joined a coalition of more than 40 organizations urging the Legislature to work to lower property taxes. Nebraskans United for Property Tax Reform and Education was formed around two principles:

  • Adequate and sustainable funding of high quality K-12 education is imperative for the future of Nebraska.
  • Tax reform which reduces the over-reliance on local property taxes is necessary to ensure our tax system is fair to all Nebraska taxpayers.

A news conference at the State Capitol Rotunda was attended by more than 50 representatives of nearly 20 statewide and regional organizations. In addition to NSEA, coalition members include the Nebraska Farm Bureau; corn, wheat, pork, cattle and soybean producers; a property owner group; school administrators; and rural and urban school interests.

In particular, the message to lawmakers is this: forego ill-advised income tax proposals from the governor's office. Nebraskans have been begging for property tax relief for decades. Nebraska schools, it was noted, derive 49 percent of revenue from property taxes.

The national average is 29 percent. That is a clear example of the fact that the state is not doing its share in funding K-12 schools.

One coalition member, Jerry Stahr, represented Nebraska Fair at the news conference. He built and arrived at the news conference and with a small stool – with uneven legs.

Message delivered.

Somewhere, Jim Griess is smiling.