September 20, 2006

Eye On Education

Taxes and Dumb Reward Systems

There's a lot of talk these days about ways of replacing property tax methods of supporting education. One method that's being overlooked is getting rid of, or modifying, reward systems that are blatantly ill-conceived and benefit special interests. Let's look at three of these.

1. Special Education: The realization that there are children in need of special services in schools was indeed a major event in finally recognizing that people with disabilities require accommodations that go beyond general school services. Many of these disabilities are easily recognized, and most schools hire specially trained personnel or, in some cases, have those children taught in classrooms that provide instructional settings where the needs of the students can be met.

When I began teaching there were no special education programs. I remember one sixth grade class I taught very well because there were three children who were obviously not having their needs met. They were disruptive, to say the least, and in one case, one of the children's behaviors was actually dangerous for those around him.

But the special education branch of schools has grown to become a major industry of its own. I submit that much of this growth is important and vital for recognizing and providing programs for children with special needs. But some of the special ed outgrowths are troublesome and suspect in terms of legitimacy.

Take the category "learning disabilities," which frequently becomes the defining description for children not adjusting to "normal" school expectations. When I was superintendent in the Sag Harbor school system I found that over the course of the years four different school psychologists had four different definitions of this classification and used four different diagnostic indicators to make such definitions.

Of course it's possible there is more than one indicator of a learning disability, but to define it in four widely different ways makes one wonder if the problem has been truly identified. It was my observation along with many others in my field that the learning disabilities classification became a catchall for a myriad of problems totally unrelated to the field of special education. Students exhibiting LD characteristics are often times struggling because of such conditions as exposure to a dissolving marriage, sibling rivalry, watching too much TV, low self-esteem, lack of entry skills to do the work at hand, etc.

I could go on with the list of alternative possible causes, but the bottom line is many of those alternatives are more complicated to confront than simply saying the child has LD.

And here's where the dumb reward system mechanism comes into play.

In determining aid to schools, pupil head count determines the amount of state aid for many districts. The average daily attendance figure generates the aid. The better attendance and the greater the number of students, the more state aid for the district. Every special education student receiving at least 60 percent of special education services counts as 1.5 students as opposed to one student. So the more special education students identified, the more state aid a district receives.

Surely many special ed students require expensive services and such aid is justified. But by not verifying classification, school districts are encouraged to increase their special ed identification numbers to get additional funding. And the sad thing is, schools are NOT rewarded for declassifying students and getting them back into the mainstream, which should be the ultimate objective of such programs.

2. College Graduation Rates: I find this reward hard to believe. It was recently reported many colleges serving minority youth and those students who wouldn't qualify for the highly competitive colleges and universities have graduation rates below 50 percent. Some of the rates are even lower than 20 percent.

So how are certain states going to fix the problem? You guessed it. They're going to provide additional funding (rewards) for colleges that increase or have higher graduation rates than others.

How nutty is this? Colleges get pretty hefty tuition rates these days and one would think they would have enough motivation in that to strive to get students to graduate. But some officials think it's a good idea to throw more taxpayer money their way just as an added incentive for the poorly performing colleges to do the job they're already being paid to do.

3. Teacher Sick Leave: My teacher friends (and enemies) aren't going to like this one, but it's something that's irritated me for the past 30 years.

Part of teacher contracts is a provision that provides a certain number of sick days per year. If a teacher doesn't exceed absences beyond that number, their salary is unaffected.

To go along with this, sick days are accumulated, usually up to 180 days. This traditional bargaining chip has been in existence for as long as I remember and its intent (a very generous one I believe) was to protect a teacher who may suffer a major illness requiring extended time away from the job.

I have no problem with this. The part that's really bordering on the outrageous is the fact that when a teacher leaves a school district they're given additional severance pay for unused sick leave. Many local districts compensate teachers at the rate of one full day's pay for each two days sick leave.

So do the math. If you're a retiring teacher at the top of the salary scale which in many places is near $100,000/year, and you've accumulated 180 unused sick days, you have the potential of receiving a severance package of $50,000+. This is in addition to your normal salary! And you received this for doing what workers are expected to do — show up for work!

Sick leave should be for what's its term implies; coverage for when a person becomes ill without having their livelihoods jeopardized. It shouldn't be a reward system for people performing work they're expected to do. In fact it's a form of double dipping, in my opinion, and should be negotiated out of teacher contracts.

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