Ask around for answers

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Maybe teachers ought to take a lesson from cops, figuratively speaking.

The federally funded Community Oriented Police Systems looked back on the day when officers on patrol walked a beat and talked with people and got information about crime in the community; hence COPS.

Our cartoonist makes a point about something missing in the way education funding is done in Tennessee. The solution may be as close as your neighbor. Ask around and come up with a new idea.

Recently we heard from a top leader in the state Senate that Tennessee is facing the prospect of another lawsuit by school systems alleging unequal treatment under the law.

That was the argument behind a lawsuit in the 1980s when small counties complained their property tax base was low and the cost of education put a stain on county governments. More than half, and frequently more than two thirds, of a county's budget is appropriated to pay for education.

Now, it's virtually deja vu all over again. The 1980s suit was resolved recently, and while there's clearly no intent to deny any youngster a good education, there are still inequities.

A solution to the first suit came from now former state Sen. Andy Womack who sponsored what was presented as a better education program with a changed funding formula for schools. It supposedly resolved the argument over whether there was equal treatment under the law.

However, as the years rolled by, some counties' leaders complained the state's system of allocating money to schools was like Robin Hood robbing the rich to pay the poor. A fast growing county may have a good property tax base, but even then it's hard to build schools fast enough if a lot of people are moving in. Marshall County leaders are probably facing this problem already.

Tennessee isn't alone in this. Maryland faced the same thing when Spiro Ted Agnew was governor. The solution was for the state to pay for school construction. The state hired an architect who designed schools that would be substantially the same, and construction was funded with adjustments to a tax formula. People squawked, but money was raised and schools were built all over the state.

Construction of schools was one of the biggest costs faced by county school boards and the state relieved the counties of that burden.

There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Competition was so great for the school construction contracts that pretty soon the governor was receiving cash in plain envelopes to help land the deal. It was one of the back burner issues facing Congress during Watergate. Nixon couldn't be forced from office without getting rid of Agnew who eventually entered a plea and left office. Once Jerry Ford became vice president, well, you know the rest.

That's a cautionary tale that applies to the problem Tennessee has with funding education.

Maybe teachers (or those who are interested in better funding for schools) can take a lesson from the police and ask around for ideas on what to do. Just don't make things too tempting, because otherwise, you've got to call the cops -- again.