Monday, November 25, 2013

More than one way to skin a cat?

One of my favorite movies is “A Christmas Story,” and my favorite line from that movie is “In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan.” When I was a kid, I had a BB gun and a dad who could weave a tapestry of his own.

One of the printable sayings my dad used was “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” You don’t hear this saying much anymore, probably the work of PETA. In my young, literate mind, I often wondered just what kind of twisted person had done the research on this. Even to an avowed dog person this seems a little bit excessive.

This week I ran across an article called “Motivated Numeracy and Enlightened Self-Government,” (Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 307 ). OK, I don't really read the Yale Law Review, but I read an article that led me to the article in the Yale Law Review. The researchers set up an interesting experimental design that showed how political opinions affect our ability to do basic math operations and draw inferences. And before you get too smug, liberals and conservatives both did it. If the math didn't match their preconceived opinions, they were more likely to get the answer wrong.  Apparently, there is more than one way to skin the data?

I think this research may have implications for how we speak as well as how we do math. Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the Kansas University Economic Policy Conference about education funding. At the conference, I was quoted as saying "state aid for Local Option Budgets (LOB) has been cut."  That statement is incorrect and I should know better.  But as my dad use to say, there is more than one way to skin a cat, so let's look at the question of LOB funding in its entirety.

1. The Governor's Budget, approved by the Legislature, funds LOB aid at the same level for the past few years. No cuts in funding.

2. Some districts have had declines in assessed valuation or increases in enrollment that would qualify them for more LOB aid according to the law.

3. In an effort to increase money to the classroom, many districts have chosen to increase their LOB levies, increasing the amount of LOB aid for which they qualify.

4. An increase or decrease in the aid to any one district affects the amount that is available to all other districts.  When local demand for state aid increases, but the total amount of aid does not increase, local aid has to be cut.

5. No cuts (level funding) at the state level translate to cuts or tax increases at the local level of $100 million. In other words, LOB aid is under-funded by about $100 million.

6. When LOB aid is underfunded, boards of education are forced to either make up the difference by increasing property taxes, cutting budgets or a combination of both.

7. Approximately 80% of the districts in the state get LOB aid and have been faced with this decision.

8. While it is difficult to know the exact impact on every district, KSDE has provided KASB with the following estimates of how underfunding LOB aid affects Kansas districts total property tax mill levies:
Over 10 additional mills- 17 districts
7-10 additional mills- 30 districts
5-7 additional mills - 42 districts
3-5 additional mills - 73 districts
0-3 additional mills - 72 districts

Like the math problems in the experiment, I was guilty of letting my preconceived notions on education funding affect my word choice.  There were no actual cuts to LOB aid at the state level. 

But not fully funding the LOB aid formula has resulted in budget cuts and property tax increases at the local level.  To a state level policy-maker the answer to “the math problem” is that there were no cuts.  To the local board member who has to raise property taxes or cut budgets, the answer is that there have been cuts.  Perspective influences how we do the math.  What is the answer in your district?  How much have you had to cut expenses and/or raise taxes because of underfunded LOB aid?

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