Waiting for the Nobel Prize

Today we want to recognize an important first step in re-shaping economic thinking so significantly that reducing or eliminating the national debt could be done easily, a concept so brilliant that—if appropriately expanded—could merit international recognition.

The tax bill recently approved by the House of Representatives in Washington proposes to tax graduate student tuition waivers.  For those of us who never got far enough in our higher education to be offered those waivers or who came along before they were widespread in higher education, here’s how they work:

A University tells a student pursuing a master’s degree or a doctorate they will not have to pay tuition if they help teach or do research beneficial to the university.  The university pays those students a small stipend for their work so they can eat and pay their rent.

The House bill wants to consider the tuition waiver as income.   And to tax it.

It is a matter of considering money a person never has and does not spend as income and then levying an income tax on those never-had and unspent funds.   Think of the possibilities!

Paying a tax on the raise you did not get could provide millions of deficit-reducing dollars to the federal government.  Paying a tax on a stock dividend that did not materialize would add even more.  Considering the difference between what you wanted on a car trade-in and what the dealer gave you as income and taxing that amount would add to the deficit-reducing federal income.

Here’s one we thought of the other day when we went to Columbia where the gas price that day was nineteen cents less per gallon than the price in Jefferson City.  We used our grocery store gas rewards card to knock another forty cents a gallon off of the fuel we put in our tank.  Think how much the federal government could collect if it considered supermarket gas refunds as part of our personal income.

Soon the pre-holiday price reductions we are seeing in our stores will give way to the post-holiday sales prices.  If Congress were to take the simple step of taxing the hundreds of millions of dollars that are not spent because of those pre-and-post-holiday price reductions, the annual federal deficit could be eliminated and bites could be taken out of the total national debt.

The car companies are offering multi-thousand dollar incentives to clear their lots of 2017 models.  If Congress were to consider those price reductions as income and tax it, another important debt-reduction step could be taken.

Think of how much money is saved every single day by people who shop at the day-old bread counter at the grocery store.  It might seem like pennies for each loaf, but when applied nationally and for an entire year, taxing the savings on all of those loaves of day-old bread will add up to millions of dollars a year in tax collections.

Oh, and here’s a biggie.  An industry that decides to build a factory, a warehouse, or any other facility in a foreign country instead of in the United States because it can save millions of dollars in construction and operation costs:  If those savings were considered corporate income and taxed—even at the proposed lowered corporate tax rate—the economic benefit would be enormous.

And—oh, wait, there’s one more and it’s particularly appropriate at this time of year.  Further, it’s pretty comparable to the tuition waiver.   We are awash in online and catalog offers to provide customers with a benefit if the customer provides something of value to the merchant in return for which the merchant waives a fee or charge.  Give us money, says the merchant, and we will give you a sweater but we will waive the shipping charge.  Since the customer receives the benefit–a sweater—but spends no money to receive it, the shipping charge is thus income and can be taxed as such, just as a graduate student receives a benefit—an education—by providing something of value to the university (teaching or research assistance) but does not pay the equivalent of a “shipping charge” to get it and therefore faces paying income taxes on money never possessed or spent.

Think of the incredible benefits this economic philosophy of turning unspent dollars into taxable income could provide if applied widely, assuming the federal government doesn’t just increase spending to or beyond the amount of additional funds it would collect.  Congress could wipe out the national deficit and it could provide billions of dollars that could trickle down throughout America in programs and services beneficial to the poor, the hungry, the sick.

And to graduate students.

We’ll be watching for next year’s announcement of the Nobel Prize for Economics to see if this great advance is deservedly rewarded.

Oh, how Tom Benton would love to wade into this!

Indiana University has decided that its students should no longer be forced to attend classes in a room that contains part of a large mural painted by Missouri’s Thomas Hart Benton in 1933, three years before he painted the mural at the Missouri Capitol.

An online petition had demanded removal from a classroom of the offensive section of the mural, which shows, amidst a lot of other things, a Ku Klux Klan rally with a burning cross. The university won’t remove it.  But the chancellor has decided the university won’t “force” students to see it—and, of course, ponder what it’s about.

The mural was created for the Indiana building at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, billed as “The Century of Progress.”  The entire mural is 230 feet long and fourteen feet high. It’s so big, much bigger than our capitol mural, that it is housed in three buildings on the campus at Bloomington, Indiana.

IU’s Provost, Lauren Robel, says in part of a 1,902 word statement, “While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects.”  So, starting with the next semester, Room 100 in Woodburn Hall will be put to “other uses.”

The Indiana mural generated a certain amount of controversy from the start. Lawrence County (Indiana) Historical Society President Zora Askew said the mural “should offend the sensibilities of every Hoosier who has resect for the hardy pioneers from the East, West, North, and South that came to form the melting pot now known as Indiana.” State conservation director Richard Lieber, who supervised the mural’s creation, claimed the Klan had no significance in the state.  Benton wrote in his first autobiography, An Artist in America, that he arranged a happy hour with some legislators and invited Lieber, rigging the meeting so someone would ask if he thought the Klan was important to Indiana history. Benton responded that he was doubtful but appealed to the legislators. “They being newly-elected Democratic politicians, while the Klan business occurred under Republican auspices, promptly informed me that it was of immense importance and had nearly ruined the state,” Benton wrote. “When they got through airing the importance of the Klan, I shouldn’t have dared to leave the organization out of the factual history of Indiana.”

This writer would like to see Ms. Robel discuss the shutdown of the room as a classroom with Mr. Benton who has, fortunately for her perhaps, been dead since 1975.  But when he finished his Missouri mural in December, 1936, he faced severe criticism from people who didn’t like some of the things in it–a baby’s naked bottom, a depiction of bank and train robber Jesse James, an illustration of the violence of Missouri’s guerilla warfare (including a lynching) during the Civil War, the portrayal of a slave sale, and particularly a depiction of Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast.

His critics felt the unsanitary parts of history had no business being on display in our state capitol that is otherwise decorated with depictions of Missouri’s more noble or victorious moments.

He didn’t give an inch to them.

The House Lounge for many years was a place where captive audiences often met. The House Appropriations Committee, particularly, used to hold its hearings there. State department representatives were forced to sit in a room surrounded by images that might make them “uncomfortable” and justify their budget requests, a process we guarantee you was much more uncomfortable than the images on the walls. The use of the room for hearings was abandoned in 1980 not because anybody was traumatized or might have been traumatized in some way, but because smoking was banned in the room because of the damage and potential damage to the mural.

Discomfort is a big reason for the decision, however, at Indiana University.  The university apparently doesn’t want any of its students in these post-Charlottesville days to be discomfited by a mural showing a part of Indiana’s history.

Indiana University historian James Capshaw is discomfited by those who try to link the panel to Charlottesville. He told the Star, “It’s not like a Confederate monument that was erected in the 19-teens or ‘20s that was specifically to enforce Jim Crow practices and basically put blacks in their place again…It’s very different from what’s going on in Charlottesville and other places.”

Roble seems to sympathize somewhat with Capshaw’s view that the mural should be discussed in the proper context but she says teachers don’t like time to be taken away from their courses to explain the significance of the mural segment. Furthermore, she maintains, such sessions haven’t worked.

The Indianapolis Star has reported a petition campaign was started by a 32-year old former IU student now living in Florida who said the school “has a responsibility to do something to address student and faculty discomfort,” although the newspaper reports she didn’t recall hearing much about the mural when she was a student in Bloomington. But now she has referred to the mural segment as “a symbol of hate” and worried that “something as simple as a picture can sometimes, to some people, be justification for those kind of acts.”  She wanted to have the panel taken down. In fact, she suggested the entire mural be removed from the campus and put in a museum “for educational purposes,” a place where it could become “a learning opportunity” instead of just “sitting in a classroom” (where, we note, educational purposes are practiced and learning opportunities are a constant).

A petition reflecting her concerns was circulated on campus in August. It got more than one-thousand signatures.

—on a campus that had more than 43,000 students for the start of the 2016-17 school year, with record numbers of minorities.

We haven’t seen the 2017-18 final fall enrollment figures. We also haven’t seen any breakouts of those thousand-or-so students showing how many of them have or have had classes in that room and how many of those who did were so distracted by Benton’s reference to the era when the Klan was a powerful political force in Indiana—as it was a force in 1920s Missouri—that it disrupted their school work.

Apparently the school’s VP for Diversity, Equity and Multicultural Affairs carried no weight in the discussion.  James Wimbush, reports the newspaper, said the panel does not violate the university’s diversity statement: “It does not glorify or celebrate this particular dark episode of the KKK in Indiana, but instead shows that the state’s past has shameful moments the likes of which we do not want to see again, ever.”

And Benton, who believed history had to be taken “warts and all,” would probably appreciate his comment that, “It’s important to understand the state’s history—the good and the bad.”   Wimbush said the mural segment offered a teachable moment.

But instead of using it to teach, the university is going to shield its students from the opportunity to learn a lesson available for eighty years from Benton’s painting.

Roble, by the way, ruled out covering the panel with cloth because would amount to censorship.  Apparently making sure students are not exposed to it during their classes is not.

We do not intend to try to get inside Benton’s head and divine today what he would argue specifically with Roble’s decision.  He did, after all, defend the rights of institutions to do with their public art what they wished.  He went in 1954 to Lincoln University in Jefferson City for a meeting of the National Conference of Teachers of Art in Negro Colleges where he was asked, “Does the public have the right to criticize the symbols of a mural or maybe erase it off the wall?”   He responded:

It boils down to whether the public has the right to destroy the work of an artist…It was never, in ancient times or medieval times, believed that an institution which didn’t like a picture didn’t also have the right to get it out of the way…The question of the property value in works of art is a difficult one to decide even today. Current educated sentiment seems to be with the artist—that is, if the artist puts his soul into a thing, it is believed the average buyer hasn’t the right to destroy it…Certainly, if the majority of the people in a community object to a mural, I really don’t see what the artist can legally do to keep them from boarding it up, or tearing it down, or doing whatever they want with it…Has the community the right to get rid of something it doesn’t like?  Well, generally, even in the most liberal society, I’d say the answer would be “Yes.” 

Benton’s 1954 response would seem to support Roble’s 2017 decision. But, based on his defenses of his Missouri mural, he might question whether the rationale behind letting a few petition-signers representing only a small, small part of the student body make the entire university overly sensitive when public dialogue is so badly needed in the face of events in Charlottesville and elsewhere.

“The purpose of a work of art is not so much to tell what the artist’s thoughts were as to stimulate thoughts in those who view it,” Benton wrote in 1940. “A cartoon tells a specific story and lasts a day—a work of art tells as many stories as there are people to see it. It lasts by that power to continually stimulate…”

We are left to wonder how putting Benton’s painting out of sight and out of mind for young people whose lives going forward desperately need the stimulation of history, “warts and all,” serves education’s oft-stated goal of creating a thinking, responsible society.

(The writer of this entry is the author of Only the Rivers are Peaceful: Thomas Hart Benton’s Missouri Mural, published in 1989.  The photograph of the classroom is from the Indiana Daily Student newspaper. Benton is from Angiesdiay.com.)

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We do not intend with this entry to diminish the extensive thought process behind Provost Robel’s decision, but only to question the decision—as Benton questioned the inclinations of those who sought to keep the public from thinking about the issues raised in his Missouri Capitol mural.  In fairness to her, we offer from the September 29, 2017 edition of The Indianapolis Star her entire memo:

Dear IU Bloomington Community,

I write to discuss the Benton Murals. In 1933, Thomas Hart Benton was commissioned by the State of Indiana to create the Indiana Murals for the Chicago World’s Fair. This work, which has become Benton’s most enduring artistic accomplishment, contains a self-portrait embedded in the panel entitled “Indiana Puts Her Trust in Thought.” Some eight decades after their creation, the murals serve as a vivid reminder of the strength and resiliency of a community that puts its trust in thoughtful reflection and dialogue about its past, present, and future.

I apologize in advance for the length of this communication, but the subject is complicated, the history is long, and the factors to be balanced are many. I therefore put my trust, as always, in your willingness to think carefully with me, and look forward to the discussion and ideas I am sure this letter will spark.

Herman B Wells brought the Benton Murals to the Bloomington campus several years after the World’s Fair. At the time, the IU Auditorium and several other buildings around the Fine Arts Plaza were under construction, and Wells saw the murals as ideal centerpieces for a burgeoning campus arts district. As a result, Indiana University is now steward to this astonishing and celebrated work of art, a 22-panel mural sequence displayed in three separate venues on the campus. Two of those spaces, the IU Auditorium and the IU Cinema, are performance and artistic venues. One, Woodburn Hall 100, is currently used as a large classroom.

The classroom contains a panel of the murals that has repeatedly sparked controversy, as it includes a depiction of a Ku Klux Klan rally and a burning cross. The imagery in that panel, entitled “Parks, the Circus, the Klan, the Press,” has been controversial since its creation. Benton’s intent was to show the role that the press had played in battling the Klan through exposing the Klan’s corruption of and infiltration into all levels of Indiana government in the 1920s. At the time of the mural’s creation, many opposed Benton’s decision to include the Klan, because they did not want to portray Indiana in a negative light, and the memories of the Klan’s political influence were still raw. Benton, however, overcame this opposition, and maintained artistic control. He believed that his murals needed to show all aspects of the state’s history, even the ugly and discomfiting parts, so we could confront the mistakes of the past.

Understood in the light of all its imagery and its intent, Benton’s mural is unquestionably an anti-Klan work. Unlike statues at the heart of current controversies, Benton’s depiction was intended to expose the Klan’s history in Indiana as hateful and corrupt; it does not honor or even memorialize individuals or the organization as a whole. Everything about its imagery—the depiction of the Klan between firefighters and a circus; the racially integrated hospital ward depicted in the foreground suggesting a different future ahead—speaks to Benton’s views. Every society that has gone through divisive trauma of any kind has learned the bitter lesson of suppressing memories and discussion of its past; Benton’s murals are intended to provoke thought.

Throughout history, art has served many purposes, often to lift up and honor a subject but also at times to call attention to something that is deserving of our condemnation. It is a mistake, therefore, to assume that a depiction of an historical event is the same as honoring it. Picasso, for example, depicted the horrible bombing and destruction of the village of Guernica in one of his most famous and admired paintings. It shows the consequences of the fascist bombings of a Basque village not to glorify that tragedy but to condemn it. That painting now serves as a powerful anti-war and anti-fascist work of art. It does so by depicting and calling our attention not to what we are honoring but to what we are condemning. I believe the same can be said for the Benton murals.

Nevertheless, the imagery in this panel of the murals is vivid, startling, and disturbing; and to reach the conclusion I just stated about the meaning of the mural requires work and time studying the mural and its interrelated images. Like most great art, Benton’s murals require context and history. Many well-meaning people, without having the opportunity to do that work, wrongly condemn the mural as racist simply because it depicts a racist organization and a hateful symbol.

However, even with the proper information and education, many students still feel strongly that a Klan rally and burning cross looming over their classes seriously impedes their learning. For some of our students, the burning cross is a symbol of terror that has haunted their families for generations. For others, the robed Klansman has figured in personal family or community tragedies and anguish. These reactions are absolutely reasonable on their face, and as Charlottesville shows, they are not ancient history. They have to be reckoned with, but it is far from clear that the reckoning should be an inevitable part of a class in finite mathematics, macroeconomics, organic chemistry, or gross anatomy and physiology—all classes taught regularly in this space—particularly since the burden of that reckoning inevitably falls more heavily on students whose race or religion have made their families the historical targets of the Klan.

Every few years, since at least the 1980s, the campus has grappled with the presence of the Benton Murals in Woodburn. We are entrusted with the preservation of this important work of art, yet we must also do everything possible to promote a civil and inclusive campus that provides equal opportunity for all to learn. What to do?

This question becomes especially urgent whenever events such as the march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville and the current national debate over Confederate monuments occur. These broader conversations become deeply local, and we must come to a decision as a community on how to handle public art and memory as it pertains to the Benton Murals on our campus. On at least eight occasions since the 1980s, diverse committees of faculty, students, and staff have considered the issues raised by the controversial panel. Our campus has held town halls, symposia, and conferences to discuss the panel and its impact, including just this week a faculty-led discussion organized by PACE on “Art, Public Memory & Racial Justice.” Such efforts have consistently led to the conclusion that we need to do what Indiana University does best: educate. We have called on our community to educate through discussions of history, art history, African American and African Diaspora Studies, American Studies, and every discipline that touches on how a controversial and anti-racist piece of art should be contextualized and understood.

I agree that the proper response to the Benton Murals is education, and I have been the beneficiary of a review of the work of all of these previous efforts. However, most committees have concluded that this education needs to be done in every class taught in Woodburn 100. As a result, well-intentioned efforts to require ameliorating discussion of the murals there have foundered, and ultimately been abandoned, multiple times. Instructors without appropriate academic backgrounds feel unprepared for the discussion that should surround such a sensitive set of issues, and unhappy to be taking class time for discussions that have nothing to do with the subject of the class and everything to do with the room it is in. Students are captive audiences in Woodburn 100, and those with repeated classes there resent the repeated discussions related to the classroom art, as opposed to the subject-matter of their classes.

The murals cannot be moved. Benton painted them using egg tempera paint, which has become extremely fragile over time. Moreover, the space in Woodburn 100 was designed specifically to house the two panels that now hang there, and they were installed in such a way that moving them would almost certainly cause irreparable damage. Nor does the notion of covering them with a curtain accord with our responsibility as stewards of this precious art. Covering the murals feels like censorship and runs counter to the expressed intent of the artist to make visible moments in history that some would rather forget. Furthermore, covering the murals during class periods would leave them hidden for the vast majority of time and create a situation in which the decision to uncover them could be used by some as a symbolic act in support of the very ideology the murals are intended to criticize.

However, there is nothing sacrosanct about using Woodburn 100 as a classroom. While I believe that we can and should educate the public and our community about the murals, that intellectual work can and should take place in a context that does not involve the captive audience of classes devoted to other subjects. Therefore, Woodburn 100 will convert to other uses beginning in the spring semester 2018.

We have determined that we can accommodate almost all (and perhaps all) the classes typically taught there as early as this spring in other locations without a loss of classroom capacity, and we will certainly be able to accommodate them all elsewhere by summer. Like the other two venues in which the murals are displayed, Woodburn 100 can usefully serve other purposes, such as a gallery space and public lecture space, that are more conducive to teaching about the mural. Indeed, many departments and faculty members have expressed a need for more such spaces on campus, and Woodburn 100 offers a ready-made solution. Its adjacency to the arts corridor makes it particularly conducive to these purposes and will also allow us to install interactive media that can educate those who come for the gallery space or for other events. We could also put this art in conversation with other pieces of art the campus owns or could borrow, which would allow us to much better use the murals’ potential for education and engagement than the current configuration allows. I believe that repurposing the room is the best accommodation of the multiple factors that the murals raise: our obligation to be a welcoming community to all of our students and facilitate their learning; our stewardship of this priceless art; and our obligation to stand firm in defense of artistic expression. I invite community members to think creatively about how best to use this repurposed space to engage with the issues the murals present.

The Benton Murals are a national treasure. They depict the social progression of Indiana history—including, explicitly, the promise and hope of racial integration and a free press arising out of the fight against the political influence of the Klan—through the visceral and powerful vision of one of the most significant artists of the period. Indiana University is the steward of this incredible public art, we are bound to protect it and educate the world about it, and we will do so in ways that are pedagogically appropriate. Our primary mission is to teach students to think critically and deeply about the world, and great art is an important route to that end. We will continue to strive for this ideal, and challenge each other to think intensively and critically about art, history, diversity, and inclusion, and what it means to be a citizen of this university, state, and the world. Benton’s work deserves no less.”

— Lauren Robel, executive vice president and provost

 

 

 

Their World

One of our favorite events each year is the beginning of college careers.  There is so much those young students know that their parents and grandparents don’t know.  And there is so much they DON’T know that we do.

We who watch them set sail on this new adventure are reminded of that each year by the Mindset List compiled at Beloit College in Wisconsin.  This year is the twentieth anniversary of the list which provides “a look at the cultural touchstones and experiences that have shaped the worldview of students” that take their first steps on our college campuses each year.  We suppose it also could be something of a gauge of what society, media, schools, and parents have taught them in their first eighteen years.

Ron Nief, now the publicist emeritus for the college, who started circulating the list widely in 1998, was joined by humanities professor Tom McBride and, in 2016, Charles Westerberg, who received his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in sociology from the University of Missouri. (They’re McBride, Westerberg,and Nief, L-R, in the picture)

This year’s Mindset List tells us that these new students, during their early kindergarten careers, saw—again and again—the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.  They are more likely to think of Harry Potter than John Lennon when they see wire-rimmed glasses. “Selfies” with celebrities are more important than autographs.  Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” has always been “the only news program that really ‘gets it right.’”  Saturday morning cartoons shows are something they know nothing about but they’re big fans of the Sunday night “Animation Domination” on FOX.  Hong Kong has always been part of China. Joe Camel never encouraged them to smoke. Nicotine has always been an addictive drug.  If the students are at Baylor, there has been student dancing throughout their lifetimes. Cloning has always been fact. There has always been a WNBA. “Chicago” has always been a Broadway hit. Netscape probably has never been their web browser.

And there’s more of the list at https://www.beloit.edu/mindset/previouslists/2018/.

We thought it might be interesting to look at the first list, from 1998 because some of the students going to college this fall are children of the students who were part of that first list.  The 1998 list said, for instance:

Students did not know Ronald Reagan had ever been shot. They didn’t remember the Cold War. There had only been one Pope. They had never been afraid of a nuclear war and “Day After” was a pill rather than a post-apocalyptic movie. They didn’t remember the Challenger explosion. The expression, “You sound like a broken record” had no meaning to them (perhaps because they had never owned a record player). The special effects of “Star Wars” were pathetic. They had always had cable; there had always been VCRs, and they had never played Pac-Man. They had always known where the Titanic was.

That’s for starters.

The list has its critics, the strongest—perhaps—being the counter “Beloit Mindlessness” which charges the annual list is “a poorly written compendium of trivia, stereotypes and lazy generalizations, insulting to both students and their professors…” To each his own, we suppose.

In its own way, whether you consider them merely entertaining or useless or useful in knowing what to talk about with your children or your students, these lists provide us with annual markers of our changing world.

For those of us with some years on us, they also remind us of things we couldn’t have imagined when WE moved from high school into young adulthood, things we were yet to hear and learn, and how much we have become history.

For instance—

When my generation entered college we had a high-tech machine into which we inserted a piece of paper.  And when we hit a key on our keyboard, a letter immediately appeared on the piece of paper in front of us.  We didn’t need to hit “print (two or three times),” and then go to another machine to get what we’d written.  And if the power went out, the machine kept working.

I’ve run into some of the people who are the topics of this year’s Mindset List whose eyes widen a little bit when I describe that wondrous machine. They’ve never heard of it.  Or seen one.

Long before there was Apple, you see, there was Royal.  I keep it within arm’s reach.

(Photo taken in the old Missourinet newsroom by Steve Mays a long time ago)

 

Increase our taxes

We are a retired family living on a more-or-less fixed income.  We hope our taxes go up next year.  In fact, we’re going to give our permission in a few days for them to go up regardless of what happens to our income.

Jefferson City needs voter permission to raise the money for a loooonnnnnng overdue second high school and the school district wants people like us and our neighbors to approve a higher tax levy.  This household is unanimously in favor of the idea.

We don’t have any kids attending the schools of Jefferson City.  We haven’t been to a school play or a school concert or to a school football or basketball game in years, probably decades.  Haven’t been to a PTA meeting for even longer, probably.  We do go into one of the public school system’s buildings three or four times a year for the city concert association events but that’s about it.

So we have no personal connection to a school system that wants to increase our property tax bill by a pretty good amount.   But we want the system to do it.

We took a pile of income tax information, over which Nancy had agonized for countless hours, to our accountant a few days ago.  We’ll learn the damage before long.  Naturally, we wish we could keep that money but when we come down to it, we don’t mind paying taxes—because we understand what they buy.  We just hope the people we elect to distribute those funds do so in a responsible manner that benefits the general public. We confess there are times when we think those people could do a better job by putting more emphasis on the word “general”  but we haven’t met anyone yet who has come up with a better system than the present one for making sure all of us share the Biblical and the democratic responsibilities to each other.

Somebody has to pay for the things we expect government to do for us and we’re okay with putting our financial drop into the big bucket that finances more things for us that we can count. And education is one of the biggest benefits.

We’ve lived in Jefferson City nigh on to half a century—a statement that amazes us every time we recall the things we ‘ve seen and done—and we can’t recall a time when somebody wasn’t saying, “Jefferson City needs a second high school.”   Actually, Jefferson City already has a half-dozen or so public and parochial high schools including the high school program at the Algoa prison, a high school for about fifteen severely disabled students, and a Christian academy with about five students in grades ten through twelve.

In our household we think it’s important that children have opportunities to learn.  Not just classroom subjects, but the things they can learn through band, and science clubs, and school newspapers, and sports, and debate clubs, and other things that add to the creation of a thinking, active, inquisitive life that is to come.   We think a better future can be incubated when all of the eggs are not jammed into one basket.

And it’s the future we’re talking about here, a more learned society in a world that increasingly demands educated people who understanding that learning and life have to go together if hopes for a free humankind are to progress.   A second high school in our town will increase opportunities for our grandchildren’s generation to have a better chance to make that idealized future a materialized future.

We know that we write from the standpoint of ones who can afford to pay these higher taxes, knowing that there are many who feel they cannot.  We wish we had an answer for them for some of them are our friends.  We, and they, are left with leaving others who are in policy positions who have the knowledge to ease those concerns to recognize them and act on them.

Regardless of our economic standings, the thing we CANNOT afford is ignorance.  Ignorance is one of the greatest enemies of a democracy.  It is one of the first tools of the despot.  The control of learning and the limitations placed on it and on the circulation of public learning are trademarks of the societies we identify geographically and often culturally as threats to our way of life.  A visit to a nation governed by those who know ignorance equates to power and control is a sobering experience.

We’ve been there.  We’ve seen it.  We know that the American system of public education is one of our greatest protections.  We’ll be glad to pay more taxes to make that system better in our town.

We in this household are products of public education from our first days in a classroom to our last days in graduate schools.  We benefitted because our parents and grandparents paid the taxes that helped shape us as, we hope, good and responsible citizens.  We’ll be glad to pay some higher taxes so other generations will have a better chance to defeat ignorance and all of the perils it presents.

It’s okay if our taxes go up next year, even if they go up by a pretty good amount. In our household we think that the Preamble to the United States Constitution is not only a statement of the virtues we want in government, but is also a commitment by We the People to work through that government to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity,”

Promotion of the general welfare cannot be done in a climate that impedes an escape from ignorance.  We will pay higher taxes because we wish to help create a climate that better serves the future general welfare of our city, our state, and our country.

Big government comes to Missouri

The State Planning Board in 1937 did a study of office space requirements for state departments in Jefferson City.  Your specialist in the archaeology of forgotten information uncovered it at the State Archives during research on the next Capitol book and thought it offers context for the discussions about what government should be these eight decades later.

In this era when “big government” has become a charged phrase, this report does at least three things:

  1. It gives us a history of big government’s early development.
  2. It explains why the phrase became a necessity.
  3. It explains why shrinking “big government” is easier to say than it will be to do.

We offer this to you as a prelude to later discussions of Donald F. Kettl’s Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence, a book that says big government is here to stay but today’s political approaches to it might be only  aggravating its shortcomings at a time when enlightened, practical steps should be taken to bring a 19th century system that worked for decades into a workable system in the 21st century. It can be interesting for those of us who are served by government programs but it might be even more useful for those who determine the directions those programs take.

The 1937 study concluded, “A new building is necessary for economy and efficiency in the operation of the State government.”   Here’s the history lesson from that report:

When the Capitol building was still under construction, the state government functions were increasing and the demand for office space likewise increased.  During the last fifty years or more, great changes have taken place in our social and economic structure.  Extensive alterations have occurred in transportation, communication, means of production, trade and commerce, and manners and customs.  New standards of civic and social responsibility have arisen and state government in Missouri, as elsewhere, has been affected and has had to keep pace with the influences of the changing world.  Today, the state occupies a different place in society than it did fifty or even twenty years ago.

Gradually, the emergency of railroads, the industrial system with its thriving cities, the automobile, corporate financing, public utilities and other products of the period confronted the state with problems of regulation and control which it had never before known.  An increase in the material wealth of the population produced a rising standard of living which, in turn, demanded a greater number and better quality of governmental services in the field of education, health, sanitation, and hospitalization of the insane and tubercular.  The awakening of a new social responsibility established institutions for the blind, the deaf, and the delinquent minors.  The automobile placed the state in the road-building business.  Problems arising from industry and urban life demanded that the state inspect mines and manufacturing plants and establish health and sanitary standards.  Decade by decade, as our society has grown in size and complexity, new services and functions have been demanded of our state.  In short, then, the state has developed into an agency for promotion of the well-being of its citizens.

The report noted the number of permanent administrative government employees in Jefferson City (excluding the legislature and the Supreme Court) had grown from fewer than 100 in 1900 to about 1,400 in 1936 because of that half-century of change in American, and Missouri, society and economy.

The first state agency to reflect that trend in an obvious way was the Highway Department. In 1907, the office of Highway Engineer was created within the State Board of Agriculture (not a department yet).  The position became that of State Highway Commissioner in 1913 and just four years after an entirely new department, the State Highway Department, was created—all in response to the rapid growth of the use of automobiles and the need for the roads for them.  In 1920, Missourians approved a $60 million dollar bond issue that started the Missouri Centennial Road Program, the state’s first major effort to create a coherent highway system.  The report reminds readers that in the space of less than fifteen years, the agency for developing the state road system had grown from one person in the office of another state agency into a “huge department” that finally had to move out of the Capitol and into its own building in 1928.

When the 1937 survey was done, twenty-two departments or parts of departments (not including highways) were housed in the capitol.  During legislative sessions they had to find temporary quarters in other buildings in Jefferson City.  Two agencies—the Public Service Commission and the now-Department of Agriculture’s laboratory, had moved full-time into the old post office/federal building that was across High Street from the present main post office.

By 1937, government had so outgrown the capitol that office space on the building’s first floor occupied 48% more space than the building’s designed capacity, the study commenting, “This has been accomplished by using as office space the cafeteria, vestibules, vault space, etc.  The second floor is seriously overcrowded.  In some rooms typists are working in such close quarter that they cannot freely operate their machines.  In one case, the fixtures in a toilet were removed and the space converted to offices.  The need for office space is so acute that it is planned to make use of other toilets for offices in the near future.

“While the legislature is not in session, certain departments expand their activities into legislative committee rooms and the Senators’ private offices.  Each time the legislature convenes, it is the same story. Departments occupying legislative quarters have to move, and each time the legislature adjourns the persons occupying rooms are besieged with requests to let this or that or other departments use the space.”  In those days, the legislature met every other year, not annually.

The Federal Works Progress Administration occupied “extensive space” on the legislative floors, including the Senate balcony.

About 2,600 square feet of space in the basement was improvised into offices that had no ventilation and no natural light.  Between sessions, ten departments or parts of departments rented space elsewhere in town.  During sessions, fifteen departments had to rent space.   More than 200 employees worked in a basement that became so polluted by exhaust gases of delivery trucks that many workers developed “sick headaches” that force them to take time away from work.

Missouri was not alone in dealing with the development of big government.  The Oklahoma State Planning Board had reported late in 1936 that Missouri was just one of 28 states considering new office buildings.

Big government had arrived—out of necessity.  It remains and it is a fact of life.  The result of that 1937 study was the Broadway Office Building.

In later entries we’ll review Kettl’s call for realistic thinking about the focus  of discussion about the direction of government.  In short, he argues without saying it: The goal is less about making government smaller than it is about making American government competent again.

Stay tuned.

Save the cursives   

Our computer has just helped make the case for what appears below.  This entry originally was written in a cursive type face.  But when the words were transferred to Word Press for posting, the computer threw a bucket of 21st-Century cold water on the Twentieth Century author and issued a Borg-like warning that all resistance is futile (Star Trek fans will understand).  Feel free to transcribe it in longhand to appreciate the original intent.

How sad that we have reached a point where a machine keeps you from reading what you have written as it was written.  However—-

Some school districts no longer teach cursive handwriting, what some call longhand. The means of creating the Declaration of Independence, the Emancipation Proclamation, letters home from the battlefront, and thousands of our greatest and/or most popular books has been dismissed by the Common Core Standards. Missouri is one of 42 states to adopt Common Core although it was done only with a certain amount of legislative thrashing around that led to formation of a committee to recommend our own standards which turned out to be pretty much Common Core.

Killing cursive was the idea of the National Governors Association (have you tried to read the signatures of our governors or other high officials; they’re hardly good examples of cursive?) and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  States can, if they wish, put the teaching of cursive back into their schools.

But don’t make Common Core any more of a whipping boy than necessary.  Cursive fell out of favor with the enactment of No Child Left Behind, which did not include it on tests that led to rating of schools under NCLB. And if it’s not something that’s being assessed so schools can be rated on their quality of teaching, why teach it?

Life experiences have taught most of us that a lot of life is made up of things that were learned but not assessed in school.  We’ve talked to some teachers who worry that their schools are so obsessed with assessments that teaching and learning are diminished.

Why is this system of writing that most of us practice with varying degrees of legibility so suddenly so, so—Twentieth Century?  Well, say critics, cursive just takes too darn much time.  And as students move through their education and into the workplace, cursive handwriting isn’t as useful a skill as using a keyboard.

Why, heck, it’s not going to be very long at this rate before a replacement for Common Core rates schools on how well their students use their thumbs.  The rest of the hand is reserved for Olympic sports or musical instruments.

Some people believe cursive writing hones motor skills in children.  Some think it encourages gracefulness in an otherwise decreasingly graceful world.  We saw a story that ran on ABC News quoting an associate professor at the University of Staganger Reading Centre (it’s in Norway) who doesn’t dismiss typewriting but who says, “Handwriting seems, based on empirical evidence from neuroscience, to play a larger role in the visual recognition and learning of letters.”  Translated, said ABC, “Those who learn to write by hand learn better.”

Some researchers suggest that the fastest handwriting involves the use of a mix of cursive and printed letters.  One researcher thinks people writing by hand can gain speed that way without losing legibility.

Cursive writing has all but disappeared in the legislative chambers of the Missouri Capitol.  It is so rare as to invite comment when a lawmaker submits a handwritten amendment to be considered in debate.  Hours of time are wasted each year while the chambers “stand at ease” so someone with a suddenly brilliant idea can consult with a staff member sitting at a computer who knows how to put together a string of words on a keyboard.   Some observers link a perceived decline in the intellectual capacity of our lawmakers to the decline in the use of pen and paper and handwritten amendments.  We are taking an official neutral position for now.

There are plenty of articles on the pros and cons of cursive writing.  But we’ve come up with our own ideas of why teaching cursive writing remains important.  It’s simple.

If you can’t write it, you can’t read it.  And not everything written is on a web page somewhere.  Sometimes you have to be able to read the original document.  Maybe it’s grandfather’s letter from Vietnam to his girl at home.  Maybe it’s the middle pages of the old family Bible where your family records have been kept for generations. Maybe it’s the original survey of your property. It could be anything and it could be highly meaningful.

There is something about seeing the original final version of the Declaration of Independence and the final engrossed copy of the Constitution at the National Archives in Washington.  Something about those handwritten words says something about the human striving that went into the creation of those documents.  Your observer has yet to see a thumb-written message that indicates any striving, and precious little thought, has gone into the expression of something.  Your observer has not yet seen anything noble written by thumbs.

Yes, these meanderings are written on a keyboard.  But at least, all ten fingers are used.

Not all handwritten things are easily read.  Many years ago, a friend sent a prominent Missouri lawyer a letter that told him, “Send me something I can read.”   Your faithful scribe has been working for a couple of weeks transcribing an 1846 lawsuit challenging the ownership of the land on which Jefferson City stands.   Some of the writing displays the elegance of a learned hand of the 18th and 19th century.  But there have been times when it has taken fifteen minutes to figure out one word.  And in typing the transcript of the documents, there are several blanks where the scrawl is so bad that we just ran up a white flag.

We fear the day that a new foreign language will be added to the list of college courses:  Cursive 101.  Advanced Cursive.  Honors Cursive.  Practical Cursive.  Maybe colleges of education will offer a course such as Teaching Cursive 256.  It would be an elective.

Wonder what the final exam would be like.

Notes from a Quiet Street—VI

—being another chapter of ruminations on things not worth full blogifying.

—-

Good Lord!!! When is Chris Koster going to quit telling us the Farm Bureau has done the unthinkable and has endorsed a Democrat and when is Eric Greitens going to stop talking about being God’s gift to veterans and start talking about the rest of us?   Or do candidates no longer feel any obligation to tell us how they’re going to work with the legislature to rebuild our infrastructure, keep college kids from accumulating debts they’ll carry into middle age, take care of our mentally ill, and see that we are safe from one another?

—–

That’s a key, you know.  The major national candidates seem to be running for dictator, not president. They’re all about what THEY are going to do, as if there is no congress that will be involved. Do we expect much more from our candidates for governor?

——

And how many of the candidates who are blaming today’s woes on “career politicians” will admit that they want to be “career politicians?”   We haven’t heard one of them say they only want to serve two years (or four) and then rejoin the masses.

—-

Your obedient servant has been reading again.  The new book is Donald F. Kettl’s Escaping Jurassic Government: How to Recover America’s Lost Commitment to Competence.   He believes it is possible.

Kettl is a former dean of the University of Maryland’s Public Policy School and is a fellow of the Brookings Institution, named for Missourian Robert S. Brookings.  It’s considered pretty even-handed. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, after analyzing a decade of Congressional records, found Conservatives quoted its findings about as often as Liberals.

It’s a pretty interesting read for government groupies.  We’ll be talking more about it later, no doubt. Feel free to read ahead of us.

—–

This might be a good place to list from time to time how Missouri stacks up with other states in various programs.  Our first entries:  49th in support of public defenders, says the public defender office.  The Brookings Institution in August listed us the nation’s sixth best state for advanced manufacturing job growth and 9th for output growth in that category.  A new audit says Missouri has had the lowest public university tuition increases in the last eight years (for which Governor Nixon delivers a big pat on the back to himself—although supplemental and degree fees have gone up 112% to make up for that accomplishment).  But the state ranks 39th in state appropriations to higher education per student, 43rd in state funding per $1,000 personal income.  Governor Nixon says our unemployment benefits rank 43rd out of all fifty states. We had some other rankings in an earlier post: http://bobpriddy.net/2016/08/02/missouri-nothing-special/

—-

Did you know that the University of Missouri football team has won a national award?   This graduate of the school did not.  It wasn’t in the latest alumni magazine.  No press release about it has come to our email.

It’s not like the recognition came from some obscure special-interest group. Nope. This one came from ESPN.  And we wouldn’t have known about it if fellow UMC graduate Ray Hartmann hadn’t written about it.

https://www.stlmag.com/news/think-again/mizzou-football-players-racial-protest/

Thanks, Ray.

—-

Went to a class reunion recently in Illinois and listened to classmates talk about the disastrous state of Illinois government that they say is largely controlled by Speaker of the House Michael Madigan of Chicago, who has been the Speaker for 32 of the last 34 years. If you’ve paid attention to the news, you know that Illinois government is far messier than Missouri government (at least we don’t put our governors in prison).  These folks think term limits is the only way to get rid of political bosses like Madigan.  We told them term limits is the last thing Illinois should do to itself—that it’s been the worst thing to happen to Missouri government since post-Civil War loyalty oaths.  Madigan is 74 but my friends in Illinois worry that he’s immortal.

Their county’s state representative is seeking his fourth term this year. His predecessor served six terms before being elected to the state senate. Giving up the right to re-elect your own state representative or senator to get rid of one representative from another district is, as we unfortunately have seen in Missouri, a foolish thing to do.

—-

The highway signs on the way back told us to drive in the right lane unless we were passing.  But, doggone it, the passing lane is always so much smoother.

Could Missourians at least approve enough of a gas tax increase to fix the driving lanes?

—-

We have tried—and have failed—to recall a single candidate for significant office in Missouri or elsewhere who blamed himself or herself for their loss.  It’s always somebody else’s fault—the media, unfair statements from an opponent (ignoring their own unfair statements about that opponent), a “rigged” election system even after the loser had to win a primary under the same system to become a general election loser.  We’ve never heard any losers admit, “The people didn’t buy my stuff.”

Donald Trump already is putting together his list of excuses.  He’s already saying the election will be “rigged” if he loses. And, of course, the blasted media for reporting what he says.  Interesting, isn’t it, that the system that let him brag about how many primaries he won and how many votes he got wasn’t “rigged” then?

We haven’t heard who might be on Hillary Clinton’s list if she loses.  The press, of course, would probably be there. We suppose the vast right-wing conspiracy would be on it, too.

I’ve got news for these folks.  We in the news media don’t mind getting blamed.  In fact, the last thing most real reporters want is to hear a candidate crediting them for an election victory.

—-

The Russian Olympic doping scandal and the banning of most Russian athletes and the NCAA’s investigation of the University of Missouri basketball program appear to have something in common.

Today’s athletes and coaches get punished for the sins of their predecessors.  That strikes us unfair.

We’re not sure how this could be done legally, but wouldn’t it be better for the NCAA to develop a way to fine an offending coach an amount (plus a penalty) equal to the amount of the scholarships the offending players received during the coach’s tenure and maybe require the offending players to refund to the University the amount they received for their scholarships?.  Or something like that.  Making the players refund their scholarship money might be a little draconian, though.  We’re not sure if they should know better when they’re 17 or 18.

And maybe an athletic director should get slapped around a little bit, too.

Missouri: nothing special

An outfit called WalletHub has been sending us news releases for about three years telling us they’ve been rating the states on various topics.

WalletHub has called itself a “personal finance social network.”  It’s owned by Evolution Finance, a company that says it can compare thousands of credit cards for best deals.   We’ve gotten its reports comparing states on various issues.

Various organizations compare states for various reasons and we’ve never yet seen a rating of the states that isn’t questioned by critics who have their own statistics that question the findings.  And it’s always good to look at the organization doing the ratings to see if there’s an agenda that is behind it (We’ve all seen the Chamber of Commerce, NRA, Right to Life and other ratings and endorsements in political campaigns).

One thing we have noticed year after year after year, survey after survey after survey is that Missouri, for all political self-praise that it lavishes on itself, seldom shows any exceptionalism.  The surveys paint Missouri as a state that either doesn’t try to excel or whose citizens and leaders don’t care enough about being in the top tier of states that they’ll commit to doing what it takes to get there.

Because WalletHub insists on being in our face every couple of weeks with new findings, we’re going to look at the picture this organization paints of Missouri.  Other surveys look at other issues.  But in years of reviewing these studies, the impression remains that Missouri talks a better game than it plays.  So here are some findings from WalletHub.

Spending: Missourians rank sixth in the country when it comes to spending money, based on ten factors. While many candidates have been bemoaning the $19-20 trillion national debt, none that we have heard voice any concerns about the total consumer debt, reported by the New York Fed in May as $12.25 trillion and rising for the last seven quarters. The increase in debt in the first quarter of the year was the largest since the beginning of the Great Recession.

Missourians apparently love to go shopping.  Making their state better in other important ways doesn’t seem as important.

Best and Worst School Systems: Missouri overall is 32nd.  We are 29th in a category called “School System Quality” and we’re 39th in School System Safety, whatever that means.  Thirteen categories are used in the “quality” rates.  Safety is based on disciplinary-incident rates per 100,000 students, bullying incident rates, and youth incarceration rates of people under 21 per 100,000. We are 41st in controlling bullying.  Missouri is the 24th best state for teachers.

But we are 34th in places for nurses to work.

And if you are a working mom, the picture is not good.  34th overall (27th in child care, 29th in professional opportunities, and 38th in work-life balance).

It therefore might be surprised to learn that Missouri is ranked ninth in women’s equality according to WalletHub (17th in workplace environment, ninth in education and 16th in political empowerment).

Missouri is 33rd in wealth, adjusted for population (36th in income rank, 35th in GDP per capita, and sixth in taxes paid per capita).

But we are the 45th most financially literate state.  Other factors smother our ranking of third in knowledge and education.

The studies say we’re the 30th among green states.  We’re 12th in environmental quality but rank 37th in eco-friendly behaviors and 33rd in climate change contributions—a reflection, perhaps, of ancoal-fired utilities produce)

These are some of the results from one of many studies that rank Missouri as a state that is often mediocre at best and poor at worst.  And apparently, Missourians and their leaders are comfortable being nothing special.

Myron Cohen, a comedian of the 50s and 60s who often was on the Ed Sullivan Show, used to tell the story of a husband who came home one day and noticed his apartment smelled of cigar smoke.  When his wife would not admitted she had taken up cigar smoking, the husband started searching the place and in the bedroom close he found a man standing in his undershorts. “What are you doing here?” the husband demanded.   And the man responded, “Everybody gotta be someplace.”

So it is with rankings.  Everybody’s gotta be someplace. 

Too bad so many surveys show Missouri doesn’t want to be someplace better.

 

 

 

 

 

When you don’t have to be quiet

Spent some time at the University of Missouri-Columbia the other day and picked up the school year’s last edition of the student newspaper, The Maneater. A special part of the paper was devoted to the turbulent year on the Columbia campus.  The staff ranked events in various categories including the Top Five Worst of the year.

The Biggest Embarrassment was the Missouri Students Association.  The Biggest Letdown was the performance of the football and basketball teams.  Among the other “worsts” was Biggest Frustration.

It was the Missouri legislature.  The school administration for understandable political reasons can’t say things that students can. This has been a turbulent year for the young men and women on the Columbia campus.  Only a few were involved in the campus disturbances last fall but all of them have to live with the results of what the few did and the political fallout from those weeks.  We thought Maneater staff writer Amos Chen’s appraisal of the Missouri legislature was worth passing along because it comes from one of the thousands of students who were swept up in the politics of the year.  Here’s what he wrote:

Ronald Reagan once said, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” 

Through their frustrating actions over the past year, the Missouri legislature has more than proven Reagan’s famous words true.

In August, former Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin was called to testify before the Senate by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, about the relationship between University Hospital and Planned Parenthood.  All this, despite the Missouri Attorney General’s Office later finding no evidence of wrongdoing.

Schaefer was back at it again in January when an email from former UM System President Tim Wolfe surfaced where he claimed Schaefer pressured him to deny then-MU associate professor Josh Hawley’s request for a leave of absence to run for Attorney General.  In a revelation that surprised absolutely nobody, Schaefer also happens to be running for that position.

That’s before getting to the “piece de resistance” of the entire affair—Missouri lawmakers response to the Concerned Student 1950 protests against racial discrimination, and former assistant communications professor Melissa Click’s call for “muscle” making national headlines. 

In March, the House Budget Committee became the latest to jump on the “let’s screw over MU” bandwagon, passing a budget slashing $1 million in funds for MU.  The budgetary hearing produced gems such as an amendment by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, reducing state funding for MU from $169,305,944 to $1 (not a typo).  The amendment was later withdrawn, not because Miller thought it wouldn’t pass, but because he was afraid it would.  I would write a joke about this but nothing I think of could possibly match the absurdity of this piece of political theater.

The Senate later came to its senses and restored the cuts, but it retained a $1 million decrease to administration to make sure the university knew who the real boss around these parts is. The final draft cut the UM System budget by $3.8 million.

From dubiously motivated witch hunts to politically influenced legislation, the actions of the Missouri legislature over the past year rightfully earns these legislators the title of Biggest Frustration.

We offer this with no endorsement or comment.  Sometimes the voice of someone who didn’t start a fight but whose life is affected by it says something.

Sometimes we wonder at the end of elections and at the end of legislative sessions whether the candidates or the lawmakers gave any thought to how their actions did anything to improve the public attitude toward government.  Amos seems to have given an answer.

The Aiken strategy for Missouri education

No, not Todd.   George.

George Aiken, once the dean of the United States Senate, a Senator from Vermont,  eventually decided the Vietnam conflict was a lost cause.  He was lukewarm about the whole thing anyway and finally declared, “The United States could well declare unilaterally…that we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

Through the years the statement has been boiled down to, “Declare victory and withdraw.”

It’s happening in the capitol, where the majority lawmakers are about to declare victory in school funding and—

Punt.

Your observer has commented in the past about the legislature’s refusal to meet its funding promises to public elementary and secondary education that were part of the School Foundation Formula adopted in 2005. It went into effect for the 2006 school year.  Lawmakers in those days realized the state did not have the money to put the formula into full effect for the 2006 year so they decided to phase in full funding during a seven-year period.

That might have been fine if the economy had continued to perk along but the legislature, as it often does, did not anticipate that the economy might dip, fall, descend precipitously, CRASH.  The Missouri legislature has never been real good at dealing with funding issues by making tax policy flexible enough to deal with the ups and downs of the economy.  There is usually a belief that everything will just hum right along.  Such shortsightedness, especially on tax and fiscal matters, is legendary. And it has been detrimental.

The economy took a dive a couple of years into this school funding program.  Governors of both parties and legislators were able to find a little money to increase funding, enough to brag that schools “are getting more state aid than they have ever received,” a rather disingenuous statement that refused to acknowledge the state was not keeping its 2005 promise. And as the legislature slid deeper into the slogan of “right sizing” state government, it didn’t even try to do what it promised public schools it would do in 2005.

So now, more than a decade after the legislature passed a school aid formula that it knew it could not fully fund and in the years since when it hasn’t even tried to meet that promise, it is going to declare a victory and withdraw.   The House of Representatives has passed a Senate bill that “Modifies the definition of ‘current operating expenditures’ and ‘state adequacy target’ for the purposes of state funding…”

Aww, what the heck.  We’ve never met our responsibility and we don’t care if we ever do.  Let’s just rewrite the law so we can change the definition of full-funding of K-12 public education.  We’re hundreds of millions of dollars below where we should be.  So let’s just change the law so that obligation that we don’t plan to meet anyway just goes away.  And then we can tell the folks back home that we’re giving schools more than they’ve ever gotten. Hooray for us!

Governor Nixon says passage of the bill will let the legislature walk away from being about $420 million dollars short of what our public school districts should be getting in state aid.

We won’t tell local taxpayers that we are shifting the responsibility for that $420 million dollars to them.  If they want their school district to have adequate funding—at least the kind of “adequate” funding we had promised them in 2005—they will have to pay more local taxes.  And if they don’t want to do that, fine. It’s their decision.  Local control is important to us, except when we say it isn’t, and this is one of those times when we say it is because we can duck our responsibility at the state level and brag about the latest tax cut that might put sixty cents a month back in their pockets. 

And we won’t mention that we’re not even fully funding the new system.  We’ve cut the responsibility deficit from $420 million down to about $55 million dollars.  We’ll just tell the voters that we’ve cut a state deficit  by 87% and they’ll think we’re doing a fine job and they’ll blindly vote to send us back to do similar great work next year.   

So instead of trying to find a formula that gives every child an equal base amount of state aid, we’ll let our school districts be all over the map in the money available to provide basic education. We won’t even try to fund a basic equal opportunity for education. And since school districts repeatedly send their students out into the streets to sell candy or popcorn or Christmas wrapping paper and stuff like that, they can just send them out to go door to door even more, peddling something that will help their district pay the light bill. 

Nixon has expressed a lack of willingness to accept the legislature’s thinking.  Don’t be surprised if he vetoes the bill.  But, of course, the party of “right sizing government” has enough votes in both the House and the Senate to override the veto.

Get ready for a lot more rings of the doorbell by children begging for money for this or that school program and a lot more student car washes, folks,.  Because the legislature is washing its hands of its school funding obligations.

Perhaps it is time for every school superintendent in the state to calculate how much their school districts could have gotten if the legislature had been meeting its self-imposed obligations for the last decade—and then listing the things the district has not been able to do to educate the public’s children because of that failure.  And maybe they should recount the number of school levies that voters have approved to make up for that difference, school levies that would not have been necessary.  And maybe they should mention how their legislators voted on this bill.

They’d have nothing more to lose by doing that.

And when their legislators come home in May after passing this bill and hold a town hall meeting or get a session summary article published in the local paper in which they huff and puff about giving schools a record amount of money, maybe their constituents will look at them with raised eyebrows and ask, “Really?”

“Who are you kidding?”