Friday, August 31, 2012

Paul Baumbach's curious positions on public education

Having encountered Paul Baumbach through the years on various blogging threads, I can testify that he's a nice, thoughtful guy, despite the fact that our political views obviously differ.

Paul is one of the favorites of the Progressive Democrats of Delaware, and one of the multiple Dem primary candidates in the 23rd State Rep District (which borders my own 22nd District, so I both see and hear a lot about it).

Unfortunately, thanks to gerrymandering on the part of Democrats and continued political impotence by Delaware Republicans, in the 23rd the Democratic primary is effectively the general election, as Republican Mark Houghty has very little chance of prevailing against whichever Democrat is the ultimate candidate.

All of which brings me to Paul's rather strange "issues" section of his website as refers to public education.  For a guy I have generally considered to be well-informed on education issues it contains strange errors of fact and convoluted arguments for the removal of local control of education that are (to be bluntly honest) disturbing.

Take, for example, the fact that Paul apparently does not understand how public education in Delaware is funded:
Our schools are funded approximately 70% by the state and 30% locally (through school property taxes). 
Okay, this unfortunately means that total funding for our public schools adds up to 107% or more in Paul Baumbach's world, as the Feds usually provide about 7% of our education funding, and--during the three-year Race to the Top grant period--are actually providing more than that.

Why does Paul ignore the Federal contribution to Delaware public education?

I believe it is because Paul would prefer to stay completely out of the very hot issue of Federal intrusion into public education.  The Feds and their roles, their rules, and the impact of either NCLB or RTTT are all completely absent from Paul's education discourse.  In his world it is as if all education oversight in the State of Delaware begins and ends with the State Department of Education.

Paul deals, for example, with Delaware charter schools, but never mentions the fact that Delaware is effectively mandated to favor increasing charter school options by Race to the Top.

Paul comes out (rightly, I think) against excessive high-stakes testing and flawed teacher accountability based on same, and completely ignores the fact that Delaware has been committed to these strategies based on its participation in RTTT.

This is not just strange, but borders on an incomprehensible failure to understand or deal with the most relevant issues of public education in Delaware.

What is really bizarre is Paul's argument that we should stop allowing the voters to have a say in their own taxation via school district referenda:
The core of the local taxes is the referendum system, whereby operating increases (for instance to cover inflation, and replacing worn and outdated books) and capital spending (for a new science lab, or a new school) is required to ‘go to the voters.’  Here is the critical flaw in our system.
Paul makes the shopworn argument that votes should not have a voice in their own taxes, and that the state should completely take over public education funding in Delaware (minus the Federal component, of which he is apparently not aware) because many voters no longer have a direct stake in the school system:
In the past thirty-five years, fewer and fewer voters are affected by the schools that rely upon referendum funding.  This began in the 1970s with the emergence of private schools.  Next came the vo-tech schools, which are exempt from referendum funding.  The last straw came from our charter schools, which are also exempt from referendum funding.  When you remove families with students in these three types of schools, and families that home-school, and when you remove families without children in any schools, there are too few families that depend upon adequate referendum funding. 
The problems with this argument are threefold:  (1) the idea that taxpayers who do not have children in the system should be disenfranchised from voting on tax increases (and that you make the automatic determination that all of them will vote their greed rather than their consciences; (2) that the very referendum results that Paul cites do not support this argument; and that (3) Paul has missed an incredibly important function of school referenda:  to make districts justify their expenditures and their building choices to the people most affected by them.

Look at the stats Paul cites:  he talks about five referenda in Christina, of which three passed (a 60% approval rate), and about six referenda in Red Clay, of which four passed (a 66% approval rate).  He complains that the question for the new Graves Road school in the 2012 RCCSD referendum passed with less than 55% of the vote.

So, of the eleven referenda offered to voters in the two districts, they voted for tax increases seven times.  To Paul Baumbach this represents failure rather than accountability.

Let's think about that Graves Road question for a moment.  If you live in the blogging world, you know that the construction of the Graves Road elementary school was a hot topic.  It involved questions like whether or not the school represented a continuation of the district serving the needs/wishes of influential suburban parents while ignoring city residents, or whether the district had done its due diligence in analyzing the traffic impact on the immediate neighborhood.

While the school question passed, the organized opposition to that question--which was definitely not "anti-public-education" in ANY sense of the word--forced Red Clay officials to have a serious public debate on these issues and served notice that they would have to do considerably more work in the future to build public support.  If you read this blog, or Kilroy, or Transparent Christina, or pandora at Delawareliberal, you know that it was quite possible to believe that one question on the referendum should have been passed, and another defeated.  While I personally supported both questions, to suggest that the people voting against the Graves Road school were only folks with no strong commitment to public education is not just wrong, but disturbing in a candidate for the General Assembly.

In other words, Paul, a contested referendum--or even a defeated one--is often indicative of the health of public debate and interest in education, not a reason to remove one of the few vestiges of direct democracy still left in our system in favor of an indirect funding mechanism that is not answerable to parents and district residents.

Paul Baumbach's Education issues are written in a pseudo-wonkish fashion that suggests to the casual reader he is well-versed in that realm whether you agree with him or not.

Unfortunately, that's not true.  On public education Paul Baumbach doesn't appear to know what he's talking about.


Anonymous said...

Paul comes out (rightly, I think) against excessive high-stakes testing and flawed teacher accountability based on same, and completely ignores the fact that Delaware has been committed to these strategies based on its participation in RTTT.

does ignoring it have any meaning here though? He's against it. Telling me he knows the state is knee deep in it is fine, but not nearly as important as sharing his position.

As for the money, the ratio of state local of the non federal are seemingly what he is saying. I can see how you may argue his failure to acknowledge the intrusive federal share may indicate a lack of understanding, but would again argue his premise of confronting the horrible way DE deals with education funding in toto suggests more than ample knowledge. I don't quite make the leap that he is trying to "stay completely out of the very hot issue of Federal intrusion into public education.", but is laying positions, that when advocated for, will lean toward opposing that intrusion. as for the money, as long as DE persists in its unit funding formula, the local tax referenda method strikes me as inefficient.

when I read his page I see a progressive blueprint with a reasonable sense of intellectual curiosity, and no apparent symbiosis with federal control. Something I hope we could all agree is refreshing.

tom said...

Thanks for the analysis of one of the candidates in my district, Steve.

As a Libertarian, I obviously won't be voting in the Democratic primary, but I'd like to point out that his opposition to high-stakes testing is no reason to choose Paul Baumbach over his fellow Democrats Jerry Grant & Claudia Bock, who also oppose high-stakes testing.

And for all we know, Republican Mark Doughty may as well. I haven't seen any campaign literature from him yet.

KilroysDelaware said...

"For charter schools serving higher-needs students, I support the proposed charter school working with the local school district, and the arms of state government, to identify under- and un-used existing school buildings. This approach was used with Wilmington Charter School, and I expect other charter schools as well."

The best way for charter schools and districts to work together is only allowing district to charter schools.
As far as Red Clay re unused space! That is not the case. CSW is a Red Clay designed charter school not a charter school looking for a home. Though legal CSW is it's own entity they reality is CSW is kind of like a subsidiarity of Red Clay. I supported the push for CSW to pay rent but now kind of retract that and perhaps like to see expansion of cooperation between CSW and Red Clay to increase the unique relationship between Cab and CSW. The answer to the charter debates may be that district / charter link and keep DE DOE back

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom, if they are all against it, I would lean toward the one who is MOST against it. Hard to tell on face, may look to experience, or who endorsed them...

tom said...

Between Bock & Grant I'll probably have to make the call based on some issue(s) other than Education. Which is tough because they're pretty much identical on the few things that I agree with either of them on.

But for Baumbach, I just can't get past the fact that he wants to take away what little local control & accountability we still have over public schools, and turn it over to a bunch of bureaucrats who we can never get of unless they retire, die, or Hell freezes over and Delaware elects a Governor that's not a Democrat. So, like Paul told me on the phone a few days ago, he's "not my guy".

Anonymous said...

I don't live in the 23rd, so I have no dog in the fight. But politics always interests me.