by Martin Harris
Recent Washington events –think the S-word, for Sequester—suggest that author Robert Fulghum’s “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” 1990 book title needs a bit of up-dating. After the K-word, for Kindergarten, your Humble Scribe would add “…and on the School Board”. There, the expert on the S-word subject was the School Superintendent for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, Lloyd A. “Pete” Kelley, Jr., who reigned over the Otter Valley Union High School in Brandon, and its various sending elementary schools, for the last half of the 60’s and all of the 70’s. It was he who instructed us Board members on precision-focused punishment for taxpayers who, inexplicably but possibly from some mix of stupidity and meanness, reject a school budget or bond issue. His prescription was simple: when you’re forced to cut your budget, select the items that hurt. Bus service and hot lunch (those long-ago years preceded free breakfasts) deprivation gets taxpayer attention, because they’d then have to, with enormous inconvenience, get their kids to school, and with –oh, the effort– a pre-packed lunch-box; slightly larger English or Math classes wouldn’t. The same behavior-modification training should be applied, he taught us, after an equally-unforgiveable bond-issue rejection: when his middle-school proposal was soundly rejected, he skillfully got his willing Board member majority to approve suitably ugly temporary classrooms on the front lawn of the high school as a continuing high-visibility drive-by esthetic rebuke to intransigent locals who had so irrationally rejected adding substantial school capacity just because it had been proposed at the onset of a time of declining enrollments. (Which have continued to the present day, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.) The late RNESU leader would have been proud to watch the principles he taught us at the local school governance level being applied today at the Federal governance level.
In practice, however, there are some differences, requiring a different tactical approach. At the Federal level, we’re told, the design of the sequester cuts prevents selection of least-painful options, for a spending reduction (oops, make that a reduction-in-the-rate-of-spending-growth) of either 1 or 2%, $44 or $85 billion, year-1 or total. At the local level, our Board could make no such “it-ain’t-our-fault” claim, and so our official gambit was to issue multiple public announcements that, in the forthcoming budget re-vote, we would cut the proposed $1-million-plus budget by some $50 grand while keeping bus travel and hot lunches un-reduced; if that incredibly reasonable proposal similarly failed, State austerity-budget rules would then “force” us to make unthinkable cuts. You might call it the “ain’t nobody here but us impotent Board members” tactic. In the event, it succeeded: suitably intimidated, our voters trooped to the polls to offer approval. Whether those tactics, which worked in those long-ago and perhaps less-sophisticated times, would work today, can’t be easily forecast.
Today, at the Federal level, the “it-ain’t-our-fault” claim has been directly challenged. Washington think-tanks which study such things report that there are actually two line-item or categorical labels within the Federal budget: “Projects, Programs, and Activities”, or PPA’s, and fewer but larger “Budget Accounts”, or BA’s. A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed quotes the studies’ conclusions that the Sequester language, as written, and as previously specified under the Gramm-Rudman Deficit Control Act of 1985, applies to the BA’s, not the PPA’s, and that therefore the Administration can’t (honestly, that is) use either the “it-ain’t-our-fault” or the “nobody-here-but-us-impotents” arguments to threaten voters with the far-more-damaging Federal equivalent of reduced bus and hot lunch services at the local school district level.
In a past more recent than the threat of punitive school-support-services cuts which worked in Vermont 40 years ago, the Feds have on some occasions used actual cuts, deemed punitive for symbolic reasons, to punish unreasonably obstinate voters: the gambit has come to be called “The Washington Monument Response.” It dates from 1990, when, during a brief government shutdown midway through the Bush 41 Administration, the National Park Service announced that it had been “forced” to shut down the Monument for visitor safety; supposedly, anguished public outcry then “forced” government to re-open both its entire global operation and, specifically, the Monument. There are some obvious symbolic parallels to the installation of classroom trailers on a high school’s front lawn, not that the Feds consulted with the then-Superintendent of a school supervisory union district in Vermont, but rather that similar mind-sets of authorities un-welcoming of public resistance produce similar modes of retaliation.
In retrospect, we naïf Board members were grateful to LAKJr for his introduction to us of political behaviors we hadn’t previously imagined, although we soon learned that he was not a tactical inventor, but rather one of many Superintendent practitioners. And some of us were even more grateful for his introduction to us of the then-brand-new and still widely-unknown annual Federal achievement tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress series, NAEP for short. The context was another “sequester”, of a sort: the then-fairly-new-but-accelerating practice of class size reduction, which since the early 60’s has reduced the national p/t ratio from near 30 down to 15 nationwide and 10 in Vermont. At the RNESU, Superintendent Kelley explained it as part State requirement (it wasn’t, we later learned) and part educational-quality improvement (it wasn’t that either, we later learned) which, although expense-generating in terms of increased per-pupil costs (more teachers for a shrinking enrollment will do that) would soon be justified by the then-new NAEP achievement score increases, he assured us. In the event it didn’t work: in those early years, the test scores, national and State, for such subjects as Reading and Math were in the low 200’s out of 500 , but would soon show remarkable improvement, we were assured. But they’re still in the low 200’s out of 500, which explains why, since those long-ago years of LAKJr leadership of the RNESU, Vermont educators have since adopted other, easier, tests in the on-going search for seemingly-improved scores resulting from the reduced-class-size investment. The modern “sequester” gambit in the K-12 public education sector isn’t the actual stagnation of student achievement, not comparable to the punitive reduction of bus or lunch services, or even trailers-on-the-lawn; now it’s the relative withholding of the annual NAEP results, compared to the much wider publicity for the “higher” NSRE, NECAP, and soon, “Smart Balance” test results. LAKJr would have approved.