By George Noga
Local (Central Florida) readers may have seen my guest column in the Orlando Sentinel on Sept. 28 in opposition to a proposed $100 million tax increase solely for Seminole County schools.
Following is the column as I originally wrote it and NOT as it was published. I was subjected to extensive, inane and incomprehensible editing and fact checking as I describe later in this post. You will be shocked to learn to what extent even opposing opinion pieces are altered to conform to the newspaper’s slant.
Column as Originally Written
Advocates of the tax increase have an easy argument; they appeal to your emotions with florid prose about how more millage (they avoid saying “higher taxes”) is urgently needed to save our schools, children and teachers and how it all will be spent in the classroom. Those of us who oppose the tax, which includes 40% of school board members, have a much more difficult case to present – one based on fact rather than emotion. However, our case has the advantage of being the truth whereas what they tell you is claptrap and hyperbole.
Independent research studies (including by Hoover, Heritage, Cato and State Budget Solutions) consistently conclude there is no correlation between increased per pupil spending and educational quality or achievement. That bears repeating. Higher spending does not produce any measurable improvements; it just results in higher spending. This one fact alone is sufficient to destroy all arguments in favor of a tax increase and effectively to end the debate.
Educrats and teachers unions see schools as nothing more than jobs programs for adults; higher taxes result only in more bureaucracy. There are more teachers than there were five years ago despite seven straight years of falling enrollment. Seminole County Public Schools (“SCPS”) has 92 non instructional administrators making $75,000 to $100,000 and 26 making over $100,000. In sharp contrast, the Catholic Diocese of Orlando with 15,000 students runs its highly regarded school system with only 3 full time administrators.
Comparison to Orange County also is instructive. Orange has all the things tax increase advocates say we need in Seminole; they have an extra millage tax, added school sales tax and they spend $1,800 more per student – but guess what. They have worse performing schools and their property values have gone down. It didn’t work in Orange and it won’t work in Seminole.
The FY 2011-12 SCPS budget spent $8,767 per pupil. To this must be added funds from grants, parents and students as well as occult spending on pensions, health care and debt service which often are not included directly in the school budget. A Cato Institute study found spending is a minimum of 23% higher than reported on school budgets. Furthermore, SCPS overcounts students (they count those who only rarely attend classes) by at least 10% compared to private schools. Adjusting the SCPS budget for the minimum 23% that is uncounted and the 10% overcount of students, the real per pupil spending is $12,000, comparable to the most elite private schools in central Florida and over double that of parochial schools.
Let’s now dispel the myth that all the new tax money will be spent in the classroom. Money is fungible and the new money will simply permit other monies to be diverted and spent elsewhere. This is precisely the same fiction they sold us when they promised all the lottery money would be used for education. They know better and are intentionally being dishonest.
Even if the economy were booming, a tax increase to fund bureaucrats and unions would be a terrible idea. Instead, families in Seminole County have lost $5,700 in annual income since the recession began; many are unemployed or underemployed and have suffered gut wrenching loss of value in their homes. Most families have sacrificed and cut back on expenses; we all are doing more with less. Many businesses have closed. And now SCPS wants to tax us $100 million, equal to hundreds of dollars per year for each homeowner, renter and business.
The pro-tax political committee, funded mostly by school contractors, consultants and vendors, is running a scare campaign based on dishonest information to appeal solely to your emotions and to beguile you into believing you are helping children and teachers. Instead, you only would be feeding a bloated bureaucracy. Again, independent research has shown time and time again that there is no correlation between more spending and measures of educational quality. Don’t vote your emotions: vote facts, logic and truth; vote against the tax increase!
Actions and Edits (without my consent) by the Sentinel
Following are the ten most egregious (but by no means all) actions taken by the Sentinel in running the two opposing opinion pieces about the tax hike. The changes had little or nothing to do with fact checking, nor were they for length as I adhered to their 600 word budget.
- They refused to print my point about Catholic schools having only 3 full time administrators for 15,000 students. At first they disbelieved this metric and called the Diocese of Orlando to verify my facts – which were correct. Then they still refused based on the rubric that Catholic schools were not comparable. Why not let readers decide?
- They submitted my column days in advance to the SCPS for critique under the guise of fact checking. They would not let me see or fact check the opposing column in advance.
- They reduced the per pupil spending by $500 based on feedback from the opposing side and despite the budget clearly showing my computation to be accurate.
- They refused to print the part about overcounting students by 10% even though I offered to provide comparable data (showing much worse than 10%) for Orange County.
- They excised data taken from the CATO Institute showing that much of school spending is hidden off the school budget. I even used the minimum 23% that the study showed.
- They made several totally inane changes. For example, I wrote that “40% of school board members voted against the tax“; they edited this to read “two out of five“. Perhaps their rapidly declining readership fails to understand that two-fifths is equal to 40%.
- I wrote the tax increase would cost homeowners, renters and businesses; inexplicably, they deleted “renters”. It is axiomatic that owners pass costs through to renters.
- They wrote the headlines and chose the text to highlight; they did not ask me and what they chose was far different and more tepid than what I would have chosen.
- I wrote that enrollment has been falling for seven straight years (a fact); they changed this to simply “falling enrollments“.
- They permitted the opposing side to get away with murder. Advocates of the tax increase asserted failure to pass the tax would result in more crime, unemployment and public assistance all the while claiming (counter factually) that the tax would cost only 30 cents a day. Where was the fact checking for such outlandish statements? And didn’t anyone think it absurd 30 cents a day would prevent all the social pathologies advocates claimed plus raise property values? If the pro tax folks are right, why not raise the tax another 30 cents a day and cure cancer and end poverty. Simply unbelievable!
The pro tax increase guest column (published alongside my column) was written by former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. Surprise; a week later the Sentinel named Van Gundy its “Champ of the Week” for his involvement in the tax increase issue.
“I was surprised to see how low the media prostrate
themselves in slavish obeisance to the diktats of their progressive,
big government, tax-and-spend gods.”
I understood the media were hopelessly biased and truth challenged long before I agreed to write the guest column. But even cynical ol’ me was at least a little surprised to see how low they prostrate themselves in slavish obeisance to the diktats of their progressive, big government, tax-and-spend gods.
George Noga started Children First Florida, the first private voucher program in Florida and only the fourth in the United States, raising funds that enabled thousands of children from low income families to escape failing government schools and to attend the schools of their choice. He later became a leader of the national school choice movement and served for several years on the board of Children First America which helped start school voucher programs in over one hundred cities throughout America.
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