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Within a week after a national organization awarded the state a D for lack of improvements in education, the state gave itself an F for failure to reach agreement on an initiated measure to raise funds for teachers' salaries and property tax relief.

A bipartisan Education Alliance was formed to initiate the proposal after the Legislature refused to pass the tax hike in the 1999 session.

The strategy of the alliance foundered when representatives of the school boards refused to go along with earmarking the teacher salary increases for a bonus program outside of the usual teacher/school board bargaining process.

The school boards wanted negotiating flexibility in awarding the salary increases.

The North Dakota Education Association was right to demand that salary increases be in the form of annual bonuses.

The inadequate salaries now being paid reflect the attitude of many school boards that teachers are getting enough. With that mindset and freedom to spend salary money, they could be expected to continue offering teachers exactly what they have been giving for years - 49th place in the country.

With the collapse of the initiative campaign, teachers are back at square one with little hope for change. The teacher shortage prevalent across the country will gobble up more and more of North Dakota's quality teachers who will be leaving the state for better opportunities elsewhere. A disproportionate number of them will be the younger professionals interested in a long-term future in education - and that future is not in North Dakota.

There is little use to look for help from the state government. Gov. Ed Schafer doesn't see any need for money and defends his present budget by pointing to the additional millions appropriated during his watch. While this is true in absolute terms, these millions have only managed to keep North Dakota teacher salaries at 49th because other states have been making even greater sacrifices to support education. North Dakota is still in their dust.

Looking at the facts, the general fund appropriations in this biennium are the same as they were 20 years ago. In the 1979-81 biennium, primary and secondary education got $231 million out of a general fund budget of $644 million - 36 percent. In the 1999-2001 biennium, primary and secondary education gets $570 million out of $1,594 million - the same 36 percent. Proportionately speaking, education has been doing no better than the rest of government.

There is little use looking to the Legislature for relief. It had the opportunity in the last session to bite the bullet by passing the 3 percent income tax hike contemplated in the initiated measure but it couldn't muster the political will or the courage to act. There is no reason to expect anything different in the 2001 session.

Teachers shouldn't be taken in by the presidential candidates either, all of who talking boldly about rescuing education. But they offer few specifics and no money. Any federal or state candidate who talks about what he or she is going to do for education without talking about money is a fraud and should be arrested under the consumer protection laws.

Whether the North Dakota Education Association likes it or not, everyone is leaving the ball in its court. It has the choice of taking the ball and going home or starting a new game. That new game will only begin when the association embarks on a long-term educational campaign among the taxpayers of the state.

Omdahl is a former North Dakota lieutenant governor and professor of political science at UND.


By: Lloyd Omdahl Grand Forks Herald, February 7, 2000

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