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GRAVES: The tree house that never was

Early lessons on gratitude inform legislative school funding request

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the modest but well-maintained light blue home in which I lived as a child was not part of the house at all, but the lot. My father was a man with the greenest of thumbs, whose lawn was never blemished with a dandelion (well not for long anyway, given the army of sons he had to attack them at the first blush of yellow, thereby earning him the whispered nickname “lawn Nazi” among his unappreciative brood), whose gardens sprouted a riot of flowers as well as produce, and whose expanses were graced and shaded by five stately elms. It was those elms he valued above all, in part because he had planted them but more because they walled the entire lot with their verdant stateliness.

It is too much to say he loved those trees, I suppose, but his reaction to a woman from the neighborhood who nailed a rummage sale sign to a tree trunk one day could definitely have left you with that impression. It left me skulking from the area out of fear of collateral damage.

And so it was with some astonishment that my friends and brothers reacted to my father’s positive response to the idea that I be allowed to build a tree house in one of the elms. He produced a board from the garage to use as the tree house floor. I shook my head; it clearly wasn’t big enough. I selected a floor plan about twice that size. He offered the original size once again. I said it was the larger size or nothing.

So our home’s elm trees remained tree house-free from that day on, right up until Dutch elm disease ended their arboreal lives. And I learned a lesson more valuable than any tree house.

Which is why I suspect the various K-12 educational lobbying groups are playing a dangerous game this session on the issue of school finance. The law calls for schools to receive a finance formula increase equivalent to the consumer price index, i.e. 1.6 percent. Gov. Dennis Daugaard, conscious of the fact that schools have gone through some difficult times, has recommended 3 percent, almost twice the codified expectation. To which decorum, etiquette and a basic sense of gratefulness would all seem to demand a simple response from educators: “thank you.”

Yet some can’t quite manage that, or if they do, they sully it with that magic word that refutes everything in a sentence that came before it: but. (As in, “I love you, but … ” or “No, that dress doesn’t make you look fat, but … ”) In this case, we seem to want it both ways. Thank you, governor, but given the fact that the 6.6 percent cut of several years ago placed us in the hole, shouldn’t the increase really be more like 3.8 percent?

Perhaps those attempting to skate down this rather treacherous legislative causeway are relying on the fact that the governor has already made his recommendations, and so it is unlikely, even in the face of seeming ingratitude, that he would now reduce the amount from 3 percent. That works, unless you assume that the governor has a memory longer than a single legislative season, that he can’t see that providing education extra dollars doesn’t result in any reasonable degree of appreciation or good-will and so putting extra money there in the future is politically pointless since the custodians of those dollars are so enchanted by the conjunction “but.”

There is, of course, a counter-argument: education is desperately in need of the money and boosting employee salaries and restoring past cuts are so important that gratitude be darned.

Unfortunately, this argument rarely conquers any legislative fortresses, because precisely the same sorts of argument of importance can be made for Medicaid, health care providers, state employees, etc. Additionally, as the governor has pointed out in the past, and as those stubborn things called facts attest, education dollars don’t automatically translate into higher student achievement. (Money is the mother’s milk of education, but once a certain base is provided, the marginal additional dollar can’t be translated 1:1 into any measurable goal of quality. In fact, after the base is provided, the next dollar actually suffers from declining marginal utility. ) Thus, in the lobbies and committee rooms of the Legislature, this argument doesn’t necessarily chop much wood.

So faced with a recommended finance formula increase of almost twice what the law calls for, should educators really be committing the difficult-to-forgive political sin of ingratitude?

Sounds like a good way to strike the olive branch from your new champion’s hand. Not to mention lose a perfectly good tree house.

-Write to Joe Graves at