Well-Funded Schools, Teachers Don't Need Bailout
It wasn't long after American Federation of Teachers' president Randi Weingarten wrote in the Wall Street Journal that public schools needed a bailout that the administration dispatched Christina Romer, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, to make the case for billions of new stimulus dollars to avoid public school layoffs.
Given that even clear-eyed economists tend to go weak in the knees when discussing "our commitment to our kids," it wasn't surprising that Romer's piece in the Washington Post, like Weingarten's before it, contained no actual facts about public school spending, teacher pay or student performance, but instead largely rested on clichés like, "Let's ... do what we need to do now...and prepare our students for the challenges of the future."
The clarion call issued by Weingarten and Romer is now regularly repeated in the press, most recently by Congressmen George Miller and Dave Obey in USA Today. But before we further mortgage our kids' futures with more deficit-financed dollars, perhaps we should look more closely at what we already spend on public schools, where the money goes, and whether our schools are productive.
The public education establishment has been successful over the past 30 to 40 years in advancing the notion that our schools are underfunded and our teachers underpaid. Several years ago more than half of Americans polled estimated that our public schools spend on average about $5,000 per pupil. At the time, the actual figure was $9,000. Today it's about $10,000, one of the highest levels among industrialized countries in the world.
We're at this level because we've made big investments in education, even after adjusting for inflation. In the mid-1950s, for instance, we spent $2,785 (in 2009 dollars) per pupil on public education. By 1971 that number had almost doubled to $5,341 (again in 2009 dollars), according to education researcher Jay Greene in his book Education Myths. Since 1971 per pupil funding has nearly doubled again (again in real terms) to its current level (Greene's book was published in 2005 and I have updated the numbers by adjusting all of them with current dollars.).
There's been little payoff for much of this spending. Average reading and math scores on national assessment tests for our high school seniors (the ultimate products of our K-12 system) have remained flat since 1973, and there is plenty of research which concludes, according to Greene, that schools "would not perform substantially better if they had more money." Noted political scientist James Q. Wilson, writing in the introduction to Greene's book about the latest research, observes that "we learn once again that increased school spending does not improve student achievement."
Still, we are told by Weingarten that budget cuts "could rob an entire generation of students of the well-rounded education they need and deserve." Yet her call for federal money leaves plenty of things unsaid about the politics of layoffs, in effect placing the burden on solving these problems entirely on taxpayers.
One thing missing from the discussion is just how little teachers themselves are willing to commit to reducing layoffs. In New Jersey, the administration of Gov. Chris Christie estimated that if teachers forgo a 4 percent raise and contribute just 1.5 percent of their salaries to help pay for their very expensive health care coverage, school districts could make up all of the more than $800 million in state education funding cuts and not have to lay off anyone. Most teachers balked at the Christie proposal even though to private sector workers in New Jersey, where pay declined 1.7 percent last year, Christie's demand didn't seem unreasonable. That's one reason why voters defeated nearly 60 percent of school budgets in Jersey this spring.
In New York City, meanwhile, the Bloomberg administration has similarly estimated that cancelling a scheduled 2 percent teacher raise could save more than 4,000 jobs. Not only are teachers' union officials objecting, they are demanding a 4 percent pay hike.
Teachers have also been unyielding about giving up perks and work rules benefits which have driven budgets higher. Consider, for instance, complaints by teachers that layoffs will increase class sizes. In fact, the average public school system in America now employs one teacher for every 15.7 students, down from one for every 17.4 students in 1990, one per 20 in 1980 and one per 25 in 1960.
Today's ratio doesn't reflect actual class sizes because teachers do so much less teaching. In some school systems contracts mandate that teachers can only teach four or five periods in a seven or eight period day. Teachers' union representatives get an hour a day (or more if they are district reps) in some schools to tend to union business on taxpayer time. Elaborate special education mandates, some passed in state capitals by legislators with little education expertise, have further driven up teacher-student ratios with little sense of whether the mandates are actually effective.
Teachers argue that perks are necessary to attract qualified applicants to the profession. But teachers who work an average of 180 days a year are already well compensated, especially when pension and health benefits are included. Greene looked at hourly compensation for elementary public school teachers and estimated they earned about $30.75 an hour, higher than the whole class of private sector "professional specialty" workers, including biologists, civil engineers, chemists and computer system analysts. The gap has probably grown larger in the last few years, given what's happened to private wages.
Moreover, those figures don't reflect pension and health benefits. Several years ago the Employee Research Benefits Institute estimated that the average government worker earns 128 percent more per hour for health care coverage and 168 percent more for pension coverage than the typical private worker. Our public schools now spend nearly $2,000 per pupil on employee benefits, or 20 percent of total expenditures, according to the U.S. Census of Local Government Finances. In 1990, by contrast, schools spent 13 percent of per pupil budgets on benefits.
Years of platitudes about how we have to keep spending ever more on our public schools have given educators an exaggerated sense of privilege, which is one reason they've been so unyielding on these budget issues. And continuing talk of a federal bailout will only make them more recalcitrant. Indeed, the last time I pointed out what teachers earn for nine months work, a number of them e-mailed me arguing it was unfair to calculate their wages on a 9-month basis because they had bills to pay year round like everyone else. This was quite a change from when I was growing up and relatives who taught in public schools also taught summer school, or served as camp counselors, or did tutoring over the summer and then took several weeks of vacation like the vast majority of private workers.
The problem for teachers and their advocates is that they don't realize the extent to which many taxpayers are now revolting against this spending regime, in part because educators keep hearing platitudes from the likes of Romer, Miller and Obey. Instead teachers should pay attention to what's going on at the grass roots level, perhaps best captured by an editorial writer for the Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper, who noted at a recent teacher protest rally that "teachers now look like insensitive, out-of-touch, can't-think-for-themselves union robots who, when forced to face economic realities, clung to an insulting sense of entitlement, heartlessly sacrificed the jobs of colleagues." As one teacher noted at the rally, "It's like we woke up one morning and the world had changed. We were liked and respected, and now, overnight, people have turned against us."
Of course, funding and pay levels vary widely across the country, and some districts are genuinely squeezed by the long recession. But there's a way to address those in trouble by attaching federal aid to spending restraints and reforms, by targeting aid, for instance, to districts where the teacher-to-pupil ratio is already well above the national average, or tying federal money to reforms that build more financial stability into the system, like changes in pension benefit plans that would make them sustainable.
But if instead we allow our educators and their political allies to keep arguing that the next dollar spent is crucial and can't be cut, they'll continue to ignore the kinds of education reforms that really do matter, and for which there is already plenty of money in the system. But that's a subject for another discussion.