The New York Times has a somber editorial today, lamenting the increase in the number of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches, The School Lunch Barometer.
But there is another story here, that, in many ways, is equally distressing: the amount of food that goes to waste. As a recent Chicago Tribune story began,
On visits to lunchrooms in Chicago public schools, the Tribune watched as vast quantities of unpeeled fruit, vegetables, milk cartons and other items got pitched into the garbage.
And, of course, “The district doesn't track how much food gets thrown away.”
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency did look and in a 2010 study, called Digging Deep Through School Trash, discovered that “[t]he most prominent single material generated by schools was food waste, which was 23.9% of the total waste generated.”
This kind of profligate spending should inspire outrage; instead, indifference. According to Ron Haskins in a 2005 report for Education Next, the lunch and breakfast program costs us $10 billion a year. Though I am sure that some children benefit, the program is not so much a food program as it is a poster child for government waste -- and, in this case, a systemic abdication of adult responsibility.
I participate in a lunchtime reading program at one of our schools and so get a close-up view of the problem: children picking at food, eating little, tossing away lots, including, of course, the Styrofoam
The Denver Post recently analyzed the cost of taxpayer subsidies to teacher unions in the 20 largest districts in Colorado and found they added up to more than $1M per year. In many places across the country, school districts pay some or all of the salary and benefits of union presidents and other functionaries who don’t teach for a single hour. The fact that the practice is common doesn’t make it impossible to change, however:
Douglas County Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who started in June 2010, said she cut the district’s payments to union members nearly in half last spring and will end the extra spending altogether in January.
“I’d rather not make comments on the past,” Celania-Fagen said. “Going forward, my responsibility is to do what’s right for our students in these economic circumstances and to be accountable for taxpayer dollars.”
It’s difficult to make an argument that taxpayers should be directly subsidizing union leaders. Organized labor already extracts indirect subsidies by skimming dues from teachers’ paychecks, sometimes against the desires of teachers. Kudos to the Post for shining some light on this. Hopefully the districts they found that don’t track these costs at all will start paying attention in light of the story.
Although state tax collections are on the rise, and have returned to 2008 levels in many places, education advocates shouldn’t kid themselves that the “new normal” of flat budgets and tough resource allocation decisions will soon come to an end. Spending on health care entitlements continues to grow rapidly, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers’ most recent report, while K-12 education loses ground as a share of state budgets.
The education reform community needs to think beyond the next levy referendum when it comes to providing resources to our schools. Health care reform — specifically, containing the cost of entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid — has become a major issue impacting American schools. While a few forward-thinking groups like the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education have grasped this and become active on health care policy in their state capitals, it’s not on most people’s agendas.
Yet the simple arithmetic is unavoidable: Medicaid can’t continue to grow faster than the long-term growth rate of the economy without sucking up more and more of state budgets. Education aid necessarily suffers under any scenario where government continues to pay for rapid, unchecked increases in entitlement spending.
The political reality is equally stark: The AARP and other lobbying groups for recipients of state-financed medical care are very good at protecting these entitlements, and deficit hawks usually form a lonely minority in opposing their demands. Bipartisan reform efforts are beginning to
State Rep. Matt Huffman is trying to build support for a promising effort to expand private school vouchers to more working-class families in Ohio. In order to appease recalcitrant school districts, whose executives vocally oppose the measure, he may remove any benefit youngsters in wealthier districts could hope to get out of the program, however.
Originally, the bill would have granted vouchers of up to $4,626 based on a family’s economic circumstances. But managers in more than 300 school districts have complained about the possible loss of state and local funding, apparently afraid of competition for students’ dollars from the parochial school down the block. Huffman now wants to limit the amount of each voucher to the total per-pupil aid the child’s school district receives from the state. This means that children in property-rich suburbs, where a growing number of poor families are concentrated, could get just a few hundred bucks a year when they leave for a private school, while many thousands of dollars stay with the school district.
It’s hard to imagine a worse trade-off: Districts get to keep the cash without providing services, while poor and working-class parents in the ‘burbs are forced to scrimp and save even more than their urban counterparts to have some measure of control over their children’s education. Choice-friendly legislators and advocacy groups in Ohio should ask themselves, who are the state’s education dollars intended to benefit: school budget officers, or kids?
- Stretching the School Dollar
- Common Core Watch
- Ohio Gadfly Daily
- Board's Eye View
- Choice Words
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Chris Tessone was a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Director of Finance of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He has strong interests in governance and education finance, especially teacher compensation and school facilities finance.