As I was reading Richard Vinen’s op-ed about Margaret Thatcher from this weekend’s New York Times, I couldn’t help but think of Florida’s beleaguered governor. Rick Scott ran as a staunch Tea Partier dead set on getting public spending under control, cutting $1.35B from the state’s education budget last year. With the 2012 elections looming, however, Scott has suffered a crisis of nerves, calling for a billion in new money for education — and no new reforms of note — in an effort to improve his flagging popularity. He has turned to the kind of likability-oriented politics that Thatcher eschewed in her program to remake 1980s Britain.
Scott is not alone. After losing a ballot measure over his signature public-sector reform, Ohio’s John Kasich declared, “It’s time to pause,” despite the fact that voters largely support the education reform portions of the law. Where 2011 was defined by tough discussions about how to balance competing state-level priorities in an era of austerity — with teacher unions frequently on the losing end of those battles — many politicians gearing up for 2012 are striking a softer tone. (By contrast, the bipartisan duo of Chris Christie in New Jersey and Andrew Cuomo in New York have made progress, if haltingly, toward reform of the public sector, and both seem braced for productive work in 2012.)
Sweeping problems under the rug would be a mistake, however. The growing pressure
Charged up by our governance conference last week, Dave DeSchryver says we should open the black box of school finances and shine some much needed light on how school dollars are really spent. This kind of accountability, with some easy-to-use tools along the lines of Mint.com, is sorely needed as education budgets have ballooned out of control.
But hoping that district leaders will be shamed into spending more frugally is not enough. How do I know? Because even when they’re required to report on financial problems publicly, district leaders and politicians are utterly shameless in nearly all cases, tinkering around the edges rather than facing facts.
Take Montgomery County, Maryland. Last week the county released a report showing the school district’s pension costs have increased by 369 percent over the past eight years. The state pays for teacher pensions, but the county is on the hook for everyone else’s plan. The council president claims this is “a huge cause for concern,” but no one is seriously considering changes to build a better retirement system. They’re pushing for quick fixes, increasing teacher contributions to a fundamentally unsustainable program.
School spending needs more than a technical fix. More transparency could help create pressure, and weighted student funding could give parents more perceived “skin in the game” by tying a dollar amount to their own child’s education. In the end, though, we need political coalitions of taxpayers and parents who are angry
Two-thirds of schools in the UK were closed for a day recently as teachers went on strike over proposed changes to pensions. Unions are trying to force the government’s hand during negotiations over contributions to the pension system, which has become unaffordable (there as here in the US) due to rising life expectancy and rules that permit retirement as early as 55.
The UK’s schools minister, Nick Gibb, didn’t mince words in condemning the strike:
Mr Gibb said: “Strikes benefit no-one – they will disrupt pupils’ education, hugely inconvenience parents, and damage teachers’ reputation.
“It’s irresponsible to strike while negotiations are ongoing. Many parents will struggle to understand why schools are closed when the pension deal on the table means that teachers will still be better rewarded than the vast majority of workers in the private sector.
“Reforms to public sector pensions are essential – the status quo is not an option. The cost to the taxpayer of teacher pensions is already forecast to double from £5bn in 2006 to £10bn in 2016, and will carry on rising rapidly as life expectancy continues to improve.
A major impediment to improving outcomes for disadvantaged children in the nation’s schools is misallocation of the more than $600 billion we spend annually on K-12 education. Marguerite Roza from CRPE and Cindy Brown from the Center for American Progress brought up this very point at our governance conference this morning. (Live feed is here if you want to tune in.)
The Department of Education just released a national study (pdf) confirming with hard data what many experts have said for years: rigid salary schedules established are a major source of inequity within school districts. (It’s important to stress that this is not a “loophole,” but a carefully structured policy embedded in most contracts at the behest of teacher unions.) Here’s CAP’s Cindy Brown in the New York Times:
A few researchers have documented the problem with statewide data in Florida and some other states, said Cynthia Brown, a vice president at the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group. “But I’m excited because this is the first time that data documenting the problem has ever been collected on a nationwide basis,” she said. “Many of us have known for a long time that in some individual districts the high-poverty schools weren’t getting their fair share of state and local funds.”
As Marguerite Roza said this morning at our conference, the way we spend money
- 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.