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?
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.
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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.