D. Dowd Muska

 

Welcome to the Great Recession, Educrats

March 31, 2011

The West Mifflin, Pennsylvania school district is laying off 52 employees. The Houston Independent School District let 90 staffers, mostly literacy coaches, go. Government schools in Jefferson County, Colorado are considering 212 layoffs. The immense school district in Clark County, Nevada, might reduce salaries by 8 percent and pink-slip 2,500 employees.

It’s taken several years, but educrats are finally being forced to confront the economic and fiscal realities of the Great Recession. The Obama administration’s “stimulus” kitty is nearly depleted, and state governments are rolling back subsidies. School boards and superintendents have no choice but to target personnel costs, the biggest expense in their budgets.

Education-union rhetoric, never subtle, is increasingly shrill: If there really are funding gaps, then the answer is simple. Raise taxes on the rich. We do a helluva job teaching Americas children. Public schools are essential investments in our future, and cutbacks of any kind would be devastating.

The numbers tell a different story.

Examine data from just the last decade -- going back to the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s would be too depressing -- and you’ll see how desperately the education monopoly needs a right-sizing.

The U.S. Census Bureau (USCB) generates an annual record of state- and local-government employment. Between 1999 and 2009, the number of teachers grew by 17.7 percent, from 4.06 million to 4.78 million. Non-instructional employees fared better, rising from 1.72 million to 2.11 million, a hike of 22.3 percent.

Certainly, you note, enrollment rose between 1999 and 2009. Correct -- according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, in 2009, the pupil population was 5.9 percent higher than a decade earlier.

In other words, overall government-school employment grew 3.3 times faster than enrollment. Labor efficiency, it seems, is unachievable for “professional educators.”

Wait, it gets scarier. Adjusted for inflation, monthly wages for the average educrat during the period soared from $2,863 to $3,847. That’s growth of 34.4 percent, progress that wasn’t matched by broad measures of national economic well-being such as the average wage, median wage, and median household income. Even worse, the USCB’s figure tracks “salaries, wages, fees, commissions, bonuses, or awards paid to employees during the pay period” -- not all compensation, such as healthcare and pensions. Throw in benefits, and the disparity is greater.

Were all the new hires and pay hikes worth it? You be the judge. Reading proficiency for 17-year-olds, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is stagnant. So is aptitude in math. Graduates who leave government’s secondary schools are unprepared for higher education. The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey found that “only about 58 percent of bachelor’s seekers finish their programs within six years, if at all,” and “[l]iteracy levels among people with degrees are low and falling.”

Out-of-control compensation. Poor performance. And increasingly, waste and misconduct. As Armand Fusco, Ed.D. has documented, government schools have a serious corruption problem. Inept oversight by local and state officials contributes to dodgy expenditures and outright fraud. A recent audit of Seattle Public Schools found that it “spent $280,000 for work that wasn’t done or didn’t benefit the district and paid $1.5 million for questionable services.” Teachers aren’t blameless, either. All-too-common sex scandals grab headlines, but inappropriate behavior takes other forms. The school board in Mobile, Alabama recently approved a social-media policy, after a male teacher conveyed disparaging comments about his colleagues to a female student through Facebook.

Decades before the arrival of cavernous government deficits, clear-thinking analysts concluded that government schools operate for the enrichment of employees, not the edification of pupils. The education monopoly siphons ever-higher amounts of tax revenue, fails to produce competent students, and lacks accountability measures that are standard in the private sector.

Layoffs will cut costs. Meaningful reforms, including transparency measures, charter schools, and limits on the scope of collective bargaining, show promise. But the ultimate answer to the nation’s education quandary remains a return to the private sector -- charitable support for low-income families, tuition for the parents who can afford it. Unbearable property-tax burdens would vanish. State spending would fall. And the $70.9 billion boondoggle that is the U.S. Department of Education? Gone.

No longer insulated from the economic carnage that has impacted tens of millions of households, teachers and school administrators are enraged. They’re staging protests, lobbying legislatures, and threatening lawsuits. Yet it’s the people who pay the bills who deserve to be angry. Looted by an education system that promises much, delivers little, and charges an unaffordable price, taxpayers should have no pity for newly unemployed educrats.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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