Monday, June 2, 2014

Cato: Why Are Schools Too Expensive?

In 2005, David Salisbury published a paper for the Cato Institute entitled "Saving Money and Improving Education: How School Choice Can Help States Reduce Education Costs." As the title suggests, the paper supports school choice as the solution for a particular problem. I've considered the solution elsewhere, and so today I'm just looking at Cato's conception of the problem. Even though the paper is a decade old, it tells us more than a little bit about right wing thinky tank thinking in this area.

Back in 2005, of course, Cato was still a libertarian think tank and not part of the Koch Brothers PR machine. Salisbury's title was director of the Center for Educational Freedom (because if there's anything that has always characterized American public education, it is bondage and slavery). The problem that he set out to solve in this paper was a simple one-- schools cost too damn much tax money.

Salisbury proposes three reasons that schools are increasingly costly.

Increasing Number of Employees

Between 1988 and 1998, public education employment grew faster than student enrollment, faster than the private sector. The student-teacher ration has been dropping steadily, and government figures indicate that the trend has continued since 2005. Salisbury offers charts and graphs to make this point for visual learners, but I never really doubted him for a second on this one.

In the more recent past, school-age population has dipped in many areas, but school districts have been reluctant to cut staff, so the ratio goes up. Additionally, the trend over the past thirty years has been a parade of regulations and court cases that result in mandates for more of certain staff. Aides, para-teachers, teachers all have to be added to meet the legal requirements for serving certain populations.

Additionally, growth in nominally public charter schools creates more teacher job openings. Twenty five students previously put in one classroom might now be spread out over three different classrooms (one more way in which choice systems do not save money).

Beyond teachers, we see growth in administrations to cope with additional regulation. Most school districts in the last forty years have added at least one Official In Charge of Nothing But Filling Out Government Paperwork and Accounting.

Artificially High Labor Costs

Those are Salisbury's words, and don't they just say volumes. Salisbury compares public school teachers to private school teachers, and since private school teachers are paid less, we must conclude that public school teachers are paid too much. There is also a comparison to other professions based on hourly rates which strike me as wonky, but I don't have access to the data necessary to see what exactly is going on there. So why are public school teachers paid these unnatural wages? Salisbury cites the influence of the union, and names three techniques as "likely" culprits.

1) Negotiations. Because, I guess, there should be no negotiations for wages. Teachers should just take what's offered and be done with it.

2) Political pressure. It's not immediately clear to me where the political pressure appears in teacher wages, other than unions occasionally use political clout to help elect politicians who don't totally want to screw teachers over. This really hasn't been working all that well lately.

3) Threat of strikes. Again, I'm not sure how much impact this has these days. It certainly isn't a factor in states where the possibility of a strike has been more-than-sufficiently counterbalanced by the possibility that any teacher can be fired at any time for any reason.

But these are the three problems that need to be solved in order to solve the problem of too-high wages for teachers. It's funny, because when a CEO negotiates a new salary with the corporate board that has been packed with his powerful friends and threatens to walk away if he doesn't get what he wants, I don't hear a lot of right-wing squawking about how unnatural the CEO wages are.

When the banksters in the wake of the Wall Street-induced financial meltdown negotiated heavily by twisting every political arm they could touch with money, saying that their positions and insitutions had to be preserved or else-- that wasn't considered unnatural, either.

No, in the corporate world, the rule is that you use whatever tools you have, and however much money you wring out of the process is, by definition, what you're entitled to. I have to conclude is that what's unnatural here is the working classes daring to use similar tools.

Patterns of Teacher Retention

In the last decade, lots of reformsters have implied it, but here Salisbury comes right out and says it-- the fact that teachers stay in the profession for a lifetime is a problem. The fact that longevity leads to better pay is a problem. To control costs, we need to either churn teaching staff regularly or not pay them more for staying.

You can see pretty plainly in this paper a layout of the problems to be attacked, and in the last decade reformsters have certainly attacked these issues with everything they've got. They have worked out a variety of attacks on the "bloated labor costs" and the unions that create them, giving us everything from TFA temps to full frontal assaults of tenure destruction and no-raise teaching. In North Carolina, legislators propose to end teaching as a profession-- there's some real cost control for you.

Because public schools are just too damn expensive.

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