School Finance

I nearly choked on my morning coffee when I read this quote from Mayor Michael Bloomberg's New York Times op-ed on public sector unions:

But unions also play a vital role in protecting against abuses in the workplace, and in my experience they are integral to training, deploying and managing a professional work force.

Bloomberg made his billions with Bloomberg LP, his financial data and analysis firm. Are the programmers and financial analysts there unionized? I bet not. Historically, unions protected minimally skilled workers; outside of the public sector, they've had little to do with protecting and developing professional workers. Now that public-sector unions have enormous leverage over state and local governments, however, they're not going to roll over and take a back seat because Democratic politicians ask nicely.

The rhetoric from some progressive politicians and policy wonks on public-sector unions is verging on the absurd. The message seems to be "we need strong unions, but let's get rid of all the costly practices they fight for." Good luck with that, Mayor Mike.

—Chris Tessone

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Say you're a top-performing senior majoring in chemistry at Lawrence or Ripon. You're thinking about becoming a high school science teacher. Would you prefer a $35,000 salary with two pensions and health care benefits in retirement, or would you rather have a 25% higher salary and benefits similar to those your friends going into the private sector receive? Odds are you'd prefer the latter ? especially if, like most young grads, you realize the vast majority of people do not have a 30 year career in one profession these days. You'd rather have more cash to pay down students loans and make your own decisions about how to plan for retirement.

Yet most teacher compensation systems look like the first option. According to an oped in today's Wall Street Journal by the University of Arkansas' Bob Costrell, for every dollar Milwaukee teachers receive in salary, the public is spending another 74 cents on gold-plated benefits ? almost three times the cost of benefits in the private sector. The cost of those benefits, which are skewed dramatically in the direction of older teachers close to retirement, lowers starting salaries and takes choices away from workers.

This tradeoff between benefits and salary doesn't come up much in our discussions of teacher quality, but it should. Most young workers are not attracted by low starting salaries and the faint promise of retirement benefits long into the future. The growing mobility of workers argues for more flexible compensation systems.

The...

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As union protests in Madison, Columbus, and elsewhere loop continuously on cable TV, it cannot be easy to be an education-reform-minded Democrat. They're honorable folks; their commitment to bold education reform seems genuine; and they've generally been willing to push for a host of promising changes in policy and practice that rub teacher unions the wrong way. (Well, not vouchers!) They've been reasonably candid in fingering those same unions as obstacles to programs and initiatives that put kids' interests first.

At the same time, most of them have labored?especially the elected officials and wannabes?not to burn all their union bridges. Some of the most prominent of them (starting with Messrs. Obama and Duncan) have even created opportunities to ?reach out? to union leaders with encouraging words if not actual hugs. And the many billions shoveled from Washington into public-education coffers these last two years?billions devoted almost entirely to preserving teacher jobs?have gone a long way to salve whatever wounds were caused by support for charter schools, achievement-linked teacher evaluations, etc. The basic stance of reform-minded Democrats vis-?-vis the unions seems to be ?tough love??and it's no stretch to observe that the signs of love have exceeded (certainly in cash value) the tough bits.

Now it's getting harder for them. The 2010 elections combined with staggering federal and state deficits to spell a ?new normal? for reform-minded Democrats. The ?tough love? strategy is vastly harder to pull off?especially the love part?and they've now got to choose...

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The Midwest is in turmoil over proposed changes to state laws that deal with collective-bargaining rights and pensions for public-sector employees, including teachers and other school personnel (as well as police officers, state employees, and more). Madison looks like Cairo, Indianapolis like Tunis, and Columbus like Bahrain, with thousands demonstrating, chanting slogans, and pressing their issues. (Fortunately, nobody has opened fire or dropped ???small bombs??? as in Tripoli.) Economics are driving this angst: How should these states deal with their wretched fiscal conditions and how should the pain be distributed?

To address these problems, Republican lawmakers and governors have proposed major changes to collective-bargaining laws and pension systems. In Ohio, Senate Bill 5 would continue to afford teachers the right to bargain collectively over wages, hours, and other conditions of employment. But the bill would also make profound alterations to the status quo, including: requiring all public-school employees to contribute at least 20 percent of the premiums for their health-insurance plan; removing from collective bargaining???and entrusting to management???such issues as class size and personnel placement; prohibiting continuing contracts and effectively abolishing tenure; removing seniority as the sole determinant for layoffs and requiring that teacher performance be the primary factor; and abolishing automatic step increases in salary.

Not surprisingly, these changes are being fiercely resisted by the Buckeye State's teachers, their unions, and their political allies. Battle lines are forming, and we at Fordham???as veteran advocates for ???smart cuts??? and ???stretching the school dollar??????have been drawn...

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More bad news for charters in DC ? according to the Post's Bill Turque, Mayor Vincent Gray will hold the city's Uniform Per Student Funding Formula constant and cut the facilities allowance to public charter schools by $200 a head in order to help close a budget gap of over half a billion dollars.

Of course, school funding in Washington is far from "uniform." Retirement funding for DCPS teachers falls outside the formula, the city spends hundreds more per student on capital projects for traditional public schools than the $2,800 per student available to charters, and DCPS receives revenue from other city agencies outside the formula. Last year's Ball State study of charter school funding assessed the gap between DCPS and the charter sector in DC at over $12,000 per student in the 2006-07 school year.

Despite this sizable funding gap, the District's charter schools have performed at least as well as traditional district schools, with several star charter operators doing much better. They're doing more with a lot less and should be encouraged both for the choices they provide to parents here and for their admirable efficiency. Instead, Mayor Gray has decided it's "fair" to cut support for highly efficient schools of choice as much or more than support for less efficient district schools. That seems like a missed opportunity to save money in the long run and drive better outcomes for kids.

?Chris Tessone...

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Education politics just got weirder: liberals are now for "local control," and Tea Party conservatives are against it. At least that one's way to read the situation in Madison. [quote]

Everyone knows that school reform has long foundered at the local school district level. Powerful teachers unions, with the help of state and national behemoths, get their friends and allies elected to the boards with whom they negotiate. Those boards--whether out of niceness, naivete, or negligence--make promises that taxpayers can't afford. Education spending goes up, and productivity goes down.

Governor Scott Walker wants to change that equation by taking certain issues off the bargaining table. This has been characterized as union-busting or political advantage seeking--and perhaps it is. But fundamentally it's a vote of no confidence in local school boards--for if they could be counted on to put the public's interest first, the state of Wisconsin wouldn't need to tie their hands in terms of the salaries or benefits they could offer.

It's true that Walker's proposal isn't the only solution to the problem of political imbalance at the local level. Instead, he might have called on his Tea Party supporters to take local boards by storm by getting themselves elected--and then pushing a harder bargain at the negotiating table. Alternatively, he might have called for a statewide teachers contract, as one prominent commission did a few years ago, so that the public could be represented by a serious advocate (himself).

But his approach--defanging the...

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I suppose it shouldn't be surprising that some teachers--facing layoffs, pay freezes, and the rest--would strike out in violence. But it's inexcusable all the same. See today's story from Idaho:

The night after Idaho's school chief publicly detailed changes to his plan to overhaul the state's K-12 education system, vandals spray-painted his truck and slashed two of its tires as it was parked outside his home.

He was heckled a few hours later at a coffee shop, and he says he filed a police report after an angry teacher showed up at his 71-year-old mother's home over the weekend.

Debate over Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's plans to restructure how Idaho's scarce education dollars are spent have dominated the legislative session this year, and emotions have been running high at legislative hearings and in public.

In the latest incident, Luna said he woke up before dawn Tuesday and found his name painted on the truck with a slash through the letters.

"I'm not pointing any fingers at any individuals or groups, but there's no doubt in my mind" the vandalism involved the reforms, he told The Associated Press. Nampa police are investigating and have not yet determined a motive or identified any suspects, Deputy Chief Craig Kingsbury said.

I worked with Tom at the U.S. Department of Education; he's a sweet man pushing a very mainstream reform agenda. If this can happen in Idaho, what can we look forward to in strong union...

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The Hechinger Report and the Education Writers Association have teamed up with Michele McNeil, Education Week's federal policy editor, to produce a comprehensive report on the impact of the gargantuan education stimulus program from two years ago ? the largest one-time investment ever ? and found: ?not so much. ?

Reporters from 36 news outlets in 27 states spent nearly three months examining the impact thus far of this historic influx of cash. Interviewing scores of students, teachers, researchers and education officials at all levels of government, participating reporters set out to determine how the nation's schools are actually spending the money and whether the changes it sparks are likely to last. They found that the stimulus package's long-term impact on public education is far from certain. Indeed, many of the resulting policy changes are already endangered by political squabbles and the massive budget shortfalls still facing recession-battered state and local governments.

Though there are a few bright spots in the report, the overall message is that our public school systems, burdened by bureaucracy, mandates, strings, labor contracts, and indecision, have a?tough time making financial decisions that improve student achievement. It's not exactly pouring good money after bad, but it's clear that most educators haven't read Stretching The School Dollar. ?And now that the money is gone ? see what's happening in Texas ? only the smart ones will survive.? Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin.

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow...

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