THE REAL PRIORITY OF PUBLIC EDUCATION
By Bill Sizemore
The primary purpose of the public education system is to increase school budgets and enhance the salaries and benefits of school employees. Kids and education rank somewhere around third and fourth in the list of priorities.
Several years ago, in a debate with then Portland School Superintendent Jack Bierworth, I asked the superintendent how much it should cost to educate a child in Oregon. I thought taxpayers should have a goal, so they would know when they finally were spending enough on schools.
As anticipated, Mr. Bierwirth declined to answer my question. Why? Because no matter how much the educational bureaucracy receives, it always wants the door left open to ask for more. In fact, I have concluded after nearly three decades of working in the public policy arena that you could double the money schools currently receive and they would be lobbying for more within a year or two.
Several years before the exchange with Superintendent Bierwirth, an earlier Portland Superintendent, Matthew Prophet, told a statewide television audience that if Measure Five (a 1990 measure limiting property taxes) passed, the next day he would have to give pink slips to every teacher in the district. Two days later, voters ignored Mr. Prophet and voted to cut their property taxes.
The following year, 1991, rather than laying off all its teachers as Mr. Prophet had threatened, the Portland School District’s budget increased approximately 19 percent in just one year! Of course, 1991’s extraordinary spike in funding became the new standard by which future years’ funding would be judged and the groaning from school activists began afresh.
Today, we spend more than $10,000 per year per student on public education in Oregon, and that’s not including capital expenditures for new buildings and school busses. Private schools, on the other hand, generally spend less than half that amount, typically in the $4,000 to $4,500 range and rarely ask parents for substantial increases in tuition. Go figure.
Currently, K-12 public education in Oregon consumes nearly half of all state income tax dollars and about a third of all property taxes levied, and still it is not enough. School spending in Oregon and in most of the country is like a giant, miraculous sponge that cannot be filled, try as we might.
The giant sponge in Oregon, however, is about to be squeezed a bit. Due to the current economic “slump,” the state economist is forecasting a substantial decrease in state revenue for the next two year budget cycle. This time we’re not talking the usual “pretend” decrease that politicians always claim, but rather a real decrease in revenue, something that almost never happens.
Can Oregon schools absorb their share of the coming cuts? Absolutely. Will they do so responsibly and with calm? Probably not. It is never in a public entity’s interest to absorb budget cuts quietly. The teachers unions and school activists will moan and groan about the cuts and pretend its all about the kids. But as you will see, it’s not.
Approximately, 82-85 percent of a school district’s budget is spent on employee salaries and benefits. Granted, education is a labor intensive activity, so to some extent a high percentage is to be expected. Nonetheless, spending 85 percent on employees doesn’t leave a lot left to pay for basics like textbooks, maintenance, utilities, fuel, fire insurance and liability insurance. However, when you distill it all down, it’s not so much high salaries, but the employee benefit packages that are sinking the ship.
Health insurance for school employees is the best money can buy. Perhaps we can live with that. That’s a typical perk enjoyed by public sector workers almost everywhere. The real problem is the pensions. While employee health benefits are the best money can buy, their pensions are more than money can buy and in fact are so out of line that they are about to collapse the entire house of cards.
Career teachers in Oregon routinely retire with pensions substantially greater than their highest working salaries. They literally make more when they quit. When a teacher retires (at an average age of 58) and receives a pension greater than his or her highest working salary, schools must hire someone else to do their job. For the next eight years schools essentially must spend double for the years the teacher still should have been on the job.
Of course schools struggle to buy new textbooks and fund music, art, drama, and sports programs. You can’t spend billions of dollars every year so teachers can retire at age 58 on contribution-free pensions that are greater than their highest working salary and not affect the kids. And you definitely can’t say kids are your highest priority when the facts shout out that teacher pensions are more important than educating kids.
While private sector employers are spending on the average four percent of salaries on pension benefits, Oregon schools are spending more than 30 percent, and that’s not including social security. (The national average spent on public sector pensions is an astounding 18 percent and Oregon spends much more than that.)
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If teachers and other public employees across Oregon would voluntarily agree through their unions to bring their pensions back in line with reason, schools could weather this storm without cutting school days or programs, and law enforcement authorities could keep more of the bad guys in jail. Do you think there’s any chance of that happening? I don’t. It’s not about the kids and hasn’t been for a long time.
� 2009 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved