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Public School Cronyism is Fueling the Pension Crisis

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Under the guise of improving the quality of instruction, parent-dominated boards of education, PTAs, and other community groups tolerate increasingly generous compensation packages for teachers and school administrators, as well as flexible work rules and lax financial oversight. In return, educators deem an ever-expanding number of extracurricular activities and family services as “educationally necessary,” providing them at low to no cost.

These include taxpayer subsidized daycare, eclectic sports programs, holiday “socials,” inexpensive summer camps run out of public school buildings, and a variety of student perks, such as pottery and ballet lessons, cafeteria pasta bars, and media centers with state-of-the-art video equipment. It is not unusual for suburban high schools outside of major cities to have as many electives as a small college, with for-credit courses in jewelry making, computer animation, and the history of television.

While it’s easy to mistake this parent-teacher backscratching for the kind social harmony that community newspapers exist to brag about, school booster cronyism has long triggered the resentment of residents who either have no children or who pay after-tax dollars to educate their own through homeschooling, private academies, and online curricula. From their perspective, the ever-growing cost of local K-12 education is a thinly veiled racket designed to exploit primarily themselves.

Exactly how much is extracted from households without district children is hard to calculate, but a little math on typical numbers for affluent communities illustrates the complaint. A family paying, say, $10,000 annually in local property taxes and sending three children to public school at a per pupil cost of $9,000 nets a yearly gain of $17,000 in goods and services from the larger community.

Even among public school parents, some gripe privately about district priorities, which almost always favor mainstream pupils at the expense of exceptionally talented students and those with learning disabilities. Other parents are disappointed to discover that their higher status zip codes are no guarantee of higher academic standards.


The problem for all these dissatisfied sub-groups is that over time school booster cronyism has produced some very effective techniques for silencing would-be critics. These include everything from packing public hearings on district budgets with vocal sympathizers to, as University of Missouri professor J. Martin Rochester puts it, “collectively demonizing” those who complain too loudly about how the schools are run.

As suggested by the title of his book, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Stanford professor emeritus Larry Cuban believes that administrators in affluent districts have become adept at using the latest technology to create a “leading edge” aura without making any real academic improvements. If they wanted to, he says, “curricula, teaching methods, and schedules [could easily] be customized to meet the learning styles and life situations of individual students” and “coursework from the most remedial to the most advanced [could] be made available to everyone.” But such advances are rarely, if ever, implemented.


This growing split between parents and educators is likely only to deepen as the pension pressure on district budgets exposes decades of administrative fraud and abuse. As Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Jonathan Butcher has observed, the historical tendency of education boards to indulge lax accounting standards has been an open invitation to racketeering—everything from pilfering field trip money to payroll padding to massive kickbacks for expensive school services such as insurance and heating oil. And while the possibility of such corruption has rarely bothered parent-run civic groups in the past, the coming excavation of wrongdoing will make any reconciliation difficult.

Even the most well-intentioned pension solutions from both left- and right-wing policy groups seem to just aggravate the situation. In Connecticut, for example, a recent proposal by civil rights organizations to generate savings by consolidating the administrations of big city schools with those in adjacent districts quickly prompted suburban parents to mobilize against it. They feared that any kind of regionalization would give cities the same financial leverage over suburbs as they themselves now enjoy over local taxpayers without kids in school.

And while the Left has been pushing school consolidation, think tanks on the Right have been showing parents how to solve their pension problems with modest school choice programs targeted to special needs, uniquely talented, and other student populations. A 2014 report by the EdChoice Foundation, which examined the 10 largest school voucher programs in the United States, found that each participating student saved his or her community an average of $3,400 annually. Two years later, another fiscal analysis by EdChoice—this time of 10 programs in seven states that allowed tax credits for private schooling—revealed identical economies. Unsurprisingly, teachers unions remain dead set against any program, however limited, that sends public funds to private schools.

For decades, affluent school districts have been characterized by self-serving alliances of parents and teachers, who use the system to achieve non-academic goals. No doubt this collusion goes back to a time when farsighted parents joined forces with educators to persuade the rest of their neighbors to subsidize universal schooling—but that goal was achieved long ago. Today, the ill-advised willingness of both factions to spend money that was promised to pension funds has finally backfired…with fiscal, political, and educational consequences that no one can predict.

Another ticking time bomb set to go off.


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