“We’re laying off teachers in droves,” President Obama told a crowd recently. “It makes no sense. It has to stop.” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, echoed the president’s call: “Teachers out of work through no fault of their own and students who desperately need a good education are relying on us to act.” The president and Democrats in Congress are arguing that without another big spending package from Congress, this education “disaster” will get even worse.
Sound familiar? You may recall the so-called “Bill With No Name,” a $26 billion bailout of the states and their teachers union contracts that was passed so quickly it was never named. Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, thundered then, “If we fail to pass this bill, hundreds of thousands of teachers and firefighters will lose their jobs.” Or maybe you heard it in 2009 when the president claimed his “stimulus” bill was about “keeping teachers in the classroom.”
Just how bad is this disaster in education? Not bad. State and local education employment has increasedsince this time last year. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment among teachers has fallen since last year from 6.3 percent to 5.7 percent, one of the lowest unemployment rates for any sector.
True, some teachers have lost their jobs since the start of the recession. But is more federal stimulus the answer? We can answer definitively, “No.” Federal dollars are rarely used efficiently because they either come with so many bureaucratic strings attached that they end up paying for the hiring of as many administrators as teachers, or they go toward higher compensation for unionized, already-employed teachers, whose interests unions always advocate regardless of merit.
Consider the case of the Fayetteville school district in northwestern Arkansas. After the district received stimulus money, administrators decided to double teacher pay rather than hire new employees. The “program” was marketed as helping “at-risk students” younger than 9. The teachers were paid $8,000 for 12 days of teaching and three days of preparation. This type of abuse is practically guaranteed when federal bureaucrats dish out money to local districts.
The fact is that a lot of jobs in the education sector go to administrators who navigate the bureaucratic tangles created by federal and state involvement in public education. During the late 1990s, for example, Michigan education spending increased by about 7 percent while administrative costs shot up by nearly 18 percent. It happens everywhere. New Jersey spends nearly $3,000 per pupil on administrative costs, salaries and benefits, which accounts for almost 24 percent of total costs. One school district in Texas with just 7,000 students was until recently paying its superintendent more than $350,000 a year.
Nor are teachers underpaid when compared with their direct peers - another reason advanced for more stimulus spending on education. A Heritage Foundation/American Enterprise Institute study finds that once teacher-specific benefits are included, such as retiree health care and job security, the average teacher is paid 52 percent more than he would make in the private sector.
That is not to say all teachers are overpaid. Young teachers are certainly underpaid and do not get the benefits of job security and retiree health care benefits. Yet the culprit here is the teachers unions, which have insisted on a system that rewards established teachers at the expense of younger ones, regardless of which teachers are more effective.
This also amplifies the strain on school budgets because schools have to let go of a lot of younger teachers to retain a few higher-paid, older teachers. When education commissioners, such as Joel Klein in New York City or Michelle A. Rhee in the District have attempted to redress this imbalance, they have been viciously targeted by the teachers unions.
The problem with our education system is not money but the system itself. Significant reform is needed to reduce bureaucracy and reduce the unions’ stranglehold. A good start would be the abolition of the federal Department of Education and stifling mandates such as those in the No Child Left Behind Act. Then state and local governments can sort out the system on their own, directing more money to where it is most needed rather to where it is most politically expedient. The last thing our children need is another “stimulus” to shore up our rotten education establishment.
Iain Murray is a vice president and David Bier is a research associate at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.