No business would consider a sharp spending increase and employee hiring spree while customer numbers plummet. But that’s exactly what the federal government did with education. From March 2020 to March 2021, upwards of $201.2 billion were poured into K-12 public schools despite the number of students declining by one and a half million. The three percent enrollment drop, the largest in decades, resulted from parents’ pulling students from schools that refused to provide on-campus education.
Massive taxpayer dollars went into a public school system already beset with financial mismanagement and a bloated bureaucracy that eats nearly half of the funds before reaching the classroom.
Nationwide, there are four times as many administrators in our K-12 public education system than in the 1950s. As just one example of the inefficiency, the school administration in Newark, New Jersey, gobbles up more than $10,000 of the $20,000 spent per student. And what benefit is realized from the middleman’s absorption of these astronomical funds? Student education outcomes have remained flat for decades despite the enormous funding and personnel increases.
Imagine an alternative approach in which the bureaucracy was cut. Also, consider if state funding was allocated to the school rather than to the district. Principals would gain direct control over educational outcomes and more accountability for personnel decisions. Teachers and parents would also be empowered to contribute to educational governance.
In addition, teacher tenure is out of hand. By employing strong-arm tactics, teacher unions have negotiated contract terms that make it exceedingly difficult to fire teachers, no matter how poor their performance.
For example, in 2015, the New York State School Boards Association reported that “firing an incompetent teacher on average takes 830 days and costs $313,000.” That’s over two full school years of students being subjected to an incompetent teacher. New York City, the largest school district in the nation, dismissed only 12 teachers for incompetence between 1997 to 2007.
The high cost of firing a teacher has led to other creative ways to keep incompetent teachers out of the classroom, but this has its own drawbacks. In New York City, some teachers who can’t be fired due to the highly restrictive teacher union contracts are assigned to “Temporary Reassignment Centers.” In 2009, more than 600 New York City teachers reported to the Temporary Reassignment Centers dubbed “Rubber Rooms.”
Important to note, these “teachers” received their full salary and retirement contributions, and accumulation of seniority. By 2010, the teachers in Rubber Rooms in New York City cost taxpayers $30 million a year.
Beyond the Rubber Room, Joel Klein, former chancellor of New York City’s public schools, exposes another enormously wasteful procedure dictated by the teacher union contract. As of 2010, more than $100 million was spent annually on upwards of 1,000 New York City teachers who were paid full-time to work as substitutes or to perform administrative duties when no principal wanted to hire them full-time.
Alas, New York City is not an outlier with these absurd union policies. Similar reports of the deleterious effects of teacher unions on K-12 education pour in from around the country regularly.
The response to Covid-19 during the past eighteen months has undeniably exposed the teacher unions’ adult-driven agenda. This was seen especially in the stark contrast between public and private schools. Public school teachers stayed home, with teacher union leaders claiming it was unsafe for their members to show up for work. One might ask, how can we claim to value the education of our children (nearly 51 million of which were enrolled in public school when doors were shut) while treating their foundational educational years as nonessential?
On the other hand, private schools treated school families as what they rightly are: valued customers. The schools solicited their inputs and responded by opening their doors to in-person schooling. And they did it safely, without any widespread Covid-19 outbreaks. Many provided an online option for those who desired it.
Evidently, with more time on their hands, the largest teacher union in the U.S., the National Education Association (NEA), made public relations the priority during school closures. Rather than focusing on student needs, the NEA spent more than $2.3 million on media campaigns in a dozen states to boost their image and promote their agenda. Despite the $800 billion annual funding (before adding in the additional $201.2 billion Covid-19 funding).
While some teachers aren’t paid adequately for their excellent work, performance incentives should be implemented instead of basing teacher pay simply on seniority.
The good news is public support for educational choice is at an all-time high of 74 percent. In the wake of Covid-19, even Democrat support of school choice has risen from 59 to 70 percent. Within the first five months of 2021, 30 states put forth over 50 school choice bills. As a result, tax-credit scholarships, private school vouchers, and education savings accounts will provide parents in many states with an opportunity to “take their business elsewhere.”
• Dr. Keri D. Ingraham is a Fellow at Discovery Institute and Director of the Institute’s American Center for Transforming Education.