Monday, February 14, 2011

Paying for School Funding Flaw?

When it comes to lowering taxes, everybody thinks they know the solution: cutting costs.

Including me. Last Friday, in the interest of helping save school districts money, and thereby stave off a tax increase or another round of teacher layoffs, I floated the unlikely idea that sports programming should be funded by professional sports leagues. Not taxpayers.

But as I researched the numbers involved in paying for, say, bilingual education programs, I began to wonder if I was falling into the same trap everybody else is: assuming that we can cut our way out of these fiscal problems.

Budget Cutting Shortfalls

Granted, not every money-saving idea is as radical as my suggestion to make pro sports pay for public school athletics. Some people want to cut free breakfasts and shorten bus routes, while others pursue more ambitious measures like collapsing administrative functions, freezing salaries, and reducing retirement benefits.

Actually, these strategies likely represent thinly-disguised attempts at using budget crises to eliminate programs with which we have philosophical differences, yet whose elimination doesn't really fix deeper problems related to costs. They're feel-good exercises which don't yield much more than lunch money in the grand scheme of things.

Other strategies, like reducing the number of administrators and tweaking raises and benefits may go further, but rarely far enough. For all of the things we still expect out of our public schools, and our public school teachers, we're going to have to cough up the dollars that reality is demanding of us. Especially here in Texas, where school spending is already pretty lean.

Cuts Alone Won't Cut It

Instead, I wonder if you wouldn't continue indulging me as I try to connect some dots.

I suspect something deep and intrinsic in our culture needs to change. I wonder the extent to which the cost savings corporate America has wrung out of our society these past couple of decades has finally begun to catch up with us. Cost savings which have been achieved by, among other things, suppressing wages.

Now, I'm not saying we need to jettison free market capitalism. Our economic problems represent degrees in functional success, not the wholesale collapse of the world's most dynamic financial system. Nevertheless, we all know that wages paid to American workers have been stagnant for years, at least relative to the cost of living. And maybe this discrepancy can no longer be ignored.

Employers tell us we're being paid what we're worth to them, but haven't they only been making their calculations based on their individual company's micro-economics? While some capitalists say that's how finance should be done, the fact that high-ranking executives seem blissfully immune to the staffing budgets crimping pay scales below them probably proves plenty of loopholes remain to be cinched in this equation.

As American salaries have stagnated, while living costs have continued to escalate, taxpayers have continued to get squeezed as their housing values have soared. Which means their property taxes have soared, which means more money is being taken out of salaries which haven't kept up. So the educational standards most middle-class Americans have come to expect, like low teacher-to-student ratios, robust sports programs, state-of-the-art campuses, and the like all cost more, but it's taking disproportionately more money out of individual taxpayers' pockets. We've now come to the point where a lot of people have begun to notice the financial pain.

Might School Finance Woes Have Broader Cause?

What does that have to do with capitalism? Well, perhaps it shows how taxpayers have taken corporate America's lead and implied that cost-cutting in the only solution for our school finance woes. Further to the point, however, perhaps it shows the weakness of an economic system which, in Darwinian fashion, can prejudice a survival-of-the fittest mentality against the incentives workers need in a free market economy. To say nothing of profitable companies laying off workers for no other reason than to further pad their cash reserves.

If you see disparities in compensation, refusing to acknowledge capitalism's propensity for unjustified rewards in the face of unbridled greed may contribute to the problem. If corporate America says I'm earning too much, than these teachers are certainly not worth what we're paying them! This the trickle-down part of capitalism conservatives don't like talking about. If you're working longer hours for what equates to less money, and you're being taxed more, you lash out, insisting that cuts made to taxpayer-financed programs can fix the situation.

Unfortunately, while budget-tightening should never be overlooked as a solution, spending cuts will eventually cut into the quality of life our middle class has come to expect in the United States. And if right-wing conservatives think Americans should make do with a lower standard of living, they're just opening the floodgates for socialism. A dissatisfied electorate, fueled by classism and elitism, however misperceived, is never a pretty picture.

But, I digress. Yes, some liberals have begun pondering how much more economic stratification will be required before lower-income Americans tilt the sociopolitical landscape towards economically-harmful policies. However, as a counter-point to everyone who thinks I'm an irascible cynic, I'd like to think that the public education system in the United States has been able to churn out enough sensible and creative citizens who can infuse some ingenuity and energy into our economy.

Cutting Into Bone?

And speaking of public education, consider the budget quandary of the Arlington Independent School District here in north Texas, where I live. Out of their $443,340,022 annual budget for this year, roughly 88% of their expenses go to payroll. This means that if you're going to make real headway in cutting costs, you're going to have to fire teachers. Which means more pupils per classroom.

So what?

Well, consider the fact that according to the AISD's own numbers, their Percent of Budget Total - Instruction (how much of their budget is spent on items directly related to classroom instruction) is 66%. This is one of the highest rates in Texas, and higher than other more desirable districts like suburban Mansfield and Birdville.

Consider the Central Administration costs here in Arlington, which run 1.7% of the budget, one of the lowest in the state. This means that teachers comprise two-thirds of the school district's expenses, and that ancillary support staff make up most of the remaining cost of providing public education here in Arlington. Not special programs. Not a bloated administrative bureaucracy. Not even extravagant football facilities, although I still think my pro sports sponsorship idea would save taxpayers money.

Does It All Come Down to Money?

Many conservatives would say that I've blown my whole argument about stagnant wages and unnecessary layoffs by pointing out that even in a well-run educational enterprise, the employees comprise the biggest financial liability. If you can run an organization with fewer people, you should automatically save money. That's what happens in business, so that's what should happen in public education.

Except points of comparison don't always dovetail that succinctly, do they? Yes, paying for people to produce your product is the biggest expense for most organizations. But aren't school districts quite different from widget manufacturers?

For generations, American society has valued the contribution that a public school system provides our economy, our democratic republic, and our civic heritage. Providing employers with people who have mastered a general benchmark of proficiency in reading, writing, and extrapolating information has helped to make us the most productive country the world has ever known. Granted, the argument could be made that the output from our public schools isn't what it used to be, but I'd lay the blame for that more on parents than educators.

Some people point to the increasing educational superiority of kids from other countries as proof that America's educational system is broken. Some people want to cast the notion of public schooling as an entitlement that has outlived its usefulness, which should therefore be discontinued. On a bad day, I might entertain that argument myself. But in the meantime, it's still a generally-understood notion that public schools, in principle, are worth funding through tax dollars. So, how are we going to pay for it?

Perhaps it could start with national business leaders realizing that scrimping on employee pay at the expense of bloated executive suite compensation and cash reserves isn't doing our nation any favors. Of course, this would probably involve a collective re-think of Wall Street's inordinate fixation on short-term gains and shareholder value. School financing wouldn't directly be fixed by such a feat, of course, but might having less income disparity make the rising costs of public school funding less punitive?

Does that mean I'm saying we need to pay higher taxes to fix school funding issues? Well, if you live in America's Northeast, where absurd school taxes can go no higher, I think y'all need to swing that budget axe as much as you can. But for the rest of us, particularly here in Texas, with some of the cheapest taxes anywhere, maybe we do need to swallow the bitter pill of reality.

I'm afraid none of these fixes will be quick and pretty. And I'm not even convinced that improving worker salaries will be as beneficial as I'd like to think it would be. We've developed a nation of Scrooges, no matter their socioeconomic status. Since when does giving more money to a Scrooge make him more generous?

All I know is that I don't look forward to a future populated with new generations of Americans educated by an impoverished public school system.
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