Commencement Day for Public K-12 Education

It is graduation time once again, when public schools across America celebrate another group of young men and women who have made it through the challenges – both in and outside – our hallowed halls. When pomp and circumstance have finished, the crowds have left, and the school custodians have cleaned up the debris, there will be something left out of sorts still. That something is public schooling itself, within the context of our current economic, social, and legal systems.

Most districts across the nation are bracing for large budget cuts, as the economy has yet to rebound, and there does not appear to be another mad printing of money (backed by the full faith and credit of the People’s Republic of China that is buying up the debt we are selling) in the form of a Stimulus II from the feds. If all other components of the system were in stasis, schools might be able to trim a little fat and get on with life. The cuts will be more likely to be approaching the bone.

Health insurance costs have continued to soart every year, with a growth rate that is sinking the budgets of employers that pay for such things. The state of Oregon’s public employee insurance will go up 27% for next year. If districts have 85% of their costs in people (which most do) and a declining budget, rampantly increasing rates for health care appear, well, unhealthy.

Retirement costs have and will continue to soar as well, since the market has slumped. Rates increase for each employee, and once again compound the effect on the district budgets. Those lucky enough to make it “out alive” enjoy a well deserved and comfortable living.

If one were to chart out health and retirement growth rates, in conjunction with cost of living and district budgets, the math lesson would start to creep into psychology, sociology, and history. Simply put, if the cost per teacher goes up and up over time, and the resources to districts stays flat (or declines as is the case the last few years), then something has to give. When that something gives, it will act upon another system (our society) with second and third order effects.

Say your district is faced with a 10% budget reduction. You can either cut staff, or you can cut school days. If you cut staff, you increase class sizes, reduce much needed programs (behavior, sports, arts, etc), which has the impact of further increasing stress on the those who remain (half get out after only three years already), as well as the students (currently about 60% finish school in four years). As schools become more stressful and less appealing, parents who might have been content to keep their kids in public schools will think about becoming part of the exodus to private, charter, online, or homeschools. If 8 kids leave a district in Oregon, it is time to chop another teacher, or half of a school day.

Sounds like cutting days is the option you say….good for the short term, but not so palatable to educators who grew accustomed to 2-3% annual cost of living raises for several years. If you cut ten school days, you cut teacher pay by 5 to 6%. Even if the staff agrees to it, if this becomes the annual “fix”, the number of days will do nothing but increase as costs continue to soar, and revenues stay flat or decline. As half of teachers get out by year three, districts need to constantly recruit. Can you imagine the tag line “We pay 14% less than our competitors!” at a job fair? From the parent perspective, they do not want their students out of school in early May. Sounds like we need to cut the fat!

The “fat” of public schools resides with the administration and “support” staff and programs. This fat could be trimmed away, but we have painted ourselves into a legal corner as a society. You could cut the principal, but who else is trained in school law and is willing to risk livelihood, home, and a jail term to handle student discipline, parent complaints, and other legal stuff? You could trim away the programs for special education that have ballooned in cost and complexity over the last 25 years, but then you run up against violations of law (least restrictive environment). It just does not compute financially to do so with the consequences.

As a culture, we have been raised on the belief that as Americans, we are the best in the world, and that we are destined to have the best of everything. We expect modern schools with shiny new technology (read: computers). If one were to go back in time before computers infected our schools, one would see textbook budgets of a certain percentage of the overall school expenditures. If one is to look at most district and school budgets since the pre-computer days, you would most likely see textbook budgets increasing (as costs for Texas approved fare goes up and up) and computer budgets doing the same. I am puzzled as to why we need both…..perhaps we have a generation of students that do not respond to textbooks, and a generation of teachers that cannot imagine a class without them.

So how does the story of public school end….

On its current course, it will fight tooth and nail to save itself…in its current form (as any good bureaucracy will do.) Each year, one or two more colleagues will not return (the newer ones). Classes will get a little bigger, and more unruly. Teachers will be more stressed, administrators too. Parents who can will pull their kids out when it becomes too much for them to bare, exercising a growing list of more attractive options. Eventually the day will come when the last teacher, with a $300,000 a year health care plan and a $100,000 a year retirement plan, will check in the shiny textbooks that have not been read, turn off the 20 new laptops in the room, and close and lock the door on a failed American experiment.

As with most systems, public education needs a “significant event(s)” from outside of itself, to make changes to allow for it to not only survive, but to become something that even the wealthy want to put their kids into.

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