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Budgetpalooza...Or, Mr. Mulgrew, Have I Got a Speechwriter for You

Between the National Journal debate over Senator Tom Harkin's $23 billion bailout, the European Union ponying up a cool $1 trillion to stanch the bleeding in Greece, Mike Petrilli getting frisky on teacher firing, and my own dalliances in NYC teacher policy (see here or here), this is turning out to be quite the week for bailout mania.

Four different thoughts spurred by all this. First, I was struck by this gem from the Washington Post story on the Greek bailout. George Perros, member of the executive committee of the Pan-Hellenic Workers Front, sounded for all the world like he was channeling UFT president Michael Mulgrew when he explained why Greek workers were rioting against the cutbacks imposed by a government scrambling to stave off bankruptcy: "The rights of workers are not 'privileges.' The privileges are being enjoyed by the industrialists and big businesses," he said. "Our position is clear: stable and enduring work for all." Paging Dennis Van Roekel or Randi Weingarten: one of you ought to get Perros on staff, pronto.

Second, even the news coverage of all this is funny in its earnestness. I'm struck at how deferential the tone is in the reporting of even the slightest teacher givebacks, as compared to the Joe Friday reporting that has accompanied news of substantial real salary cuts at many news organizations or private firms. For instance, in a paean to teacher selflessness, the New York Times breathlessly reported yesterday:

In Pelham, N.Y., where schools are the center of town life, some residents began speaking up at school board meetings last year to ask why teachers were not doing more to help. "I have never heard such accusations against teachers," said Frank Orfei, a social studies teacher for 32 years. "Many teachers feel like we've been made scapegoats of an economic crisis that we didn't have anything to do with." In response, Pelham teachers voted 205 to 26 in favor of taking smaller raises of 2.9 percent and 2.7 percent over the next two years, instead of the 3.5 percent and 3.8 percent in their contract -- a savings to the district of more than $850,000.

Sorry, but I'm just not that touched by unions accepting token reductions in the size of their raises in the midst of a historic budget crunch. I'd be much more impressed if Mr. Orfei seemed to understand that private sector employees have routinely seen actual year-over-year cuts in pay, or that civil servants and employees in higher education have taken furloughs that resulted in real losses.

The same NYT story reported:

John Yrchik, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, which represents 37,000 teachers, and has spent $300,000 since January on statewide television ads and billboards in Hartford, said that teachers had been treated like automated teller machines by government officials and taxpayers. "Whenever there have been shortfalls in revenue," he said, "teachers have been asked to make up the difference. The climate has not been one of collaboration or respect for teachers."

From any responsible reading of the record, that's a really problematic assertion. As any number of legislators, governors, cops, librarians, highway workers, or parks officials would be only too happy to point out, K-12 has generally been protected. And K-12 spending has grown steadily, year in and year out, so it's hard to recall previous occasions on which teachers have been ATM'd. And, just to be a little snide, perhaps if the CEA stopped bombarding Hartford's billboards and airwaves, they could trim dues and help teachers navigate these rough budgetary waters.

Third, all of this brings to mind a piece that Iron Mike Petrilli, Checker Finn, and I wrote back in January 2009:

"Those who worry about K-12 education should be asking: will [ARRA] be good for education reform? And to date there's ample reason to suspect that the answer will be "no"...To [teacher unions and the school establishment], the argument for sparing schools from painful budget cuts--currently appearing on editorial pages nationwide--is self-evident. One influential Washington-based lobbyist recently explained that education spending is smart because "it actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back" the government... In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there's scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today's schools delivers an extra dollar in value--and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.


Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers delay difficult decisions. Tough times come to serve as a healthful (if sour) tonic, forcing leaders to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.

What's unique about public education is that, unlike their private-sector counterparts, few school districts ever face this day of reckoning. Superintendents squawk when they are told to hold spending growth to "just" one or two percent the next year.

Per-pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983, when the U.S. was declared "a nation at risk." That huge increase in public outlays has funded all manner of questionable practices, including ever-shrinking class sizes (popular with parents and teachers, but mostly unrelated to student achievement), an ever-growing number of teachers and other school employees, a uniform salary schedule that treats incompetents and all-stars identically, an unsustainable pension-and-benefits system, and a tenure system that protects instructional dysfunction. In other words, taxpayers have spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program."

Finally, my feelings haven't changed a lick since then. But, if we do go ahead with Senator Harkin's ill-advised $23 billion, thank heavens that the Education Trust and The New Teacher Project are doing their best to insist that the feds, at a bare minimum, condition the aid on states taking steps to dismantle expensive, destructive, industrial-era "last hired, first fired" policies.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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