Five Questions For Improving Our Schools

Right From the Start

Right From the Start

Last week we attended a dinner of strangers.  It was one of those affairs where seating is so sufficiently random that you are almost guaranteed to join couples whom you have never met before.  As usual the early part of the dinner was consumed by introductions and sufficient inquiries to determine whether you have mutual friends, interesting lives, or compatible businesses.  By dessert the conversation had progressed to current affairs but surprisingly little was said about the mess in Washington other than general agreement that the President and members of Congress were amongst the worst people in the nation – all consumed with acquiring and retaining power and not a single one seeking a solution to the extraordinary problems facing the nation, most of which were caused by the incompetence of these same politicians.

No, the conversation focused instead on the terrible plight of Oregon’s education system.  I noted that when we first moved to Oregon in 1985, Oregon schools were among the best in the nation and since then we have witnessed a steady decline in the quality and out put of Oregon’s public schools.  Virtually every year the academic achievement of Oregon’s public schools has declined vis-à-vis the public schools in other states and even more so when compared to achievement of other industrialized nations.  The group offered personal vignettes of educational failures, and statistics were added for emphasis.  I noted that Oregon only graduates sixty-eight percent of those entering high school – placing it fourth from the bottom of graduation rates across the nation.  A recent article in the Oregonian noted that of those making it through four years of high school, only sixty percent could pass the standardized writing test.

The conversation then turned towards causes and cures.  It’s usually at this point that my wife suggests that if we want to have any friends in the future I should refrain from these types of discussions.  But this night I was cleared to go.  One person offered that we needed to provide more money to the schools.  Another that we needed to curb the bloated administrative costs.  And still another that the entire fault lay at the feet of Measure 5 – Oregon’s property tax limitation.  I waited until they had exhausted their frustrations and resolved that all it took was more money and everything would be okay.

I then asked the following five questions:

1. How does providing more money to increase the pay of incompetent teachers improve the academic performance?  I noted that virtually every year (with some exceptions during the latest economic downturn) teachers have received at least one and most often two salary increases per year – the first is the percentage increase bargained for annually and the second is the largely unnoticed “step increase” that provides a reward for simply showing up for yet another year.  And, despite that annual increase in compensation for teachers, academic performance continues to decline.  I continued that increased pay does not allow you to hire better teachers because the existing teacher union contracts make it virtually impossible to fire and replace poor performing teachers.

2. How does providing more money to increase the costs for benefits, including Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and healthcare, for existing teachers improve academic performance?  I noted that the costs of PERS for many school districts now amounts to a thirty percent surcharge on salaries and that teachers and other school personnel pay nothing towards their pension plans – the government picks up their six percent contribution as well as its own costs of funding this gold plated pension plan.  In effect that means for every four teachers employed, the costs of benefits are so high that a fifth teacher must go unhired.  The cost for the “Cadillac” healthcare provided teachers and other school personnel is so high that the state and local governments will be required to pay a penalty under Obamacare adding yet another burden that robs the system of the ability to hire and pay additional qualified personnel.

3. How does providing more money to increase the pay and numbers of administrative and non-teaching personnel at schools improve the academic performance?  Today, in addition to multiple layers of administration at Oregon schools, there is a growing number of “non-teaching personnel” that do everything from providing sex counseling to personal hygiene counseling to self esteem counseling to nutritional counseling, all of which may or may not be necessary but most assuredly are the responsibility of social welfare agencies and not the schools as they distract from the primary mission of academic achievement.  Likewise the non-teaching personnel required to complete and compile the myriad of reports for other bureaucrats, to attend conferences and to attend to the public relations machines in protection of the school administrators add nothing to academic performance.

4. What responsibility do the teachers unions and the public employee unions bear for maintenance of a failing system?  The teachers unions and the public employee unions have successfully resisted virtually every attempt – legislative and administrative – to provide accountability of performance by Oregon educators.  They have resisted merit pay, performance reviews, peer review by students, and reform of disciplinary practices that would allow removal of poor performing teachers.  The system that Oregon schools have today is largely unchanged from the system that existed twenty years ago.

5. How does a political system in which the dominant political party (Democrat) is financed principally by the beneficiaries of government spending (teachers and public employee unions) contribute to the improvement of academic performance?  It is irrelevant whether individual teachers engage in the profession to educate and improve Oregon’s children.  The teachers unions’ focus is not on educational performance but rather on pay, benefits and security for teachers.  They provide the dominant amount of campaign financing – directly and indirectly – for Democrats who now so dominate Oregon’s political system that they hold every statewide office, every Congressional office but one, and a majority in both houses of the legislature.  (Even during the times that Republicans controlled one or both houses of the legislature, a Democrat governor was able to thwart any changes to the system by veto.)  Today, Oregon’s teachers unions and public employee unions bargain with the public officials that they were responsible for electing.  The state and local government collect and remit over $130 Million each biennium to the teachers and public employees unions for use by those unions primarily for political purposes, including direct contributions, candidate recruitment and selection, polling, issue development and advocacy, get-out-the-vote activities, and internal communications to their tens of thousands of members and their families.  Only the direct contributions are reportable while the remaining predominant activities remain undisclosed.  The cost and difficulty of fund raising by the public employee unions is negligible since the government does it for them and it stands in marked contrast to the extraordinary efforts of other politicians and participants who must raise funds one contributor at a time.

At this point, one of our dinner companions said, “You’ve obviously given a lot of thought to this.”  To which I replied, “And so should you.”