Budget Blues, Not-So-Retiring Teachers, and Bowling for Bowling’s Sake

By Mark Toner — February 08, 2006 3 min read
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When President Bush wasn’t warning the American public about the dangers of mutant human-animal hybrids during last week’s State of the Union speech, he was stressing the importance of strengthening math and science education in the nation’s schools. So it’s somewhat surprising that Bush’s proposed budget for the coming year would eliminate more programs in education than in any other area. Of the 141 government initiatives the administration proposes axing, 42 fall under the purview of the U.S. Education Department, including ones related to vocational ed and improving access to college for disadvantaged students. But the administration is calling for extra spending in some areas—including programs to bolster AP math and science classes, $100 million in school-choice funding, and Title I grants earmarked for NCLB-related school restructuring.

While restructuring can be difficult, it’s also sometimes quite profitable. Former Los Angeles-area teachers John and Joan Hall created two chains of charter schools, funded by eight California districts, that allow high school dropouts to earn diplomas through independent-study programs, meeting with teachers for just a few hours a week. Some 20,000 students are enrolled in the charters’ 51 learning centers, but only 11 percent of those who left the programs in the 2003-04 school year did so with diplomas. Meanwhile, the Halls earned $321,000 each that same school year—more than Los Angeles’ superintendent—and state officials have called for an audit, citing the family’s long trail of interrelated businesses. “We will not allow profiteering to occur at the expense of our students’ education,” state superintendent Jack O’Connell said. The Halls argue that they’re entitled to earn a profit on their program, which they initially ran out of church basements and the trunk of their car in the 1990s. “If we’re going to change public education, we need to have for-profit companies get involved,” John Hall said. “I started this because I think it’s a good thing for public education.”

While no public educator in his or her right mind expects to become rich, many do take for granted the ability to retire with relatively generous benefits. But across the country, veteran teachers are opting to stay in the classroom longer because retirees’ healthcare expenses are becoming prohibitively expensive. “It’s changed everybody’s plans,” says 52-year-old Rita Fletcher, who considered retiring after teaching chemistry for 30 years in Salisbury, Maryland—until she learned that medical insurance would account for nearly half her $1,780 monthly pension. In many districts, lifetime health benefits have been written into union contracts, but skyrocketing medical costs and new accounting provisions are putting those promises in jeopardy. “The single most important issue facing districts nationwide” is how one education finance specialist puts it. In Michigan, for example, retiree health benefits are expected to ultimately account for 20 cents of every dollar spent on payroll. Another retired superintendent’s advice: “You’ve got to stay healthy.”

One way of staying healthy, of course, is exercise. Yet the fastest-growing high school varsity sport these days—bowling—generally involves more carbs than cardio. Still mostly concentrated in the northeast, school-sanctioned bowling teams have doubled in the past five years, and students enjoy the opportunity to socialize, eat French fries, and test their skill in an atmosphere that’s more low-key than, say, a wrestling match. “You just have to be serious for a few minutes when it’s your turn, and then you can hang out,” says a New Jersey high school junior. It’s a win-win situation for bowling alleys, which had seen their clientele gray over the years, and for schools, for which the sport is far cheaper than most alternatives. But it also has its drawbacks. “There’s no such thing as a home game, so it doesn’t get a lot of attention,” says one coach. “It’s not the kind of thing that gets pep rallies.”

Dr. Robert Atkins, the creator of the protein-friendly diet plan of the same name, certainly also believed in staying healthy—at least until he died in 2003. Now his widow is donating $16,000 to a Florida elementary school where students balked at the idea of selling candy as part of a fundraiser. “I was so proud when the children said ‘You’re telling us not to go out and eat sugar and then you ask us to sell it,’” says Veronica Atkins. No word if the school’s students will peddle steaks next year.

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