Corrected: A previous version of this Commentary contained an incorrect number for the total amount of the federal debt.
In the latest attempt by a state to control the cost of public education, the New Jersey legislature recently gave approval to a new law limiting the number of sick days an outgoing public school superintendent can cash in on his or her way out the door. It also seeks to pass legislation that would move school elections from April to the November general elections to engage more voters in local school board races.
New Jersey, like her sister states, is struggling to offer a high-quality education at an affordable price. Interventions, such as financially penalizing districts who spend “too much” on administrative costs, have done little to control property taxes.
The truth is that both our states and the federal government are broke. New Jersey, for example, is $32 billion dollars in debt, and the federal government is $53 trillion dollars in debt. We must face the fact that there is no cavalry coming from our state capitals or from Washington to bail out local school districts and taxpayers. We the People must find a common-sense solution to enhance learning and stop pitting good people (young vs. retired) and good communities (urban vs. suburban) against one another.
Twenty-five years as an educator has taught me a lot about effective school districts, but nothing has given me more insight into how public schools work than the past year as an elected school board member in New Jersey.
Here, drawn from my experiences, are a few common-sense ways to improve public education, without raising local property taxes:
• Control benefit and pension costs. In most districts, nearly 85 cents of every school-tax dollar received goes to pay for staff salaries and benefits. As salaries have risen to respond to market demands, teachers’ contributions to their health-care premiums have not increased. In fact, few public school teachers in most states pay any amount of money toward those premiums.
In addition, most states have out-of-control teacher pensions: They are going deeper into debt to maintain a system that permits retirement at age 55, with a pension of up to 65 percent of the highest year’s salary, plus lifetime health-care coverage for the teacher retirees and often their spouses.
Contributions to health-insurance premiums could be phased in and be prorated for newer teachers, who make less money than their senior colleagues.
Lack of action today will result in many states’ being forced to declare bankruptcy in less than 10 years, and to have no choice but to make draconian cuts in pension benefits paid to currently retired teachers.
• Pay to play. Families should pay a small student-activities fee for their children to play a school sport, participate in a school club, or be in a school play. Families on a free or reduced-price lunch program could be offered a fee waiver (there is little evidence to show that a student-activities fee reduces participation in extracurricular activities).
• Corporate and university partnerships. State and federal tax incentives are needed to entice corporations to financially support local schools. Likewise, colleges could, for example, use their Federal Work-Study funds to pay their work-study students to serve as online tutors for local K-12 students, or offer online courses for schools to share.
• Create a K-11 graduation option. Millions of students are ready for college after completing 11th grade, as evidenced by the plethora of kids taking mostly Advanced Placement courses in their senior year. I say, let them go. Students who are ready could receive half the money we would save by not educating them for another year (from $5,000 to $10,000) in the form of a college scholarship.
• Stop reinventing the wheel. An ever-changing curriculum is costly and has resulted in teachers being confused and suspicious of the “latest” new direction. As a result, most teachers in America pretty much teach what they want.
The cost-benefit ratio of implementing a new curriculum every five to six years should be questioned by local school boards. Moreover, do we really need 15,000 curriculum departments across the country?
• Use the technology we bought. Nationally, we’ve spent upwards of $60 billion on educational technology, with little evidence that it has had a significant impact on student achievement.
But technology can enhance classroom learning, and it does not require that we buy another gadget. With a single computer and Internet access, students could collaborate on a global-warming project with students in China, publish an essay on the Web for experts to evaluate, or plug in a $20 webcam and see and talk to leaders around the globe.
While local school board members may have the will to make meaningful changes, they don’t always have the way. The way requires all elected leaders, local and state, to band together in a single voice to stop the unaffordable path we have been on for too long.
It is fear and mistrust that prevent shared ownership of this problem. It is fear and mistrust that inhibit creative solutions and cloud judgments. And it is fear and mistrust that encourage us to run from the problem.
We can’t afford not to operate a public school system that includes quality teachers, safe and functional facilities, and an internationally benchmarked curriculum. But, at the same time, we can’t afford a system that we can’t afford.
A version of this article appeared in the September 17, 2008 edition of Education Week as Common-Sense Ways to Improve Education Without a Tax Increase