Washington Writer Lays Blame For School Costs on the Unions
March 14, 2003, 04:00 AM
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WASHINGTON [CT] -Budget season is under way, and driving many proposed increases are burgeoning school budgets, spending plans that often account for more than 70 percent of the total budget. And at the core of the school budget hikes are contractually mandated increases in teachers' salaries and benefits, a factor that in the Region 12 district makes up nearly 70 percent of the proposed increase.

In a new book, "The Worm in the Apple" (HarperCollins, $24.95) Washington resident, parent and journalist Peter Brimelow argues that teachers' unions are spoiling the national public education system by encouraging a burgeoning bureaucracy, and perhaps more importantly, by preventing serious reform.

Mr. Brimelow admits that he is not an education writer, and that he did not spend any considerable time in the classroom in the seven years it took him to complete the book. For the author, it is not an emotional issue, but one centered on shortcomings in current law and outdated economic practice.

Teachers' contracts in Connecticut, for example, are negotiated under a collective bargaining agreement between the teachers' union, which is called the Connecticut Educational Association, and the local school boards.

"The Worm in the Apple" evaluates education on qualitative and quantitative levels. Mr. Brimelow struggles, like most education writers, to find appropriate data with which to measure the quality of the current system. He judges that results have been "very mixed."

But he is adamant in claiming that these "very mixed" educational results come with an escalating and extravagant price tag. Mr. Brimelow writes that "the [public] school system's qualitative problem is overshadowed by its quantitative problem-its hoggish consumption of ever-increasing resources to do, at best, the same job."

He notes that while nationwide per-pupil spending has spiraled upward since 1970, there has been no noticeable increase in the quality of education. Teacher-student ratios have continually decreased, as part of a widely held belief that teachers less burdened by large classes will offer more attention to each student. In 1970, the national average was 22.6 students per teacher and by 1998 it had dropped to 16.5 students per teacher.

Adjusted for inflation and expressed in 2000 dollars, the national average per pupil spending has increased from $275 in 1890, to $4,903 in 1982 to $7,086 in 2000. For the 2002-2003 fiscal year, Region 12 per pupil spending is approximately $13,000.

Mr. Brimelow suggests that the lack of productivity of the current system stems most directly from the unchallenged power of teachers' unions. Because teachers' unions are a public-sector union, and because attendance from kindergarten through high school is mandated by law, Mr. Brimelow argues that the unions are a monopoly on top of another monopoly, essentially a "teacher trust."

Such a privileged position—monopolies are typically prohibited by federal law—gives teachers' unions a tremendous amount of political, legal and economic leverage. "The collective bargaining is the key thing," Mr. Brimelow said in a recent interview. "The union and only the union deals with the school board. It's a death grip."

He compares the power of modern day teachers' unions with pre-regulation [should be pre-negotiated commissions] stockbrokers who charged enormous commissions, trial lawyers who manipulate permissive tort law for huge settlements and pre-HMO doctors who reaped monopoly-style profits.

"There is an institutional glitch where someone gets in a position to extract rents, that is what is happening here," he explained. "It's not about the children. It's not about schoolbooks. It's about teachers' salaries."

That argument has powerful resonance in Litchfield County.

The latest proposed 2003-2004 budget in Region 12-which serves Washington, Roxbury and Bridgewater-calls for a 7.48 percent increase, including operational and capital expenditures.

Of that total increase of $1,176,295, about $328,000 is generated by an increase in salaries, and an additional $482,000 is derived from increased benefits. Salaries and benefits together contribute 5.16 percent to the proposed 7.48 percent increase, or nearly 70 percent. And of the $328,000 rise in salaries, $245,000 is for teachers' salaries.

Assuming that taxpayers have a limit for how much they are willing to spend for education, or how large an increase they are willing to accept, a contractually-mandated rise in teachers' salaries and benefits may actually deprive students of capital improvements or other things that could more directly improve their educational experience.

In past years, operational costs, described as the cost of offering the same level of programming as was provided in the current fiscal year-adjusted for inflation, enrollment, contracted obligations and postponed expenditures-have been characterized as "fixed."

School board members in municipalities all over the county will likely be forced to make cuts over the coming weeks to try to reach a percentage increase that can be digested by voters, but the locked-in salary and benefit increases limits their choices.

"Education is a people business and that's where the biggest costs will be," said Region 12 business manager Art Poole. "The real money, the big money ... is in all salaries and benefits. Over the past 10 years, when budgets have been very tight, most of the weeding out of the other accounts has already been done with a fine tooth comb-like fuel oil and teaching supplies. You are really at the end of the line with those kind of cuts."

A former senior editor with Forbes magazine and the National Review, and now a columnist at CBS Marketwatch, Mr. Brimelow is an unabashed believer in a free-market economy, and he calls a major overhaul of the public education industry necessary to create meaningful incentives for teachers and major savings for taxpayers.

"Breaking the power of the teachers' trust is not a panacea, but it is a prerequisite," he said.

Unions reject any pay scale based on merit by arguing that teacher evaluation is fundamentally flawed, while claiming that high starting salaries are necessary to attract bright graduates into the field, according to Mr. Brimelow.

He envisions a public education system in which teachers' salaries are determined by the market forces of supply and demand, creating a wider spread of incomes in which top instructors would command large six-figure salaries but poorly qualified teachers would be priced out of the industry.

He argues that the current system of basing raises on seniority, as dictated by the union, is stifling ambition and ingenuity and requiring school districts to pay top dollar for below-average teachers.

"Teachers are bored in the [existing] system. There is no reward for individual merit, and that's a demoralizing way to work. ... Teachers are serfs. They are tied to the estate," he said.

In a chapter cleverly entitled, "What is to be Done?" after Lenin's pamphlet organizing the Communist Party, Mr. Brimelow recommends busting the teachers' unions, reforming collective bargaining for contracts, enforcing anti-strike laws and other legal and political techniques designed to "extract the worm" from the apple by depriving it of funds and limiting its power.

In its place, Mr. Brimelow advocates "disinfecting the apple," incorporating the free market into education with a merit-based pay system, giving parents educational choices, privatizing school services, abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, liberating charter schools and giving teachers an incentive to improve.

While he admits smaller internal reforms may improve the current system, Mr. Brimelow is aiming ambitiously at a larger target, a complete demolition and reconstruction.

"You take whatever you can get, and perestroika is better than Stalinism," he said. "But people just haven't thought through the implications [of the current system. The major changes] are probably more viable politically than people think."

Mr. Brimelow is also the author of "Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster." He is the president of the Center For American Unity, a senior fellow of the Pacific Research Institute and an editor of vdare.com, a Webzine focusing on issues raised in his immigration policy book. The British-born author, 55, lives in Washington with his wife, a son and a daughter.

©Litchfield County Times 2003