Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

No wonder we have education funding issues

Today's Oregonian details the costs of education in Oregon with some very revealing statistics. It is specifically about the extraordinary cost of pensions through the state's Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

According to the story, the benefits eat up $2 billion over two years, which is almost 40 percent of the schools budget. Were Oregon to pay the national average, it would free up some $500 million.

Teacher benefits cost just under $12,000 per employee nationwide. In Oregon, the cost is $18,260 per employee, which ranks Oregon third in the country. Much of that is related to the pensions, which is personalized by the newspaper's cover photo of two former teachers in their 50s who retired to Arizona earning 100 percent of their teaching salaries — $115,000 between the two of them. Who's underpaid?

(The average PERS member who worked at least 30 years and retired between January 2000 and November 2004 got a pension averaging 107 percent of final salary, the story said. Post-retirement payments go on for life, and include an annual cost-of-living adjustment. The legislature tried to make changes to PERS in the previous session, but most of those changes were thrown out by the courts.)

And yet, Kris Kain of the Oregon Education Association, has the nerve to say, "Your public school employees are working really hard. They deserve to be adequately compensated. They don't deserve to be the bad guys." (The story doesn't say whether Ms. Kain said that line with a straight face, but I don't know how she could manage to avoid a small smirk.)

Adequately compensated? Adequately compensated? Let's ask the average Oregonian, whose salary is $10,000 lower than the average teacher, whether they are "adequately compensated."

Ms. Kain is further quoted as saying the problems should be fixed by: 1) trimming health insurance costs; 2) closing corporate tax breaks; and 3) having Oregonians invest more money in schools.

So to paraphrase, she's requesting:
  1. That teachers continue to pay nothing toward their health insurance costs, expecting instead that pooling the resources of the state's teachers will provide a miraculous savings. (My thought? Maybe they could get health insurance like the rest of the world, instead of the Rolls Royce of health insurance plans, and maybe they could learn what it means to pay your fair share, again, like the rest of the world);
  2. That the evil private corporations that employ those of us in the private sector pay more, since providing jobs is clearly not sufficient;
  3. The state pay even more than it's currently paying, even though voters have twice declined in the last two years to add to their tax burden to pay for schools.
The Oregonian article also lists two other pieces of info: 1) the student teacher ratio in Oregon is more than 20:1, which ranks fourth highest in the nation (less than 16-to-1); and 2) Oregon's per-pupil spending is $7,587 (the nationwide average is $8,248), for a ranking of 28th.

I have two thoughts on those numbers:
First, could there be a correlation between high salaries and benefits and below-average staffing and spending? Could it be that the high salaries and benefits are taking money away from the classroom? It's like those people who note the inverse relationship between incarceration and crime nationwide, but report it this way: 'Crime rates are decreasing despite increasing rates of incarceration.' They don't see the cause-and-effect relationship. The teachers' unions are shooting themselves in the foot — nay, make that shooting the taxpayers in the back — by insisting on high salaries and big benefits, then whining when the money for those big-ticket items gets taken away from the classroom. Who's the responsible party there?

Second, there are (seemingly) a million ways to compute per-pupil spending. Last time I checked (link in PDF), there were about 550,000 public school students in Oregon, so multiplying that number by $7,587, you get just less than $4.2 billion. The state school budget for 2003-2005, according to the Oregon School Boards Association, was $5.3 billion for two years. The difference apparently is made up by taking into account federal and local funds; the Oregonian article notes that Oregon schools can expect about $8 billion to spend in the next two years, but it's all confusing, and how much we pay depends on who you ask, what they're using for data, and what time period the data comes from.

For instance, the Heritage Foundation lists these statistics (for 2001-2002):
  • Public school enrollment: 552,144
  • Students enrolled per teacher: 17.9
  • Current expenditures: $4,572 billion
  • Current per-pupil expenditure: $8,280
I have a longtime friend who's heavily involved in the school funding battle, and she wouldn't be shy about telling you about all the ways that school funding discussions barely scrape the surface of the real issues — things like ESL, learning-disabled kids, federal funding, administration, teacher aides, Title I, etc. Not to mention differences from district to district, and school to school.

I acknowledge all that, and I'll be the first to say my knowledge barely scrapes that real-issues surface. But there are certain things — such as the topic of this blog entry or this story about how the state has granted pay raises to state employees ranging from 8.75 percent to 18.25 percent over two years — that have a bad appearance, that make it difficult to take seriously the cries of inadequate funding.


Post a Comment

<< Home