It’s happening, just as I predicted in this post after the 25/55 pension deal passed for New York City teachers.

The New York Times reports that desperate middle class parents are responding to the financial degradation of the public schools by forming underground education co-ops.

Providing for themselves, outside the formal structure and at risk of persecution from it, the education they pay taxes for after those taxes were diverted to the early retired. According to the article, the underground is in pre-K, which was supposed to become “universal” but never has been. “For parents like us, options are limited. Private pre-K can run more than $30,000 a year at the fanciest schools. Depending on the neighborhood, spaces with community-based organizations — private preschools that partner with the state and accept state subsidies but handle their own applications — can be as elusive as public pre-K spots. If home schooling is daunting, and if not schooling feels wrong, the only other choice, it seems, is to join the legions of parents who have taken matters into their own hands and formed co-ops.”

Today pre-K, tomorrow grade school and more. Not because it is better or even good, not because teachers aren’t needed or wanted, but because that is what will be left in the aftermath of Generation Greed. With the benefit of information technology and unemployed would-be teachers with no choice but to help out and work for peanuts, it might work for children with educated parents. For the rest, forget it, and kiss equal opportunity goodbye.

Update:  I wrote this post in 2011, three years after the original post on Education in an Era of Institutional Collapse. Universal pre-Kindergarten had been the equivalent of the Second Avenue Subway.  Politicians would promise, raise taxes (or in the latter case float bonds), divert the money to more powerful interests, and never provide it.  Even when now-Mayor DeBlasio made it a centerpiece of his campaign the UFT was skeptical if not hostile.  By all means raise taxes (other than taxes on retired public employees, who pay nothing, of course) but use the money to increase our pay and retirement benefits, not to increase services. 

Well, “Universal Pre-K” is expected to arrive this September, but without an increase in the tax rate.  So am I happy?  Let’s go through the rest of the 2011 post before I provide the answer. If you just read Education in an Era of Institutional Collapse you can skip the parts where I quoted myself.

Let’s quote from my original post, Education in an Era of Institutional Collapse. “I have described the future of public services and benefits as ‘privatization’ and ‘placardization.’ By placardization, I mean that to the extent that public sector has anything worthwhile to offer, it will not be able to afford to offer it universally, and it will be allocated instead to insiders and those with connections by a variety of means. The way scarce parking is allocated to those with the connections to get placards, legal and illegal. By ‘privatization’ I do not mean that the government will provide universal, equal benefits by hiring private contractors rather than public employees, as it does in the Medicare program or under a school voucher program. I mean that those who have the resources to provide what were once public services for themselves will be permitted to do so (as long as they are grateful for that permission), while those who lack such resources will be left to do without.”

Speaking of the need for permission and gratitude, according to the Times “in New York, advertisements for co-op schools pepper online parent groups once every month or two, especially in spring or early summer. But you will mostly hear about them quietly, on the playground or on play dates. Sometimes the groups are low-key because the school is formed by a circle of friends and there is no need for other children to join. The other big reason is their questionable legality…and in many cases, forming a co-op school is illegal, because getting the required permits and passing background checks can be so prohibitively expensive and time-consuming that most co-ops simply don’t.”

Hint hint. Campaign contributions to incumbent state legislators, and possibly “donations” to the UFT in exchange for “assistance.”

Again, from the post several years ago.

“The second difference between the future and the 1970s is that more middle-class families without connections and special deals, as a result of other social trends, might choose to live in New York City rather than flee to the suburbs, and the collapsing parochial school system, which was a lifeboat for the past 40 years, will not be there to serve them at anything like the current tuition levels. Here the ‘privatization’ half of the projected future comes in. Of course those who are sufficiently affluent will be able to afford expensive private schools, but there is likely to be a shortage of positions in such schools in addition to, for most families, a shortage of cash to pay for them. For the middle class, the only option — one I thought about myself back in the previous semi-institutional collapse of the mid-1990s when my children were denied the public school education we had paid for — is assisted home schooling.”

“As I described previously, if New York City’s current instructional spending per child of $11,400 in FY 2006 was used to hire home-based teachers who lived in their neighborhood and taught children in their homes, the way people hire music teachers and tutors, those teachers could be given $136,800 to teach 12 children — for their wages, health insurance, IRA contribution, and teaching materials. If the parents were willing to pay for after-school and summer care, and the teachers were willing to provide it, they could earn additional money over and above the $136,800 just to sit in the park while the kids played or be around as the did their homework or played games. And they would have a class size of 12. There will be no such public funds for homeschoolers in the future, however, because the public retirement crisis in the school system will drain all the money off. Instead, in addition to facing a much higher tax burden, tomorrow’s parents will have to fund such arrangements themselves.”

“The support of employers for flexible schedules will be critical, because having one parent stay home to educate their children, like a ‘Gossip Girl’ private school, is a luxury few middle class parents will be able to afford — especially at tomorrow’s tax levels. Instead, expect parents to band together in groups of eight to ten, with one parent from each family working a four day week or nine days in two weeks. These parents could educate the children as a group, they way supplemental child care was provided by the babysitting co-op we were in during our children’s pres-school days. In addition to supervising the children’s education on their non-work days, the parents would each pay perhaps $3,000 per year (in today’s money) for a professional teacher — who wouldn’t get anything like the $136,800 per year described above — to provide assistance. Assisting 25 such children in this way, such a teacher could earn $75,000 per year, with some perhaps under the table in cash or handed over as ‘gifts.’”

Without health or retirement benefits of course.  And probably without Social Security of Medicare the way the federal government is going.

I predicted that those who went this route would be at first persecuted and then supported by a city desperate to avoid the cost of providing services while continuing to have residents to tax. And acknowledging that given the quality of education it could afford to provide, parents would have no choice. “Expect the NYC public schools to eventually provide their own textbooks and lesson plans to willing parents, with a far more demanding schedule of student assignments than its teachers will be required to assign.” And according to the New York Times, one City Councilmember is already ahead of the curve. “There’s a fairly stringent code and byzantine process for getting certified and code-compliant,” said City Councilman Brad Lander, a Democrat from Brooklyn, whose office held a meeting over the summer for any co-ops interested in pooling their resources and securing permits. “Some are genuinely for the safety of kids, and some are more debatable.”

The diminished future will not be announced, nor will there be a “decision” to bring it into being.  Just a series of non-decisions to pay for the past deals, followed by adaptations.  Ah well, this transit buff and former New York City Transit employee has completed his work for the week here at the office. It’s time to take the nine mile trip home. On a bike I pedal myself.

A Little Social Science For Those Interested

Submitted by Larry Littlefield on Fri, 12/16/2011 – 6:20pm.

Fundamental qualitative changes are hard to predict. Most forecasts about what is coming are extrapolations of the past, perhaps with a “regression to the mean” or cyclical component. That’s why the “yuppie” economists President Obama initially brought on board thought this was just a normal recession, rather than the end of an economic epoch.

But fundamental qualitative and structural changes do not happen instantly everywhere. They start somewhere, in one place, among one group of people, in one circumstance – and later spread or don’t depending on the underlying conditions in the overall society.

So if you think about and understand the underlying conditions of the overall society, and see adaptations and changes happening in one case, you can consider if they might be a signpost to the future in a broader sense.

Update:  Is universal pre-K a signpost to the future?  With Mike Mulgrew and the UFT not getting the entire $5 billion he demanded immediately (when he also demanded that the Mayor not “negotiate in the press”) and the serfs actually getting something?  Maybe, but at this point I’m so cynical that I’ll say no, and instead look to the past for an explanation.

Under the “corporate, non-progressive polices” of Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the city had used its limited pre-K resources to make the service available to disadvantaged children.  It was the middle and upper-middle class children who were being left out.  Mayor DeBlasio’s rhetoric was about the need for universal pre-K to reduce inequality.  But it is the advantaged, not the disadvantaged, that will benefit from the new “progressive” policy of universal pre-K.

I suspect the goal is to prevent the advantaged, those with the most resources and at least some political, from being pushed into alternatives, alternatives such as the one I discussed. With their own children in the system, the advantaged could then be counted on to demand even more funding for the schools, once those children reached higher grades and ran into a low quality education — due to past and future cutbacks as money is shifted to the early retired.

Basically universal pre-K could be construed as a political gambit rather than an education policy or an attempt to decrease inequality.  Have people come to depend on something that is bad, and push them to demand more money to keep it better. Then divert the money and keep it bad, and tell them even more is required.

I can tell you from personal experience that this strategy has worked in the past.  In the more “progressive” early and mid-1990s, the city’s schools had an incipient pre-kindergarten program.  Flyers went up in our middle class neighborhood, and having gone to public schools ourselves my wife and I (and some of our friends) signed our children up.

In a typical “progressive” policy, as the term has evolved in recent decades, that pre-K program was supposed to be for disadvantaged children, but was in reality only made available in middle class and upper middle class neighborhoods.  When no poor children signed up, “oh well!,” we might as well serve the better off who did sign up instead!  I found this out when, as part of the program, we had a social worker visit our home to report on conditions, something that might have made sense if we had actually been poor.  The idea that the program was for the disadvantaged was just a ruse.

Once inside the school, we and our friends got to see how bad they were, with 35 kids in the kindergarten class, no teaching materials for the year (except for the pre-K kids who had special funding), one teacher who basically never showed up, a principal screaming over the loudspeaker, etc.  (I had already seen some of this before we had kids, when I served as a volunteer tutor at the school). 

After that principal was found to have been corrupt and was replaced, I asked the new principal to see a copy of the curriculum.  With the idea that if I couldn’t count on the public schools teaching my kids what they were supposed to learn during each grade, I had better know what that was, so I could do it myself.  All that was in that curriculum was about one page of edu-speak gibberish per grade.

Moreover, the city’s free pre-K program cost me more than the pre-K program at a nearby Catholic school.  Because the Catholic School pre-K was full day, with an after school program, whereas the public school pre-K was half day, and we had to provide child care for the other half.  I asked the public principal about having a paid for after-school program at the school. He said that under the UFT contract that would be so complicated it would be just about impossible, because of all the rules about those with the most seniority – even from other schools – getting first crack and the extra income, and having it be pensionable.  The latter meant the school system couldn’t afford it even if the parents paid for it. 

And while the public schools were segregated, the Catholic school was integrated – with the exception of the poorest, who could not afford to pay. (Because there were no vouchers).  Plenty of working class parents of all races struggled to send their kids to Catholic Schools, one reason why those schools are being crushed in a vice between the need to pay their underpaid teachers more, and the inability of parents to pay more in tuition.  And why that integration may not last.

Back in the mid-1990s, our friends and neighbors made the same choices middle and upper-middle class New Yorkers have been forced to make for decades. Some paid big bucks for private schools.  Some moved to the suburbs. Some worked to get their kids into one of the “special” public schools.  We sent our kids to Catholic school through 8th grade, although we had been public school kids ourselves.

The poor state of the city’s public schools matched up with the data I was compiling on state and local government finances.  Data that, at the time, showed the city’s school spending was low, once the local cost of living was adjusted for, and the city’s teachers underpaid.  Based on that data, as the “progressives” might have hoped when allocating pre-K to the better off rather than the disadvantaged, I became an advocate of higher school funding and teacher pay (in cash, particularly to start, not in retirement).  Maybe we wouldn’t get anything, but if we were willing to pay somewhat more in taxes (even though the tax burden was already high), perhaps the next generation of NYC children would be better off.

Despite that data, those older and wiser warned me I was being foolish.  “Their problem is not money” I was told – by someone who was a public school parent before we even had kids, and had been a NYC public school teacher!  Did I listen?  No. To me, the data said what it said.  Turns out I was a sucker.  So perhaps what they really want from universal pre-K is more suckers, not less inequality. 

They’ve even got their own candidate for Governor parroting the party line, that the schools are “underfunded.”  Governor Cuomo is trying to claim she is from Vermont, but based on her apparent math skills she must have been educated in the NYC public schools.

Because it is no longer true that these are underfunded.  If anything they are now overfunded, compared with the past and other places, to an extent that (having followed this data over the decades) I find stunning.  Which is why that data, and the reasons why all that extra money bought so little, is under Omerta.  Affluent parents would be a hell of a lot less likely to advocate for more school spending and more taxes if they found out how much they were paying already, and where it went.

Still, I suppose that finally having universal pre-K after years of promises is better than not having universal pre-K. City residents certainly deserve it, no matter what the UFT said (it has since decided to cooperate with the inevitable).  But I will not believe we really have universal pre-K until the next time city and state tax revenues turn down, and only if pre-K does not disappear and no other city services are not cut to keep it.