Repost — How Then Shall We Live: Education in the Wake of Generation Greed

Now that the latest education finance data is out, I’m prepared to write a post on the near and intermediate term future of education in NYC (and perhaps elsewhere). Thanks to a couple of decades of retroactive pension enhancements, pension underfunding, and inflating the problem by sweeping it under the rug, it is not a future of “reform” or “improvement” no matter how anyone chooses to define it and no matter what one’s education politics. It is a future of degradation, one I have already described in detail.

Basically, you cannot have one year in retirement for each year worked without getting it at someone else’s expense. Huge if funded over a career, the cost of that kind of retirement becomes devastating if granted retroactively, and that is what the United Federation of Teachers has achieved twice. New York City’s public schools are going back to the 1970s, and this time they won’t be alone, because the same sort of irresponsibility has occurred in much of the country. Although elsewhere, taxpayer underfunding of promised pensions, rather than retroactive increases in those pensions, account for more of the damage. Underfunding, that is, by past taxpayers with future taxpayers holding the bag. So now what?

Note: if you just read Education in An Era of Institutional Collapse you will find some duplication. These two essays were originally posted four years apart.

For those of you who don’t know what the public schools were like in New York City in the 1970s, let me give you some examples. Buildings left to crumble. Teacher wages falling far behind inflation, to the point where NYC teachers were the worst paid (in cash) in the metropolitan area. No teaching supplies. No school sports. No art and music classes. And due to the ongoing power of the teacher’s union, something teachers received in return – no expectation that the teachers would bother to do their job.   In time NYC teachers worked fewer hours and fewer days, along with more half days, than teachers just about anywhere. Absenteeism was high. Those who cared about teaching, for the most part, went elsewhere.   NYC was left with the unmotivated, the uncertified, and those just gaining experience before moving on.

All to pay for a huge retroactive enhancement in pensions of those who cashed in and moved to Florida — the Tier I pensions in a deal cut with former Mayor Lindsay (the mayor who bankrupted the city), and to pay for Lindsay’s debts.

The rich had (and still have) their private schools – the percent of New York City children in private school is still far higher than the U.S. average, despite high costs. The middle class fled to the suburbs. If you looked at 1990 or 2000 Census data you saw the trend – a huge loss of married couple families about the time their children reached school age. Another dip when the children reached middle school age. The single parents stuck around.   There were multiple explanations for this. Crime was one. The fact that only one-third of NYC housing units have three or more bedrooms, compared with two thirds nationwide, was another. But the timing pointed to a third. Bad schools.

There were some other lifeboats. One was the parochial school system, which for tuition middle class families could barely afford, and paying a wage teachers could barely live on, provided a way to stay in the city and have their children receive at least a decent, bare bones education. Another was a network of “special deal” schools set up for the savvy, with bigger budgets per child than the schools serving the poor and staffed by the “scabs” – certified, experienced, motivated teachers. Basically political connections and being in the know – when are where to apply, what phone calls to make – got your kid into those schools. And got your kid the teacher that actually did their job within the school. Those parents who just showed up and didn’t try to work the system for their child at the expense of other children got screwed.

In the 1980s and 1990s the financial situation gradually improved. But only because those teachers who had cashed in and left the city’s schools in ruins lost part of their pensions. How? Inflation. From 1975 to 1990, the dollar lost 60 percent of its value. The Tier I beneficiaries had pillaged quite a bit, but they had not gotten an inflation escalator. That’s how the city survived and recovered from the 1970s fiscal crisis – the cost of its debts and pensions was inflated away. Unfortunately, for another decade and a half most of the money saved was not used to restore the New York City schools. It was shifted to the wasteful, overfunded schools in the rest of the state, and New York City’s high Medicaid spending, instead.

But now inflation is low, and unlike the Tier Is NYC teachers retiring at age 55 today have an automatic partial inflation adjustment. Even if there is no inflation. And they live longer. Moreover the parochial school system, always bare bones, is collapsing, caught between the financial needs of its teachers and its parents. The Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens educated a generation of middle and working class children in part by drawing down a huge endowment left over from its glory years. That endowment is gone, and the Diocese is broke and downsizing. Like the rest of the private school system, New York City’s parochial schools may end up affordable only to the affluent, even though they are staffed primarily by the uncertified and those willing to work for less.

One is already hearing whispers about the next likely step – downsizing expectations that the public schools will actually try to educate the children of the poor. Because they cannot be educated. That is the excuse the teacher’s union is moving toward as an explanation for poor performance, despite a huge increase in inflation-adjusted per student school spending throughout the country. They don’t want to say its because most of that increase will be going to the retired rather than the classroom.

I’d expect the “you will pretend to work and we will pretend to pay you” deal to return to the New York City schools after the next election. It is something the next mayor can offer the union in exchange for political support, because money for something other than pensions will not be there. The school reform era is over, because the classroom is being defunded – even if the public school system is not. Especially in New York City. Forget equality of opportunity and upward mobility. No one is going to say this straight out, of course, but expect it to happen.

So what about new lifeboats for the middle class? Charter schools will provide one of them. Expect them to serve the role that the special deal schools did in the 1980s and 1990s. Perhaps as soon as the next administration, you’ll need inside information and connections to get in. Knowing it has to buy off the affluent and connected to gain acceptance for inferior schools for everyone else, the teacher’s union is likely to tolerate the continuance of existing charter schools, if not their expansion. As long as UFT members can get their own kids in. If you are the parents of toddlers, or would-be parents, I would suggest attending fundraisers for incumbent New York State legislators, handing over big checks, and letting them know that a good education for your children is your top priority.

Another lifeboat is likely to be some kind of assisted group homeschooling. As noted in my prior post, New York City teachers receive $13,469 in wages and benefits per New York City public school child, which is $269,380 per 20 children, $161,628 per 12 children, and $107,752 for eight children. That was in FY 2010, and figure is going up even without any across the board wage increases for teachers, as fewer are hired, more receive seniority wage increases, class sizes increase, and the huge cost of 18 years of pension deals is slowly admitted to and paid for. The reason the overall cost is so high, even though teachers complain about being underpaid and class sizes are large, is a large share of the money goes to those not working.

But imagine if it didn’t. Imagine if certified teachers were allowed to hang out their shingles and get that $13,469 per child, the way certified physicians are able to hang out their shingles and accept Medicare patients. Perhaps some might want to teach twelve children in their homes, visiting city parks and libraries, and using educational resources off the internet on a laptop for each child, paying for their own health and retirement benefits, and getting extra money for watching children after school or in the summer. This is not going to be allowed to happen, because the union will not allow its members this option. But once things get bad enough, something like it may have to.

What I see is an extrapolation of three trends.

The first is homeschooling, mostly done elsewhere for religious reasons but possibly done in New York in the future when there are once again 30-plus kids in the kindergarten class, a low rated teacher in the classroom because the city cannot afford the three years and $240,000 in administrative costs to fire them, and no teaching materials.   Homeschooling reverses one of the great, unsung productivity gains in public service over the past 35 years. The public schools used to provide education. Now, with women in the workforce, those same schools provide education plus child care. (For the poor, child care without education will likely continue to be provided).

In order to accommodate the need to work with the need to get a decent education for the children, parents seeking to remain in the city would have to homeschool as a group, with perhaps eight to ten children in a group and each parent arranging for perhaps one day off every two weeks.   As noted in this post, New York City parents are already creating underground education cooperatives for pre-kindergarten, though it is very difficult to do so legally. When the kindergarten situation gets bad enough, these education coops, in addition to becoming more numerous, will expand to kindergarten and beyond.

A second trend is online education, which might make cooperative homeschooling more feasible. According to this 60 Minutes report,;videoMetaInfo

the Khan Academy is working to place an entire education, from pre-school to college, online and has shown good results. Its goal is twofold, according to the report. In developed countries, online instruction can take the place of rote lectures to the middle level of a class and routine drill, two of the tasks that take up most school time today. This would, in theory, free up the teacher to work with individual students, and allow each student to work at their own place. In underdeveloped places, with no school and no teacher but with access to a laptop and an internet connection, a free online school would at least make the possibility of education available. The Khan Academy probably didn’t expect the latter situation would probably include New York City and many other U.S. areas in the future, but here we are (again).

For perhaps $500 each, parents in an underground education co-op could equip a child with a laptop and access to online learning. For perhaps $1,500 per year, they could contribute to cost of an underground teacher who provided support for perhaps eight coops with 64 children in eight sets of eight, showing up for the day once every two weeks to help those who get stuck (and take the place of parents who get sick). That would allow such a teacher to receive $96,000 for wages and benefits. Not the $108,000 a teacher could receive to teach just eight children full time at the rate NYC teachers were compensated on average in FY 2010. But probably close to what NYC teachers with less seniority believe they are getting paid to teach in regular classes, and probably close what new teachers will get in the future as all the tax money is diverted to those cashing in and moving out.

The third trend, along with homeschooling coops for pre-schoolers and online learning, is online learning at the other end – directed by the government. Across America, states are encouraging students to take college courses and high school courses using computer software, rather than professors and teachers. There are plenty of reasons given – learn at your own pace, diverse courses not available at the local high school or community college, reducing dropouts, cutting absenteeism, etc.   The most important reason is the one not given – saving money. The reason state and local governments are pushing online education for high school rather than pre-school is the “child care” component of the job is less important for those over age 12. And because the classroom is being cut to pay for the rising cost of pensions.

Cutting off the amount of free public education at the back end has even been proposed by a task force that included Mayor Bloomberg. That group proposed just two years of high school for all, as in Europe, followed by either vocational training or pre-college community college. At the time the report was written, it was seen as a way to make things better, with taxes going to that pre-college or vocational training. Today, it is likely that students will end up paying for what used to be the last two years of high school themselves. Or not. Congratulations 16 year-old graduate! Goodbye! And you think the explosion of student loans for college, and the growing requirement that parents pay for extra-curricular activities, is bad now? Wait until they have to pay for the last two years of high school in their entirety.

Thus with the aid of information technology, the willingness to flout the law while organizing to change it, a group of motivated confederates, employers offering flexible schedules, strong parenting skills, lots of struggling would-be teachers available for tutoring at a modest per diem rate, and the ability to pay $1,500 to $2,000 per child per year, parents will be able to stay in New York City and have their children receive some semblance of an education. If those children are relatively bright and do not have special needs. And at the cost of not only money but also time in excess of their regular jobs, where they will have to work to pay the taxes for the education their children do not receive.

It is a way around the blackmail. In 1996, New York City spent $10,593 per student in $2010 on teacher wages and benefits, which was $127,116 per 12 students. And class sizes were high and schools were bad because it wasn’t enough money, we were told. Which might have been reasonable at the time, given the city’s very low spending on support services and administration and its difficult student population. So by FY 2010 the amount spent on teacher wages per student had increased by 58.4% adjusted for inflation and the amount spent on teacher benefits per students had increased by 174.6%. And now? Give us more money or you will get even worse schools, we are told. And that will go on and on and on until people realize that they’ll never get what they pay for, give up, and pursue other alternatives.

Update: As of this moment you are seeing the future unfold outside New York more than in it. But even here the head of the national teacher’s union claims the schools are underfunded, despite the highest school spending in the country and big increases over the years. And that therefore less should be expected of teachers.

Meanwhile, an online homeschool education program is now advertizing on television.

Would such a program be better than the education my wife and I received nearly 50 years ago in less than prestigious school districts? No. But it would be cheaper, and in places that are not currently benefitting from a flood of tax revenues from the Wall Street bailouts and the stock, housing and bond bubbles, that is all that matters.

New York City will be in the same situation eventually. Including the cost of their retirement benefits, NY teachers are now so much richer than most the rest of us that we will soon be unable to afford them, despite the highest tax burden in the country. And since they see so little of that money in cash, and new teachers aren’t even being promised those benefits anymore, a growing share of our teachers will be unlikely to be willing to make the same effort as teachers did 45 years ago — because the UFT keeps telling them, and everyone else, that THEY are the ones being cheated. And no one interested in a political career dares to say otherwise.