Children and senior citizens are wonderful political tools whose needs can be manipulated as an excuse to spend more, or as a reason to refuse to spend less. The politician has yet to be born whose goal is to run on a record of saying “no” to kids or the elderly. The president’s 2012 budget request reflected that prejudice, sparing Medicare and Social Security while getting behind aggressive education initiatives.
The president plans to train 100,000 new teachers over the next decade so we can prevent future generations from being ridiculed by their better-educated foreign competition. In a Valentine’s Day appearance in Baltimore the president mingled with students, furthering their education by misinforming them as to why we are running a deficit:
So right now I’m in the process of putting together a big federal budget. And some of you may know that we’ve got a big deficit because we just came out of a big recession, and so people are worried about how we’re going to be able to pay for things in the future.1
A better teacher would have explained that our government is running a deficit because it spends money it does not have, that the recession made matters worse, and that the president and his Congressional enablers kept spending anyway. That teacher might also discuss how some lawmakers value election results over national solvency, and how their pandering to special interests helped dig a fiscal trench. Classrooms of well-informed, pre-teen cynics may not be a laudable goal for our education system, but perhaps kids should learn just how dismal their futures will be if we refuse to cut back.
During the Baltimore photo op the president was flanked by Education Secretary and fellow ex-Chicagoan Arne Duncan, and OMB Director Jack Lew. Duncan has been hard at work publicizing this week’s “National Conference on Labor-Management Collaboration.” In a PR piece with a title containing a curious reference to African American students, Duncan claimed that:
Union leaders and administrators across the country are finding new ways to work together to focus on student success.2
Since union leaders have been invited to help determine the future of our children, pay and benefits are part of the conference discussion. The “Compensation and Benefits” portion of the agenda mentions the following suggestions:
. . . create portable savings plan options for teachers with mobile careers, so they don’t lose the employer contribution to their pension; jointly encourage pension portability agreements with nearby states, local pension systems or other public employment pension systems, thereby creating more career opportunities for educators. 3
97% of primary, secondary, and special education teachers working for state and local governments have access to retirement benefits, compared to 65% of private sector workers.4 Portability is a big issue, because those public benefits really add up. Private sector workers are familiar with their version of portability. The process is referred to as “rolling over your 401(k),” and is also subject to vesting and other requirements if an employee changes jobs.
Responsible discussion with government about education spending should focus on cutting back federal handouts to states and localities, not finding new ways to force taxpayers to fund benefits that states cannot afford. Since the president insists on adding education to the list of items we will spend on no matter what, now is the time to divest ourselves of the idea that teachers, and public sector employees in general, are getting a raw deal. This is not the 1800s. Teachers may not be getting rich, but they are not living by the grace of students’ families, either. Mean wages for K-12 teachers in May 2009 ranged from $50,380 to $55,150 annually5 for a work year of 37-38 weeks.>sup>6
Teachers are among the most highly unionized public sector employees, and their cost of employment is high. The average employer cost per hour for all civilian labor was $29.75 per hour in September 2010, but for K-12 teachers the figure was $52.55 per hour. Retirement benefits cost an average of $1.34 per hour for civilian labor overall, but for teachers the cost is almost three times higher at $3.89 per hour.7
If the president insists on education spending, then that spending must be tied to changes in public employee benefits that are crushing state budgets. Uncle Sam is well versed in attaching conditions to handouts. 100,000 new teachers should be handed 100,000 new 401(k)s. Otherwise, the increased spending will be little more than an excuse to add to the ranks of organized labor and the public sector, instead of setting a precedent for change. Anyone that tells you that ramping up spending for education is for the benefit of our undereducated children is not telling the truth. Kids are the excuse to spend, not the reason.