Schooled Reporting on education

Grading the arguments behind teacher strikes

Education | Are lawmakers or pension plans to blame for squeezing education paychecks?
by Leigh Jones
Posted 5/09/18, 12:05 pm

Sporting red T-shirts, many with the sleeves rolled up to catch any whisper of breeze in the nearly 100-degree heat, Arizona teachers marched through Phoenix last week and camped out on the Capitol lawn to lobby for pay raises and better education funding. They waved catchy signs to make their point that read “Sorry we’re closed. We’re trying to fund our future!” “Our students’ future depends on education—Fund it!” and “Starving the schools. Feeding the rich.”

Arizona educators, ranked among the lowest paid in the nation, blame tax cuts and stagnant state revenue for their woes. They accuse lawmakers of failing to adequately fund education. But conservative education analysts give that criticism a D-minus for accuracy.

Between 1992 and 2014, teacher pay across the country shrank by 2 percent, but inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending grew by 27 percent, according to Frederick M. Hess with the American Enterprise Institute. In Kentucky and West Virginia, two other states where teachers walked out earlier this year to push lawmakers for more funding, education spending increased by more than 35 percent over the same period.

States are spending money on education, but it’s not trickling down to teacher paychecks. So where’s it going? Pensions.

Although they might not be paid as well as some college graduates, teachers bank some of the best benefits around. The average civilian employee gets $1.78 in retirement benefits per work hour, while public school teachers get $6.22 per hour. Between 2003 and 2014, average benefits spending for educators rose from $14,000 to $21,000. But that money isn’t helping today’s teachers. It’s paying down pension debt generated by benefits guaranteed to yesterday’s teachers.

Given the pension pressure, teachers surely would support reforms to the benefit plans collapsing under their own weight, right? Nope.

In Kentucky, which has one of the most underfunded public pension plans in the nation, teachers rallied against pension reforms that would only apply to new teachers, not those already in the classroom. They also lobbied for—and got—a boost in education funding that amounts to $19 per student, about $12.5 million. But that pales in comparison to the $3.3 billion the state will spend over the next two years to shore up its public-employee pension plan. Analyst Chad Aldeman, a former Obama administration Education Department official, notes that if Kentucky lawmakers didn’t have to pump money into the pension fund and instead directed those funds into teacher paychecks, educators could be making $11,401 more than they are now.

And Kentucky isn’t the only state with a pension problem. Pension costs across the nation rose from 4.8 percent to 8.9 percent of education budgets between 2004 and 2015, and teacher pension systems are drowning in half a trillion dollars in unfunded liabilities. Olivia Mitchell, executive director of the Pension Research Council at the University of Pennsylvania, predicts defined benefit plans, which guarantee specific retirement perks, eventually will push the country into a crisis: “Pensions are now becoming the tail that wags the government dog, if you will.”

They’re also the elephant in the room at teacher protests, where educators complain about the problem but aren’t willing to contribute to the solution.

Dress code as Title IX violation?

Should teenage girls be required to wear bras to school? The American Civil Liberties Union doesn’t think so. The litigious group issued a thinly veiled lawsuit threat to a Florida school district that forced a 17-year-old girl to don a second shirt and wear bandages over her nipples when she came to class without the undergarment.

Braden River High School officials said Lizzy Martinez had caused a distraction, a claim the ACLU dismissed as “sexist” and “paternalistic.”

“The justification reflects overly broad and archaic generalizations about boys’ inability to control their impulses and girls’ inability to make their own decisions about the clothing that makes them feel safe and comfortable,” ACLU attorneys wrote in a letter to the district Monday.

The ACLU claims the school’s dress code violates Title IX, the federal Civil Rights Act statute that requires equal treatment for the sexes. Boys aren’t required to wear bras, therefore girls shouldn’t have to either, their argument goes. While that reasoning might hold up in theory, it falls apart under the weight of those “archaic generalizations.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, dress codes unfairly target girls, but that’s because teenage boys don’t generally wear tight jeans, short shorts, or shirts with spaghetti straps. Why do girls wear them? Because the culture tells them they’re supposed to appeal to boys’ impulses. —L.J.

Associated Press/Photo by Mel Evans file) Associated Press/Photo by Mel Evans file) Stephen Sweeney

Teachers union reps caught in conservative sting

Project Veritas strikes again, this time taking on the New Jersey teachers union. The conservative watchdog group known for using undercover reporting tactics to catch officials saying things they shouldn’t released videos last week showing union reps discussing the ways they protect teachers accused of wrongdoing. In one video, the head of the Union City Education Association describes shielding a teacher who had sex with a teenage girl. The head of the Hamilton Education Association said his job often includes defending “the worst people.”

Union officials accused Project Veritas leader James O’Keefe of editing the videos to make the comments sound worse than they were, a common claim levied against him. But the union also suspended the officials involved and launched an internal investigation into local affiliates’ practices. Now a state senator wants lawmakers to weigh in. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, called the videos unacceptable. “They can attack the videos and who did the videos all they want,” Sweeney said of the union reps. “But those words were real, those actions were real, and they need to be dealt with.” Adding an additional layer to the drama, the New Jersey Education Association spent millions last year trying to unseat Sweeney, making his reelection bid the most expensive state legislative race in U.S. history. —L.J.

Carter at Liberty

President Donald Trump gave last year’s commencement address at Liberty University, the first president in 27 years to speak to the Christian university’s graduates. Trump’s invitation didn’t come as a surprise, given university President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s strong support for the president. But it did cause controversy. This year’s speaker is just as unconventional for a different reason. Former President Jimmy Carter, who popularized the term “born-again” Christian and hails from the far other end of the political spectrum, will deliver the May 19 speech. Adam Laats, a Binghamton University professor, offers an interesting analysis of why Falwell might have invited such a liberal icon to give the conservative school’s graduates their official send-off. —L.J.

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.

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  • JerryM
    Posted: Thu, 05/10/2018 07:58 pm

    Re: Dress code as Title IX violation

    This is consistent with what is becoming a long line of other progressive ideological causes which ignores or distorts empirical evidence and common sense.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 05/11/2018 10:10 am

    It is a bit dishonest to dress up teacher pensions as the black hole into which all the increase in education funding is disappearing. It is further dishonest to imply that the increases in state pension funding are all going to teachers. State pension funding covers very large groups of people above and beyond the ranks of teachers--and mostly, though not entirely, with salaries and pension layouts higher than teachers. Why no shared disdain here for judges, state troopers, city and county employees, public health officials, and many other peope who typically feed at the state pension trough?

    Pensions, yes, are a major source of increased education expenses, but so also are school security measures and massive expansion in areas of special education, intervention services for students deemed at-risk not to graduate, and a variety of student- and parent-handholding services that schools never used to deem necessary. All of these increased educational expenses have been driven by parent demands on state and national legislatures, not by teachers. And, along with all these new services provided by schools have grown layers of administration to oversee and report on (as mandated by enabling legislation) the new services. With no new funds earmarked to cover these increased expenses on the schools, class sizes and teacher loads have skyrocketed.

    Let's talk about unfunded mandates on the educational system before we cast teacher pensions as the sole villain in this problem.