All Politics is Local

Last night, after we all shoveled some rotisserie chicken and boxed Mac n’ cheese in our mouths, I kissed my husband, who had I seen for approximately 20 minutes that day, and ran out to the local Board of Ed meeting.

I am a regular attendee of our town’s BOE meetings. At those meetings, I often get ideas for articles and even get the whispers of a coming story that puts me ahead of my competitors. I was one of the first to write about the opt-out testing movement, because I went to the meetings and watched parents up in arms.

But I also go, because it’s good fun. There’s always some drama.

I rarely speak up at the microphone during the open public sessions, except when the topic turns to special education, though I have to say that I really love public speaking. I’ve been asked to run for the BOE, so I could do this more regularly, but at this point, I’ve got enough on my plate with Ian’s education and my articles. I keep saying no.

Last night’s meeting was about the hotly contested school budget. The entire Village council was there last night, so I got a double dose of politics. I left the meeting after three hours at around 10:30. The meeting was still going on. Most people would think a budget meeting would be dreadfully dull, but I loved it. It gives the inside scoop on a whole bunch of education debates.

When the powerpoint slide turned to the pie chart showing where money was allocated, they showed a Pac Man shaped size wedge — nearly 80 percent — that was the allocation towards salaries and benefits. Nearly all of the money goes to the teachers. Teachers salaries and benefits are fixed costs. And with tenure, they are permanent fixed costs. That leaves about several on-a-diet wedges for things like capital improvements, clubs, new curriculum, and so on.

In the meantime, people from the town council and from the public got up to the mike to complain about local property taxes. which are the highest in the nation. They say they feel oppressed by local taxes and want the school district to shrink its $34 million budget.

There have been many stories about the low pay of teachers this year, but they’ve left out this part of the puzzle. Taxpayers don’t want to pay for it.

In the meantime, there’s growing pressure to do more with less. The only way to keep educating kids without raising taxes is to attack that Pac-man pie slice, teachers’ salaries.

So, what’s going to happen? It could be that the problem could just go away, as the school-aged population drops and teachers retire without replacement. The job of teaching could be outsourced to community colleges (it’s happening) or to a computer (that’s happening, too). Or grassroots movement against taxes will be strong enough to overcome union power.

I have no idea. But I’ll be in the back row of the administrative building watching it unfold.

5 thoughts on “All Politics is Local

  1. Maybe the Brexit unicorn could deliver a bucketful of cash that’s left over from what Mexico sent for Trump’s wall. And a pony.


  2. I think the bad way that ends — taxpayers unwilling to pay is teaching becoming a de-professionalized part of a version of the contingent workforce. As you’ve pointed out, that’s a big part of the university/college model already. I expect that if taxpayers succeed in breaking unions, we’ll see teaching becoming temporary work, the Teach for America model without the elitism. We’ll combine quickly trained (MIT has a new teacher training program) and efficiency (canned curriculum) and tech (Kahn academy, online practice and testing, courses). Will it work? I don’t think so, for early education at least, because I think teaching children requires personal human connections. In high school? Maybe. And rich people will find other models.

    A key is whether parents will align with teachers or taxpayers and whether enough of them are permitted to vote.


  3. bj said,

    “I don’t think so, for early education at least, because I think teaching children requires personal human connections. In high school? Maybe.”

    High school is (all things being equal) currently more expensive to run than elementary.

    You can see this in private schools in how the upper grades are more expensive. I don’t know how reputable this is, but to give you an idea:

    “According to data from the Nation Center for Education Statistics, the average price of a year of private elementary school is $7,770, and the average annual cost of private high school is $13,030.”


    1. Those prices are funny. As a contrast, NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) 2018 report $23,000 & $30,000 medians for 3rd and 12th grade. And an additional $1600/student of giving.

      The numbers are relevant to the analysis, which compares whether living in a “good” school district and having access to the public school is cost effective compared to private education, calculation quite relevant to the discussion that Laura has started. The article does a calculation comparing median housing costs in average and good school districts & calculates the net savings over 13 years of K-12 for the average cost of private education (at a religious school) v the cost of the house in the more expensive school district. The calculation is highly sensitive to the housing costs, school costs, and the number of children (it reverses, for two children v 1).

      The numbers in the article (which are from 2014) are low because of religious schools, which enroll 80% of the 10% of students who are in private schools (2015 data). I don’t know all the reasons religious schools are able to price their education so low, but suspect that paying their teachers non-competitive salaries is a big part of the budget.


  4. There’s a good article at the guardian about how the no taxes plays out in Arizona: Education Savings Account debit cards for students at about 60% of the average amount spent on public education ($4500). This is the trend in the West. I have complicated feelings, but I wonder if that level of subsidy does actually end up working for families.

    For ones like mine, it would have been a small discount, but, I suspect our private schools would have captured the benefit by raising tuition. But the article implies that there are low cost private schools (religious, which is a problem if we dismantle public education), but does the kid with downs that they describe get a better education at her private school for $4500?

    I’m not kind of skeptical that my kids got a better education at their private schools (rather than the better experience I thought acceptable to pay for).



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