Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unintended Consquences: Meredith Menden on Teacher Pay

Meredith Menden wrote a sarcastic Facebook note titled, "Are you sick of highly paid teachers?" proposing to pay teachers directly like babysitters, i.e., $19.50 a day. $19.50 x 30 kids x 180 days a year = $105,300 a year. Let's take Ms. Menden's idea further and actually consider paying teachers directly. First, we have to figure out how much each of us are paying teachers now.

In 2009, Californians filed about 12.8 million tax returns. (http://www.ftb.ca.gov/aboutFTB/Tax_Statistics/2009_Filing_Season_Statistics.shtml)

California's annual budget is about $89 billion. The annual budget number is different from the amount available in the general fund. The general fund is basically the state's operating budget and includes money that covers the day-to-day activities of various state programs.
The state's annual budget number includes expenses outside the general day-to-day activities of various state agencies and is therefore higher than the amount available for its general fund.

About 40% to 50% of the general fund usually goes to K-12 education. For 2011-2012, when including college funding, about 55% of the general fund will be spent on all education (DOF link here), with about 42.8% spent on K-12 education (see Governor's eBudget summary).

In 2011-2012, Jerry Brown is proposing that we spend $37.7 billion on K-12 education: http://www.ebudget.ca.gov/StateAgencyBudgets/6010/agency.html

So California plans on spending about $38 billion on K-12 education in 2011-2012--and that only includes the amount received from the state. (K-12 schools receive more funding from other sources, but we'll ignore those sources for now.) Each state tax filer is paying about 3K a year on K-12 education. Instead of giving that money to the government each year, why not return it to each taxpayer and add another 1K, even to people who do NOT generally file tax returns (i.e., poor people)?

Under this system, a poor parent would get an additional 4K a year to spend on his or her child's education. A married couple with two children would have 4K to spend on each child's tuition. A
married couple with only one child could receive up to 8K. If parents don't spend the full amount on schooling costs, they would be required to spend any excess money in the county where they live. All recipients with K-12 children must spend at least 2K of their 4K on K-12 tuition. Payments and purchases would be tracked using something similar to our current EBT card system.

Adults who have no desire to attend school or who have no children would receive 2K in tax credits but must spend the money within their county of residence.
Depending on the state's finances, this proposal could be extended to college students to help them pay for tuition. (Instead of increasing college tuition costs as we're doing now, we might be able to help college students reduce higher education costs).

Taxpayers who earn more than 125K a year in adjusted gross income would not be eligible for the 2K tax credit or 4K tuition credit. Once again, any tax credit not used on tuition or reducing a person's tax liability will be loaded on a card that must be spent on a business physically located in the taxpayer's county of residence.

More ideas: teachers would be hired based on one year contracts. A month before the end of the school year, a majority vote of the parents by secret ballot could remove the teacher. Requiring that all recipients with school-age children must spend at least 2K of their 4K on K-12 tuition gives teachers a *minimum* salary of 60K a year (assuming 30 kids--2 x 30). Parents who have only one child would have to pay 4K a year (2K each is required to be used for school), which would increase the teacher's salary beyond 60K in many cases. The money would go into a common pool and be divided among the different teachers in science, math, English, etc. In exchange for higher pay, teachers would be responsible for their own health care and retirement, just like many people in the private sector. With so many more people buying individual health and dental care plans, the overall cost of individual insurance plans would fall, creating an indirect benefit for poor people, the uninsured, and the self-employed.

If parents want to spend more on teachers, they can give them up to 120K (4 x 30) or more. If you're concerned about poor people in California, many poor people live in the Central Valley and way up north. 60K a year--the minimum salary--is good money in places like Fresno, Bakersfield, outskirts of Sacramento, etc. Of course, millions of poor people live outside of the Central Valley and in more expensive places like L.A., San Jose, etc.
Most likely, these parents would have to spend their entire 4K voucher on a local school (if we assume more affluent neighborhoods will vote in higher salaries for teachers). However, poor parents will still have more choices and more of a voice in their children's education because teachers would have to cater directly to them to get their votes at the end of the year. In any case, under this proposal, all poor adults, even those without children, would receive 2K more every single year.

One issue is factoring in the increase in expected tax returns. Obviously, there will be more than 13 million people filing taxes if they know they will get between 2K to 4K. Also, we would have to create a new agency to investigate fraud/kickbacks, supervise the annual secret ballot vote, verify residency,
prosecute parents who don't send their kids to school, etc. But if existing funding sources are inadequate, let's assume we could implement at least two measures to cover any expected shortfall: one, raise sales taxes (that's what we're doing now when we have a shortfall); and two, force all government employees making over 100K to take a 15% pay cut down to a minimum of 100K. We may not have to implement either of those measures if we handle additional sources of funding wisely. Lest we forget, we haven't even included federal money and local property taxes, which are around 11% and 21% of K-12 school funding (See here). Those are tens of billions of dollars of existing funding we have not yet discussed or included in our calculations.

Another note: we would have to cut P.E., which means we would teach five subjects instead of six subjects (e.g., English, math, science, social studies, and one elective, e.g., a foreign language, logic, music, etc.). The ambitious high school students could enroll at the local community college if they wanted more classes.

There are some important factors I haven't considered (e.g., what if parents have more than two kids? how do we best count the votes of divorced and/or single parents?), but we can see that existing funding is enough to improve the education system and also assist low-income parents. Whatever
we're doing now is not assisting the children of low-income parents, so we ought to be open to all ideas. Why not consider a plan that would help increase accountability, pay teachers more, and help poor people? Most studies show that academic success tends to be influenced most by levels of parental income, parental education, and parental involvement. The proposed idea addresses all three aforementioned factors.


1) Complaint: not all poor people live in the Central Valley, and private schools are expensive.

Response: the poor people in the larger cities would probably have to use the full amount of their 4K vouchers to attend public schools, but they would still have more choices. Remember that under our current system, poor people must currently enroll their children in a pre-determined school, regardless of whether it is failing or dangerous. Giving parents a voucher for 4K allows them to consider charter schools and to demand more accountability.

Some people have said that private schools cost more than 4K a year. Well, some do, and some don't. Right now, we don't have much competition in schooling, and rich people are the ones with options. However, once we establish a voucher system, it is likely that new charter and new private schools that cost between 2K and 4K annually would crop up and be available to everyone, not just rich people.

And remember: we're not eliminating public schools or forcing anyone to attend a charter school. All we're doing is demonstrating that we can double teacher pay using existing resources (and still have plenty of money left over). All public schools would be required to enroll students with 4K vouchers. The true debate centers around the process the parents would use to determine whether they would have to use 2K or the full 4K amount of their vouchers, i.e., is it a majority vote of the class, school, county, etc.?

2) Complaint: healthcare coverage would be difficult on the private market, because you are switching tens of thousands of teachers from group coverage to individual coverage.

Isn't it true that under Obamacare, insurers must cover all individuals regardless of pre-existing conditions? In any case, the health insurance issue is a separate topic that can be addressed via state or federal legislation.

3) Complaint: the proposed idea eliminates administrators and other non-teaching staff.

The proposed idea eliminates administrators and other non-teaching staff so we can pay most teachers more money. We can modify the plan to add more money for basic maintenance costs, which are not a large portion of California's existing education budget. About 80 to 85% of California's K-12 budget currently goes directly in the pockets of school employees. (
http://www.ed-data.k12.ca.us/articles/article.asp?title=teachers+in+california) If we can resolve the school employee funding issue, which is about 85% of the battle, we can easily deal with the remaining 15%.

To the extent we cannot replace the remaining funding needs by increasing sales taxes or decreasing the salaries of high earning government employees, remember that we have not included additional sources of funding. Only 61% of K-12 school funding comes from the state. As discussed above, the federal government provides an additional 11% and local property taxes provide another 21%. (See here.) In short, our calculations above have not included tens of billions of dollars of existing funding. Even without including the additional sources of funding, we have devised a system that could potentially double the average teacher salary in California.

4) Complaint: poor kids sometimes receive their only meal of the day at school. What about cafeteria staff?

An additional 2K a year gives parents over eleven dollars a day to replace any missed school lunches (assuming 180 school days). In schools that require the full 4K voucher, we can require the schools to feed children at least once a day. See response to number 3 above. Again, we have not considered other sources of funding from the state, local property taxes, lotto sales, etc.

5) Complaint: what about the existing pension and medical benefit obligations we owe to retired teachers?

The proposed plan eliminates unpredictable, unsustainable liabilities for incoming teachers in exchange for higher pay. Basically, teachers get paid more and taxpayers get more budget flexibility and predictability.

What about existing and retired teachers? The studies I've seen indicate that existing plans to cover such liabilities are underfunded by around $30 to $50 billion. We can apportion a set amount each year from federal or local property taxes to cover existing liabilities owed to retired teachers. If we spread out the funding over thirty years, we should be able to cover existing liabilities. We could also change the way benefits are calculated for existing teachers, such as increasing their contributions to pension and medical plans.

6) Complaint: what about making sure that all students, nationwide, are learning the same basic skills?

Remember: we haven't touched sources of federal money in the above calculations. The federal government usually provides about 11% of education funding in California.

In exchange for accepting federal money, the federal government can require schools to fail students who do not pass a basic competency test at the end of the year. Results would be released before parents vote on whether to retain their child's teacher. Under this method, parents would have a nationwide standard to measure both student and teacher performance while also giving teachers more flexibility in how to teach.

Bonus: Did you know the average California teacher receives the equivalent--at least as of 2011--of about $500,000 when s/he retires? Never heard that before, huh? Funny how the teachers' unions don't mention that. More here.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think it's really dangerous to privatize education. The biggest victims would be low-income people.

Quite frankly, I don't know of any private non-parochial schools in which the tuition is a mere $4,000 a year in California. In fact, tuition for private schools in the San Francisco Bay Area range from $9,000 for elementary schools to $14,000 a year for high schools.


In this downturn economy, more and more families are entering the ranks of the newly poor. They are living off unemployment benefits and they simply do not have the money to supplement any tuition subsidy that you propose.

The only other option is for the parent to send his/her child to a parochial school which average about $3,500.

And I have serious reservations about this. No one should be forced to send their children to a religious school because they can't afford anything else. Also, there may be a serious conflict between the separation of church and state.

Moreover, I am deeply concerned about the quality of private schools. I think it's a fallacy to presume that private schools are superior to public schools.

Case and point is that there is no law in California requiring that teachers in private schools possess a teaching credential.

Nor does the California Department of Education regulate private schools.

More importantly, private schools in California do not have Academic Private Index scores.

See http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/ps/rq/psfaq.asp.

If you can't measure quality of academic success, how can you argue in good conscious that a private school would be better?

Moreover, I think your proposal for parents to vote on the renewal of teachers' contracts is quite dangerous.

We do not live in a meritocracy. Oftentimes, workers are rewarded based on personalities and not work ethic. For example, Teacher A has a great personality and is good with parents. However, her classroom's performance may be average.

Teacher B is a quiet and shy with parents. However, he has a great rapport with the children. Hence, they excel in the classroom.

Whose contract would be renewed? I would bet my bottom dollar that Teacher A would win due to personality and not work performance.

Finally, I think your proposal to provide people without children a tax credit to spend in their county of residence would plunge our state into a deeper fiscal crisis.

First of all, the state of California should not be giving money to those who do not need it services. Yes, I realize you have capped your proposal at $125,000. However, why should a person making sixty grand get this money?

Instead, this money should be spent on vital social programs and services that help those in need. Period.

More importantly, there would be tons of bureaucratic tape created if those who receive this special tax credit are forced to spend it in their county of residence.

How do you prove these monies were spent in your county of residence? A receipt? A declaration from the service provider or merchant?

And who would pick up the costs for the audits to make sure there was compliance?

I foresee a bureaucratic nightmare in the making if such a proposal were adopted.

-Just my two cents