Our Public Schools Are in Crisis — and Pensions Are the Problem

School districts across the country are continually being forced to scale back resources and cut public funding on educational initiatives. This has been an immediate reaction to the extensive financial holes left from budget shortfalls during the Great Recession, but as local officials grapple with these challenges, it is difficult not to take a step back and ask oneself: How did these immense gaps spiral out of control in the first place? While we can attribute financial instability to the slow recovery process facing both the private and public sector, the underlying issue of our education budget shortcomings is a lack of leadership from public officials who have played politics with taxpayer money and public employee pensions rather than work towards substantive solutions to fix this bankrupt system. 

A primary case study that has recently received widespread media attention this past week involves the Chicago Public Schools and their decision to solve this looming pension crisis by raising property taxes on residents and by cutting 2,110 teachers from their current payroll. This controversially constructed plan involved top secret deliberations with the end result sending shockwaves throughout the community, particularly the teacher’s union. The board unveiled a $5.6 billion budget plan that contained deep cuts which disproportionately were aimed directly at the classroom. 

A spokeswoman for the Board of Education has said that due to the state legislature’s lack of compromise on comprehensive pension reform, officials are tasked with filling a $1 billion budget deficit, as they must make contributions to previous pension obligations. This situation is not idiosyncratic, as this has been documented as a growing problem throughout the country over the past couple of years. A recent Education Week article highlighted that states have roughly $325 billion in unfunded pension liabilities and failure by state representatives to take action to bring solvency to this system has had a ripple effect, from the steps of each state capitol to the steps of schools across the nation. Chicago Public Schools, which has one of the largest school districts in the U.S., provides an essential context surrounding the current state of our public education system. Over the past 10 years, while education budgets grew at unprecedented rates, numerous studies have displayed that student achievement levels have decreased or remained stagnant. If throwing money at the problem of student achievement was the answer to improving educational quality, why hasn’t it been working and where is all the money going? 

The answer is simple. While politicians were busy making promises that they are unable to keep to the American workforce regarding salary and benefits, our students were being shuffled through the systems with no tangible advancements in the quality of classroom resources. The PBS documentary of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee provided illumination into the governmental waste in spending that has been hidden in educational legislation, as increased funds (generally from raising property and education taxes) are going to grow a central-office bureaucracy rather than making it into the classroom to help our most vulnerable students. On the other end of the losing side are our great teachers, who are selflessly paying out of pocket to provide supplemental books and resources in their classrooms to ensure that their students are learning the appropriate material in a timely manner. So how are politicians repaying them? With no real solution to solving the pension crisis, and by cutting employed teachers to make up for lost ground. 

With all the absence of leadership surrounding the pension problem, there is an example of a true education reformer who got it right. Two years ago, Governor Chris Christie (R) brought the issue of pension and health benefits reform to the forefront of the New Jersey political landscape and effectively fostered a conducive environment for legislators to fiercely debate the appropriate course of action in an effort to establish a sustainable model. Under the premise of shared sacrifice, the governor, with bipartisan support from Democratic leadership and the entire Republican caucus, was able to pass sweeping pension and health benefit reform legislation in the state of New Jersey. It is imperative that we demand bipartisanship in the decision-making process as it is the only way we will be able to progress forward in a productive manner. 

Facilitating a fundamental transformation in how we allocate funds to our schools, as well as modifying the emphasis we place on valuable assets to school communities, is the pathway to creating the most talented and competent workforce to date. The next generation of leaders is counting on us to demonstrate our commitment to education, so it is time we step off the sidelines and enforce the ideal that all students should be afforded the highest quality of education possible, and it should not be affected by unfunded pension liabilities from dishonest politicians.