Last month, after many delays, the Pennsylvania Department of Education released academic assessment results for 2021. The results were startling: over 47 percent of our eighth-graders aren’t proficient in reading, and a whopping 78 percent are below grade level in math .
The trends show dramatic declines in student performance compared to two years ago. But even pre-pandemic numbers were unacceptably, woefully low, with more than half of our students left behind.
This woeful performance can not be blamed on a lack of funding.
In 2019-20, Pennsylvania school districts received more than $ 19,000 per student. This funding ranks seventh in the nation. Even the progressive Education Law Center gives Pennsylvania an A for its overall level of funding.
For context, $ 19,000 per student equals $ 380,000 for a class of 20, or $ 570,000 for a classroom of 30.
Where then does all this money go?
It surely is not just for teachers’ salaries. While Pennsylvania’s average teacher salary of $ 71,500 ranks 11th highest nationally (and higher when adjusting for the cost of living), according to the National Education Association, that’s only a fraction of the spending.
One of the biggest – and fastest-growing – categories of school spending is pensions. School district pension contributions went up $ 3.5 billion over the last 10 years – an incredible 533 percent increase.
Most of that belongs to the cost of paying off “unfunded liability,” or pension debt. While bad policy decisions created this debt, education special interests — including teachers union executives — were the very architects behind those bad policies.
The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) long opposed any pension reform, even with obvious benefits for teachers and taxpayers. They falsely claimed that there was no crisis and that stock market growth would eliminate pension debt.
The result: The current employer contribution rate – what school districts, or better said, what taxpayers must pay – is 35.26 percent of payroll.
That amounts to $ 25,160 for every schoolteacher.
If Pennsylvania had a 401K style plan for teachers – which, by definition, has no debt – with a generous match of six percent, school districts could raise teacher salaries by $ 20,000 and have money left over.
But PSEA lies resulted in delaying much-needed pension reform – costing taxpayers billions while harming the very teachers they represent.
Quantity over quality
This is not the only way teacher union executives harm teachers, students and taxpayers.
Teacher union executives prefer increasing the number of dues-paying members, over increasing teacher pay. Over the past 20 years, despite a seven percent drop in enrollment, public schools have added 13,000 more employees.
This union policy agenda hurts teachers – and hurts students. Many studies show that the most important factor in education is teacher quality.
Instead, union executives continue pushing for smaller classes and universal preschool, despite evidence class size has little benefit and new research showing universal preschool is a net negative.
Construction, debt, and lobbying
Of course, teacher unions aren’t the only special interest driving up costs.
Anyone concerned about “profiting off of public education” should investigate construction companies and bond lawyers – and the union leaders who make school districts pay a premium in school construction through Prevailing Wage mandates.
School districts spent $ 4.2 billion on construction and debt in 2019-20, a 50 percent increase in 10 years. As with rising pension costs, rising debt payments do not educate our kids.
Yet, that’s not the most egregious example. To fuel that overspending, school districts spend millions of your tax dollars hiring lobbyists, who lobby state government for higher taxes and spending.
Two recent Commonwealth Foundation reports tracked more than $ 10 million school districts paid to associations that lobby, and several million more to hire contract lobbyists.
Not only do these groups lobby for more spending, but against parental choice. These taxpayer-funded lobbyists are working to kill charter schools and tax credit scholarship programs – which educate students at a fraction of the cost.
Special interests that profit off of public schools, led by teacher union executives, are driving up taxpayer costs. But all that extra spending is not helping our kids or our teachers. In fact, much of it never reaches the “students” Pennsylvania spends it on.
We need a new education agenda that puts parents, students, and teachers above special interests and their Harrisburg lobbyists.
Nathan Benefield is senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.