Talk of high property taxes and fraud in the administration probably cause you to think of issues on Capitol Hill. Well, not in this case. These are two major problems facing suburban school systems nationwide.
According to a recent Yankee Institute of Public Policy study, the cost of suburban schools has risen far beyond the rate of inflation because of an opportunistic relationship between parents and the public educators they are supposed to be regulating. Parent PTA members and school board members can vote on issues that directly affect their families, such as: subsidized trips abroad, full paid sabbaticals for teachers, and athletic, technology and curriculum perks.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that public schooling in the suburbs is a form of upper-middle-class-racketeering,” Lewis Andrews of the Yankee Institute writes. Parents and educators collaborate under the banner of “advancing education” to serve their own narrow interests at the expense of the broader taxpaying community.
Parents want to send their kids to the school where they will gain a quality education… and rightfully so. But “Quality” has become a deceptive code word for the services, hobbies and recreational activities meant for the narrow benefit of school children and their families, and has almost nothing to do with academic rigor, writes University of Missouri professor J. Martin Rochester. Expensive sports programs, holiday socials, pottery and ballet lessons, media centers with state of the art video equipment and rooms overflowing with computer work stations are all part of these perks.
So, the question many people are asking is, “Is it paying off?” A 2005 study by Dowd Muska of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy, using per-pupil cost and student scores on standardized tests found that very little of the higher funding available to schools was funneled into improved academic performance. Most affluent towns spend more than middle-class towns for the same educational outcomes.
Principals often brag about the wide variety of Advanced Placement classes that are offered, but ignore the fact that only a fraction of the students who take them actually earn college credit by passing an objective test. Administrators also boast about the high percentage of seniors that attend college, but fail to mention how many of them are required to take remedial courses in math, reading and writing when they arrive on campus. “The spending on special programs, technology and ‘enrichments’, crowds out time for math, reading, writing, geography and history…over 40 percent of families in Chicago have been forced to pay for tutors,” writes Wilmette, Illinois, school board member Margaret McIntyre.
It would seem that with the vested interests currently driving the high cost of suburban schools, parents and educators would be in firm control of education budgeting: however this power is now in danger of slipping from their hands. Voters without children in public schools are finding it very hard to deal with the growing tax burden. Costs keep rising, but the bills must still be paid…not always easy for newlyweds, widows, older couples and families with children in private schools. A study by Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren shows that the number one cause for bankruptcy in America is due to buying an unaffordable home.
These skyrocketing costs have prompted many taxpayers to take matters into their own hands by urging legislators to put property tax initiatives on ballots and consider limitations on how much municipalities can raise local levies. According to Lewis K. Uhler, President of the National Tax Limitation Committee, property tax revolts have exploded in twenty states nationwide.
So at what point will suburban school be prompted to make changes? That depends on two likely factors: that fraud in the administration will surface and the deflation of a highly inflated real estate market.
First, school boards must demand rigorous financial accountability from their public educator allies. For example, the New Jersey Commission of Investigation uncovered the questionable salaries and actual compensation (of school superintendents) varying by as much as 65 percent. Local governments and school boards must not ignore the warning signs.
Second, home market and property taxes must decrease, thus, lowering school budgets. After years of increases many economists see prices moving in the other direction. Home sales are 11 percent below last year’s sales and new home sales have fallen by 21 percent.
“Given the growing political clout of taxpayers without school-age children, disillusioned and financially pressed parents, the lax oversight of district budgeting, and falling real estate market, the economic structure of affluent commuter school districts, based on decades-old alliance between opportunistic parents and local educators, is eroding,” writes Andrews.
In the words of Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn, “Suburbanites who refuse to see this are living in a kind of fantasyland.”
Wendy Cook is the Assistant Director of National and International Recruitment at Liberty University.