Not long after Los Angeles’ teachers returned to work after a six-day strike last month, more than 5,000 teachers in Colorado’s largest school district went on strike demanding higher pay. The Denver strike was resolved after three days, but it’s likely that this is just the beginning of teacher activism in 2019. Teachers in California, West Virginia and Virginia are gearing up to fight. As the legislative season gets rolling, teacher pay and education funding are hot topics in statehouses across the country.
Given all this it would be easy to believe, as many do, that America’s schools are starved of funding. But that argument doesn’t fully match the data. While there is variation across states, school funding has increased dramatically over the past 40 years.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending on public education has more than doubled since the 1970s. So why all the unrest? To answer that, we need to take a look at how all that new money has been spent.
The first part of the answer is that U.S. public schools have added large numbers of instructional, administrative and support staff over the past four decades. […]
At the same time, rising benefits costs are squeezing school budgets nationwide. While average inflation-adjusted teacher salaries have been relatively stagnant since 1990, benefits costs have risen from 16.8 percent of expenditures in 1990 to 23 percent of today’s much larger expenditure base.
More recently, the growth of retirement costs — in particular, payments to cover unfunded benefits earned by teachers for past service — has placed pressure on school budgets. Almost every state increased teachers’ retirement benefits in the booming 1990s. But the additional promises were not accompanied by responsible funding plans. Overfunded at the turn of the millennium, by 2003, teacher pension plans were collectively short by $235 billion. By 2009, pension debt had more than doubled, to $584 billion.
The strong bull market since the Great Recession has not put a dent in the shortfall, which now totals well more than $600 billion. As a result of pension-funding shortfalls, retirement costs per pupil have more than doubled since 2004, from about $530 to more than $1,300 today.
Retirement costs now exceed 10 percent of all education expenditures on average across the country. Unfortunately, the majority of these contributions do not benefit teachers in today’s classrooms because roughly 70 percent of retirement contributions are going to pay down debt rather than for new benefits.
Growing retirement costs for these legacy-benefit promises pose a challenge for many school districts to maintain their current level of services, much less to hire new teachers and support staff or give high-quality teachers a pay raise.
Read the whole article at USA Today for more about the dangers created by rising benefit costs for students and teachers.
This article quotes selections from “Teachers strike for higher pay because administration and benefits take too much money” by Joshua B. McGee, in USA TODAY on February 18, 2019