Where school dollars go to die

Where school dollars go to die

A new study points fingers at charter schools for malfeasance, but traditional public schools are still by far #1 in wasteful spending.

The National Education Association wants you to know that it is very concerned about your pocketbook! The teachers union is touting a brand new study released by the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), a nonprofit organization “that promotes equity, opportunity, and a dynamic democracy in partnership with innovative basebuilding organizations, organizing networks and alliances, and progressive unions across the country.” (In less elegant terms, CPD is a union front group.)

The CPD study claims to document millions of dollars in “alleged and confirmed cases of fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement in charter schools.” The statistic that is supposed to make us gasp is that charter school malfeasance has cost taxpayers $223 million since 1994.

I have no idea whether the instances they cite are accurate – probably some are and some aren’t. (NEA even hedges by using the term “alleged cases.”) Now, to be sure $223 million is considerable but it is important to note that just about every case they cite involves an individual engaged in shady business practices – fiddling with the books, filing fallacious enrollment documents, etc. And if the charges are accurate, the perpetrators should be spending time in the clink. But the fraud the report cites is a barely a drop in the bucket compared to what the Big Guv/Big Ed/Big Union monopoly wastes year-in and year-out. And unlike the charter school abuses, traditional public school waste is typically institutional, and written into teacher union contracts and state law.

In fact, examples of institutional waste could fill the Grand Canyon, but I will give just a few egregious examples here. And I don’t even have to leave town to do so; I can simply look at my hometown: Los Angeles.

First, there’s the Mark Berndt case. This pedophile sexually abused children for years at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. For many reasons – including careless dismissal of children’s claims, missing teacher files, and operating in a union-orchestrated culture of non-accountability and labyrinthine dismissal statutes – Berndt got away with doing unspeakable things to his students for over 20 years. The system is so perverse that even after learning of the teacher’s horrific deeds, the school district couldn’t get rid of him without going through a lengthy appeals process costing over $300,000. When his crimes were fully exposed, Berndt gamed the system by accepting a $40,000 bribe and retiring – but only after racking up another year of credit toward his pension, before – finally – starting a lengthy prison sentence.

The various lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District over Berndt have cost the district some $200 million…thus far. When added to four other sexual abuse cases in LA, the cost to the district: $300 million.

So… five cases of district-union impropriety have cost one school district more money than all the instances of CPD-alleged charter school fraud across the U.S. over 23 years. But wait, there’s so much more….

The Berndt case is hardly an isolated one. In 2010 LA Weekly carefully documented the story of seven LAUSD teachers whom everyone – principals, parents, kids (but no teacher union boss) – agreed should have been fired. The bottom line: LAUSD spent $3.5 million trying to get rid of them but only four got the axe, after legal struggles that lasted, on average, five years. Two of the three others were paid large settlements, and one was reinstated. The cost to the children, however, who had the misfortune to be in any of the lemon’s classes, is incalculable.

But from a pure dollars-and-cents standpoint, the above examples pale when compared to the “master’s bump,” which increases a teacher’s salary upon completion of a master’s degree. Also, many school districts give teachers raises just for taking “professional development classes,” which are alleged to make them more proficient. But the truth is that additional classes for teachers have zero effect on their success in the classroom.

In 2012, the progressive Center for American Progress delved into the uselessness and the outrageous costs of the master’s bump, stating that “the billions of dollars tied up in master’s bumps are not available for compensation vehicles better aligned with a school district’s strategic goals such as improving student achievement.”

In 2011, “The Teacher Quality Roadmap,” a study conducted by the National Council on Teacher Quality, found that out of 102 statistical tests examined over a 30 year period, “approximately 90 percent showed that advanced degrees had either no impact at all or, in some cases, a negative impact on student achievement.”

Or, as Harvard researcher Tom Kane puts it, “Paying teachers on the basis of master’s degrees is equivalent to paying them based on hair color.”

But – as promised – the looniest example of all is right here in the City of (Spendthrift) Angels. The United Teachers of Los Angeles contract stipulates that for coursework to qualify as professional development, it must be “directly related to subjects commonly taught in the District.” So a kindergarten teacher can take a class about “The Economy in Antebellum America,” and receive what is euphemistically called “salary-point credit” for it. Or an American history teacher could take a course which focuses on identifying different kinds of plankton and also get a bump in pay. The cost to taxpayers in extra salary payments to teachers who take such courses is a whopping $519 million a year. So 25 percent of the district’s teacher payroll – every year – essentially goes down the drain.

So while NEA is sounding alarm bells about $223 million squandered over a 23 year period, LAUSD spends more than twice that every year on the union-perpetuated myth that salary point classes make teachers better.

In a song about outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie wrote, “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” Today LAUSD, armed with an arsenal of pens and a union contract, regularly and legally, robs the taxpayer in broad daylight.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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