Tuesday, February 21, 2006

NWA Times: Publik Skools are Big Business

The Northwest Arkansas Times ran an editorial a few weeks ago on the salaries of school superintendents.

In the 2004-05 Annual Report as published by the Fayetteville School District, Superintendent Bobby C. New headed a district that educated 8,329 students and employed roughly 1,300, with a district with a total budget of $76,805,372. Make no mistake about it — this is big business. The public education system is among the most important industries in Arkansas. By comparison, Fayetteville city government’s budget in 2006 totals roughly $120 million. The labored point we’re trying to make is that businesses with operating budgets into the millions (or billions, for that matter) demand the best CEOs available to help make sure every single i is dotted and every last t gets crossed. And, in the case of the Fayetteville School District, considering the education of thousands of young people depends directly on day-to-day decision-making, it matters a great deal who runs the show.... But, the question always arises when superintendents’ salaries become the focus: Why not cut their pay and put that money toward funding better schools? Suspicions of this sort received backup on Jan. 13, when a report by the Legislative Audit Division calculating the value of superintendents’ salaries and benefits was released. All told, $24.2 million was paid to the state’s superintendents over the course of the 2004-05 school year. Average superintendent pay in the Natural State was $96,050, while the average district size was 1,786 students. Regarding specifics, Little Rock’s Roy Brooks was the highest-paid superintendent in Arkansas during the 2004-05 school year, when he received salary and benefits totaling $232,555. Springdale’s Jim Rollins was close behind, receiving a financial package totaling $215,854. In Fayetteville, the district chose to compensate New at $198,235 for his distinguished service.... Are high salaries for superintendents inherently bad? One could always argue that smalltown superintendents deserve much less pay than their peers in bigger communities — but that doesn’t change the fact that every school board wants the best and brightest leading the educational effort for their community’s children.... The demands placed on superintendents and the performance expectations demand high salaries.... Grousing about or reducing pay for superintendents would satisfy some folks who would feel good about "sticking it to the man," so to speak. But suggesting that cuts in their pay will have any benefit for Arkansas’ education system is simply laughable, while maintaining good salaries promises to attract quality candidates when openings occur and will keep skilled administrators in place.

The Times editorial makes a lot of implicit assumptions that don't bear much looking into. Is there any reason that local education has to be "big business," organized like an "industry"? Is any inherent efficiency achieved by present degrees of centralism and hierarchy? Perhaps the problem is that education is so bureaucratic and centralized, in the first place, as to require the services of such professional administrators. Maybe it should be decentralized to the point where their services are no longer required. Maybe, as Peter Drucker put it, they're doing efficiently what shouldn't be done at all.

As I've written elsewhere, I often do a mental exercise of trying to imagine how much a frugal, small-scale schooling cooperative would cost if a group of twenty or thirty parents got together to set up a venture.

Taking into account things like renting a house for class space, and hiring teacher(s), the annual expense wouldn't be over $1500 per pupil. Existing "public" schools, on the other hand, spend upwards of $6000. Most of the difference lies in the proliferation of parasitic bureaucrats with prestige salaries, and the fact that the state's aura of majesty requires specially designed Stalinist architecture on the most expensive real estate in town.

This is a common pattern. When you try to figure out how much it would cost to organize a service for yourself, from the bottom up, and compare it to what you're paying now, it's stunning. Where does all the money go? It goes to support parasitic centralized bureaucracies with no incentive to economize. It's amazing how creative and thrifty ordinary people can be when they're spending their own money, instead of stolen loot.

Of course, the figure I came up with is only for bare bones service--extra-curricular activities and electives would be extra. But it seems to me that the cost of things like music lessons and amateur sports, in themselves, would be relatively modest. The main cost of extra-curricular activities today is the prestige aspects of organized competition with other schools. But believe it or not, there was a time when kids organized sports for themselves, and the main expense was a ball.

And considering that information is the cheapest thing in the world to move, and the proliferation of things like open-source textbooks and course notes, it's amazing that we've still got an educational model geared toward transporting people to a central "brain factory" for processing into "human resources." On second thought, it's not that amazing, considering that the original purpose of the government school system was to manufacture obedient drones for the corporate state.

As Paul Goodman described it in People or Personnel, even non-profits and cooperatives are infected with the pathologies of corporate-bureaucratic organizational culture: multiple layers of status-salared management, the "professionalization of job functions, high overhead, and corporate gobbledygook like mission statements. This hegemonic form of organization preempts alternative models of bottom-up organization:

[The] genius of our centralized bureaucracies has been..., as they interlock, to form a mutually accrediting establishment of decision-makers, with common interests and a common style....

In brief, ...the inevitability of centralism will be self-proving. A system destroys its competitors by pre-empting the means and channels, and then proves that it is the only conceivable mode of operating.

In "public" education, the roots of the problem lie in the so-called "progressive" era. The Progressive movement in this country, like Fabianism in the UK, reflected the will to power of the managerial New Class. City-wide school boards were of a piece with at-large representation, city manager governments, and other "good government" reforms at the local level.

The replacement of ward representation with at-large election resulted (in Pittsburg's 1911 "reform," for example) in transformation of a council made up of two-thirds common workmen, tradesmen, clerks and shop-keepers, into one composed entirely of "professionals" and "prominent businessmen" [Joel Spring, Education and the Rise of the Corporate State (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972) p. 86]. The replacement of neighborhood control with city-wide school boards and superintendents was similarly designed to remove education from parental influence and give it over to the care of properly trained "professionals." The intergovernmental "authority," pioneered in America by the New York Port Authority and Robert Moses' Long Island highway system, like many methods of authoritarian government, was resurrected from British law and adopted near-universally as a form of "professional" government beyond the control of the electorate.
The central theme of New Class "good government" reforms was the superiority of disinterested expertise, and the need to take politics out of policy. The only way to do this was to protect professional managers from interference.

Our task today is to undo the "achievements" of the Progressive Era. The new paradigm for schools and other social services should be what Larry Gambone calls "mutualization." That is, they should be decentralized to the smallest possible unit of control, and then made directly responsible to their clientele. In the case of government schools, that means city-wide school boards should be abolished. The principal and the top management of each school should be the equivalent of a board of selectmen, directly responsible to the parents of the kids attending there. The neighborhood school, in effect, should be transformed into a consumers' co-op.

6 Comments:

Blogger Gary Youree said...

I have always felt that public school teachers and policemen need to both have high starting salaries and tough entry level exams.
Maybe then the two wouldn’t have so much in common.
Education is extremely important to society as a whole, so it shouldn’t be left up to the unenthusiastic bunch that deem discipline more important than striving to educate every student – including the troublesome ones who often are the most capable if given the chance.
Hire more of them and pay them more so that the public teacher pool is not made up of those who couldn’t get the higher paying jobs in universities.

When the money isn’t there capitalism still finds a way. In the arena of public servants the money should follow the path from those who give it to those who get it as closely as possible. I can think of no other group of public servants that has been allowed to forget who pays their salaries than the policeman.
Has anyone else noticed how the police will only react or put their time and effort into those crimes that bring them revenue? They are all over DUI’s, all manner of crimes with fines, and any crime with a forfeiture rule. Every time I see a Corvette or Firebird painted up black and white I think red. What poor bastard was targeted for his ride?
I am a small business owner who, on many occasions, has been stolen from by employees. We operate a large recycling yard with lots of small equipment, which lends itself to quick cash at a pawnshop. If an employee or a former employee is implicated I am always told that it is a civil matter! We caught a man who had worked months earlier for us as a subcontractor mechanic. He was fired for stealing but the police would not check his place for my tools. Two months later we caught him red handed trying to steal a trailer off my yard. The police were called and all they did was make him drop the trailer – then let him go! I had two jet skis stolen from a pawnshop where I had borrowed money on them this previous summer. There was videotape, according to the owner of the shop that was taken during the theft. My “report” was taken over the phone. I tried following up several times but was told they just didn’t have the time to get to that case yet. The last time I was told this was more than two months after the crime. I wanted to see the tape, to see if I recognized anyone who may of once worked for me but was told “no”, not until they had time to pursue the case.
What is alike in those cases? There is no money in them – they just cost money.

Making police departments earn their own money is a very bad deal. I can tell a huge difference from just 15 years ago, before all the local forfeiture laws, when officers saw the public good and gain from punishing the career petty criminals. They understood that when these guys get busted they save the society they live in thousands of dollars a week No days it seems if they cant pay a fine they don’t get the time. The police need equipment so they scheme on the pot dealer or the poor bastard trying to buy a hooker from his car – to get his car. I recently read a local article about a man caught growing pot on a lake lot he was building his second home on. I think he had 49 small (9 inch tall) plants growing, which probably would have been thinned out. The calculated those plants for thier worth at some unheard of potential, thousands of dollars per plant – enough to take his lake lot. Last I read they were working on his home in town.
Forfeiture has it’s place, but put the money back in the county or city tax coffers. Pay these men who risk their lives a big starting salary like 75,000.00 a year. Enough to make an intelligent person, who would like to improve society first hand, consider the job. Don’t let these losers who shouldn’t carry a gun take the job because 25,000.00 or 35.000.00 is the best they have ever had (plus they get to carry a gun!). Give these guys no incentive to skew their efforts towards the crimes that pay the department directly. Give them the money independent of that and if anything give them a bonus for picking the crimes, that when stopped, help society as a whole.
Gary Youree

1:11 AM

 
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