Column: The public school monopoly is under siege

For the Valley News
Published: 2/20/2021 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 2/20/2021 10:10:12 PM

As is anticipated annually, the Lebanon School Board recently voted, 7-2, to increase the general operating budget by almost 4% — even with declining enrollment and a struggling economy. Over the decades, a 4% rise was applied to $10 million school budgets, then $20 million, then $30 million, then $40 million, and now almost $50 million. There appears to be no board that believes in restraint under any circumstance.

The increases appear to have less to do with data or an imperative need than with the public school paradigm that has evolved over the past 50 years.

With the demise of Catholic schools (in particular) in the 1960s, public schools expanded into monopolies, in many respects comparable to the American automotive industry leading up and into the 1970s. General Motors, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors dominated the market outright, with GM being the major player. Overstaffing by both management and labor was the rule. To boost its membership, the United Auto Workers union would negotiate into contracts labor-intensive inefficiencies. Management acted with indifference. In retrospect, the product was marginal at best. But neither party had to be concerned since there was no competition. The market was theirs to dominate.

As international competition grew, American companies were unable to compete, blaming in turn unfair trade practices, corrupt management and corrupt unions. The self-protecting, bloated, failed culture was too ingrained to adapt to a changing order. They kept losing market share until the crash of 2008.

It took time, but the companies did improve their quality considerably and addressed controlling costs. This never would have happened if they had been able to keep the marketplace closed to outside competition.

While students are not cars, there is a general societal formula that equates more school spending with increased quality: More spending creates better children, and therefore a better world. There is certain truth to this, but only to a point. If we continue to do what’s acclaimed to be “good” for a child (and this can be entirely subjective), there is no limit to the spending. This applies to any person or any group, not just students.

In the 2016 elections, one of the largest blocks of political contributions came from the National Education Association ($20 million), and the American Federation of Teachers ($12 million), with 94% going to the Democratic Party, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2019-2020, these two unions alone contributed more than $50 million to further their interests.

Along with the moneyed connections comes the unwritten collaboration between the unions and their political allies, where the latter are programmed to attack, undermine and, if possible, eliminate non-traditional public schooling, such as religious schools, home-schooling, Catholic and charter schools, and voucher programs. This is an attempt to maintain dominance over what they perceive as being their exclusive, privileged domain. Every dollar of education funding is expected to pass through their hands. Maintaining a tightly structured, centralized, government-dominated educational system, aligned with political muscle, is an attempt to “corner” the education market.

Recently, the New Hampshire Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee voted to accept and release $10.1 million of a $46.5 million five-year grant to double the number of charter schools in the state. This was accomplished through the Republican-controlled Senate, where under previous Democratic control the funds were withheld. There are apparently 1,300 students now awaiting placement in these charter schools.

In response to this action, Rep. Peter Leishman, D-Peterborough, complained that some of these schools were in poor financial shape and needed lines of credit. His argument bears little relevance, since there are certainly public schools that would likewise be in poor financial shape if they were not able to operate their finances under a system of compulsory taxation.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, D-Manchester, decried the acceptance of the grant. “With declining enrollments across the state, it is imperative that we invest more in our existing public schools, not create more schools that will be left underfinanced.”

Sen. Cindy Rosenwald, D-Nashua, said the loss of students to charter schools would represent a blow to traditional public schools, and that they would lose $17 million in the long term.

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut professed quite the opposite, calling it a “transformation” of the state’s schools landscape, and that Department of Education projections showed that schools would be able to save money in the long term if they lost students, even with fixed building and staff costs.

The public school system is essentially a monopoly that the public has simply accepted with little examination, primarily since the vast majority of us had no option — it was all we knew. But now the education world has changed rather dramatically.

School officials and school boards use a dominant business market approach to expenditures: continual increases in spite of countervailing realities or pressures. What oversight and influence does a school board actually have? As citizen volunteers, their time is limited, as it would be for any of us. Most members appear largely compliant with whatever numbers and data a superintendent chooses to release or promote. Studies have indicated that, like the military and hospitals, public schools are overstaffed on the administrative level.

Though well-intentioned, school boards are often helpless when it comes to negotiating with highly trained, professional, full-time union negotiators, who target the weakest link in the municipal chain and proceed from there. This sets the precedent for all future contract negotiations with other towns.

It’s very difficult to picture school board members, who often are either present or former educators, as having much enthusiasm for protecting the taxpayers when it comes to yearly expenditures, negotiations or bonding.

The “as long as it’s good for the child” mantra apparently supersedes all other realities when it comes to education budgets, ignoring the fact that both city and county budgets are always on the increase, as well. The three sectors appear to be living within their own separate worlds, unrelated to the others. But, to the taxpaying public, the three are one.

An enterprise that’s facing declining market share in a changing world would be wise to reevaluate its niche and initiate serious-minded measures to control costs — and, in fact, reduce them — rather than to instinctively keep ratcheting them upward.

In deference to their dominance of the marketplace, GM, Ford and Chrysler were long referred to as the “Big Three,” a grandiose label that has long since expired. In the world of public education, we now have the “Big Two” — the unions and their political allies — seeking to re-establish their once-dominant grip on the public education sector. This monopoly is under siege, for sound reasons.

Richard D. Bircher lives in Lebanon.

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