Alfonse D'Amato

We have a lot to learn about education’s costs and quality

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Long Island homeowners and businesses labor under some of the nation’s highest taxes. In addition to New York state’s high income taxes, property taxes here are a particular burden for many. And school taxes make up as much as 70 percent of a property tax bill. This is a big added cost to Nassau County government, which due to a legal quirk must pay any school tax refunds owed property owners under certiorari proceedings there.

School taxes on Long Island are high for a reason. School spending per pupil here exceeds $23,000 per year, more than double the national average, and substantially more than surrounding states like New Jersey and Connecticut ($19,000) or Massachusetts ($16,000). And while New York schools are generally high performers, their results aren’t significantly better than in these nearby states.

So why are our school costs so high, and what can be done to reduce them? Let’s start by looking at Long Island. We have 124 school districts, with administrative costs of over $1 billion per year. Over the past several years, those costs have climbed significantly faster than the rate of inflation.

While there’s been much talk of bringing savings and economies of scale to our school districts, the education bureaucracy lobby thwarts these efforts, leaving too many districts with bloated administrative budgets intact. Median annual compensation for Long Island school superintendents is well over $300,000, according to the State Education Department. Added to this are teachers’ salaries averaging over $90,000 per year on Long Island, nearly twice the national average.

And then there are expensive and onerous “state mandates” like the Triborough Amendment, a state law that allows public employees to retain benefits — including annual pay raises — from their previous contracts even after those agreements have expired. This adds pressure for education costs to increase even more.

All these elements contribute to those costs, but the situation here pales in comparison to that in New York City, which takes the prize for truly outrageous labor practices that drive costs there even higher. In case you haven’t heard about them, let me describe New York City’s infamous teacher “rubber rooms.” These aren’t rooms where teachers driven to distraction by unruly students are given refuge. Rather, they are virtual holding pens for teachers who have been judged so awful that they can’t be allowed near students.

These stories are so bad that they’d be hard to make up. For example, there’s the recently reported rubber-room case of a city school music teacher who was suspended for sexually harassing several female students in 1999. But since he was a tenured teacher at the time of his disciplinary hearing, strict union rules protected him from being fired. For 20 years now he hasn’t taught a single student, killing time instead in holding rooms with other teachers who’ve been suspended from instructing children due to similar — or worse — offenses. And because he has continued to receive pay raises under subsequent teachers’ contracts, his $39,000 1999 salary has ballooned to over $130,000 last year. All told, his accumulated pay for doing nothing for 20 years has been $1.7 million.

Such egregious cases of unpunished malfeasance by teachers tell us something about tenure, teacher discipline and the credibility of the unions that blindly protect such offenders. But there’s other, less offensive but nonetheless harmful, union resistance to reasonable education system improvements that is also hard to defend. Ever since charter schools emerged, teachers union bosses have fought against them every step of the way. These schools operate with work and teaching rules that allow the flexibility to get better results, especially for high-risk students.

Parents in minority communities especially love charter schools. They want to see their children perform above the middling average of traditional public schools, and are willing to accept the extra structure, discipline, and higher-level teaching approaches that charter schools employ. These parents know that while charter schools aren’t the answer to every problem for poorer, struggling families, they add an element of positive reinforcement that gives their children more hope for a better future.

The fact that some politicians and teachers union bosses have thwarted reasonable discipline of teachers in public schools, and consistently resisted effective education alternatives like charter schools, tells me that these obstructionists have a lot to learn themselves.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.