Education Cutbacks and Urban Violence

Bloated public education budgets in our large cities may be immune from serious cuts for an unpalatable reason: the threat of urban violence.

For decades education budgets have grown fat, though America has little to show for this generosity. Alas, as cities and states increasingly face fiscal crises, and the $100 billion in education aid under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act runs out in 2011, these once sacrosanct budgets -- "helping the children who are America's future" -- increasingly come under scrutiny (see here and here). Budget cutting is especially likely in cities like Detroit and Washington DC, where de-population or demographic shifts have reduced public school enrollments.

Superficially the problem appears to be one of financial efficiency -- sustaining decent performance with fewer dollars, no different from private firms cutting costs to fend off cheaper rivals.  

The business-like characterization is incomplete. Difficult budgetary choices entail an element that dare not speak its name: cutbacks may risk 1960s style riots, and these costs may far exceed temporary savings. To be blunt, cities often solved riot problems via bloated education-related employment, and bereft of these jobs, cities may return to "long hot summers" (for data on the declining incidence of riots, see here).

Begin by recognizing that public education is highly labor intensive, so cutbacks inescapably mean staff lay-offs. It is fantasy to insist, for example, that jobs can be saved via "green" buildings or electric school buses (both would increase costs). And while costs could be cut if current employees accept lower salaries or contribute more to their medical and pension costs, this is unlikely to occur, especially in unionized schools (few mayors want to risks teacher strikes, as well).

The good news for cash-strapped cities is that cutting staff is straightforward, and need not bring educational disaster -- since academic progress has gone nowhere for decades despite lavishness.  Just restore past "skinflint" budgets. This would probably save half (or more) while hardly jeopardizing student performance.  

First, lower the compulsory school attendance age and abandon futile efforts at retention. This brings fewer classes and teachers, lower maintenance costs, fewer books, plus fewer support services and fewer security guards. As I've argued elsewhere, this would improve academic performances since teachers could focus on those wanting to learn. In urban areas overflowing with troublesome students, high school enrollments might drop by 40%.  

Second, increase class size, top to bottom, since reducing class size does not boost learning. This is confirmed by multiple studies, while overseas rivals like Korea and Japan get superior outcomes with substantially larger classes. In fact, since the 1950s average class size has fallen by almost half with no corresponding increase in academic performance. Yes, class size may matter but largely as a proxy for discipline, and permitting teachers to reassert their authority over unruly students requires only a few zero cost administrative changes.

Third, make far cheaper home schooling easier; at least permit enrolled children to split time between home schooling and attending public schools. Vouchers for religious school education would also reduce expenditures, often by 50%, since these schools typically thrive without all the gold-plated extras favored by public schools.

Fourth, cut back on the support staff that has multiplied in the futile hope that learning responds to armies of helpers. Those over 50 cannot imagine this transformation. In the ‘60s when the Fonzie, Laverne, and Shirley of Happy Days all hung out, there were barely any "instructional aides" (1.3% of all staff); by 2004, nearly one of eight staff members was an "instructional aide" (11.7%).  In per pupil terms, the figure had gone from nearly 800 per aide, to 69 (Digest of Educational Statistics, 2006, Table 77).  In many urban school districts, schools function as social welfare agencies, even supplying food and shelter to children neglected by parents. This has not come cheap -- between 1985 and 2008, for example, the salaries of school counselors have doubled and their numbers soared (see here).  Yes, this extra staff may help but judged by academic results, the extra financial burden has not brought corresponding education benefits.

Finally, taking a page from Japanese schools, assign children many jobs presently performed by paid employees -- basic custodial work, handling school supplies, assisting with food preparation, helping younger schoolmates and so on. This cost cutting policy will also impart better work habits, teach job-related skills and, perhaps most of all, hold students responsible for the school building. No fun cleaning up after classmates stuff up a toilet.

So, what's wrong with this cost-saving picture? The answer, obviously, is heightened unemployment -- and this includes cities already in economic trouble, e.g. East St. Louis, Oakland, CA, Trenton NJ., among countless others. Exacerbating the problem is that cutbacks will be across-the-board, from janitors to well-paid school social services coordinators plus classroom teachers, teacher assistant, attendance monitors and administrators.  Teachers unions will likewise feel the pinch as membership shrinks.  For two-income families with well-paid school jobs, the loss of income  and status will be devastating. 

Cutback proponents will naturally insist that these now surplus school employees can find comparable work in the private sector.  Easier said than done in the current troubled economy.  Pain will be especially felt in sharply reduced benefits.  In New York City, for example, thanks to union contracts even lowly paid classroom helpers have a choice of three health plans, disability insurance, a guaranteed pension plus multiple other stipulated benefits, a situation increasingly rare in today's private sector.  Nor can we safely assume education skills are readily transferable to the private sector, and even then, private sector job security hardly compares to tenure or the security provided by union-backed school contracts.

In the final analysis, however, these savings may be illusionary.  For one, many terminated school employees may just turn to public welfare, food stamps and "free" government-supplied health care.  But more important, and this can only be speculative, massive lay-offs will instigate anger and resentment not seen since the 1960s when mayors struggled to prevent rioting, not vie for the "education mayor" title.  Unemployed school social workers may not themselves riot but, rest assured, instant downward mobility will facilitate radicalization and invite massive street demonstrations akin to what recently transpired in Greece.  Populist demagogues will have a field day promising jobs by taxing the rich.  This is not fantasy: recall the make-work, keep-the-peace jobs of the Great Society.   

The costs of urban unrest are staggering. Anger-fueled urban disorder can kill a city.  I can personally recall riot-prone New York City of the 60's and 70's: tumbling real estate prices and corresponding lower tax revenue, vast "no-go" areas thanks to crime, a drying up of retail commerce (save the drug trade) when shoppers (especially women) feared walking city streets or taking public transportation while corporations paid bonuses to recruit top-flight workers to NYC or left the city altogether. Recall that the city nearly went bankrupt.     
Expanding education budgets did wonders for keeping the civil peace in many cities, but, like the housing bubble, this fix may be unsustainable.  The awaiting pension costs alone counsel drastic cuts.  Finding ways to trim fat is not the problem -- these are patently obvious.  More serious is managing the consequences of wholesale layoff and sharp downward mobility.  This is a potential powder keg whose long-term cost may far exceed the savings. 

Robert Weissberg is professor of political science-emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.  His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools.