Post editorial criticizes Md. schools, public pensions, school boards, teacher unions, and Gov. O’Malley — but misses all targets

An editorial in the Washington Post today caught my attention. Entitled The buck stops nowhere and subtitled Gov. O’Malley’s teachers’ pension plan would hurt counties without curing fundamental problems, the editorial suggests teachers get paid too much, pension costs are too high, and government is irresponsible. No evidence is provided for the first two propositions, and the editorial attacks a reasonable attempt by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley to bring about greater accountability.

Instead of evidence that teacher pay and pensions are too rich, the Post slides from complaining about how sympathetic school board members are to teachers unions to a complaint that “those pensions have become a crushing burden, amounting to about $1 billion annually.” Well, teacher pensions don’t cost nearly that much; that’s the cost of all state employee pensions, including state police, highway department, the parks department, etc. Does the Post not know that or was the writer just trying to throw dust in our eyes?

The editorial makes things worse in the next sentence: “That’s more than Maryland spends on the state police, housing, economic development or many other government functions.” This makes no sense. State employee pensions are a fundamental part of the cost of all of those state functions. Employees get deferred compensation – a promise of retirement benefits in the future instead of higher pay now. The Post apparently wants its readers to think that teacher pensions are stealing money that could have funded more police or economic development staff, but they are precisely what that $1 billion annual pension contribution pays for.

Are Maryland’s teachers overcompensated? The Post insinuates that it must be so because the school boards have no reason to restrain teacher salaries, but the editorial doesn’t cite a shred of evidence, and EPI research shows otherwise. The Post has talked endlessly about the need for better public school teachers and claims to believe in the magic of the free market, but the thought that you get what you pay for doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.

The investments are paying off. Maryland students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress has steadily improved over the last decade. In 2000, 35 percent of 8th graders tested below basic in math; last year, it was only 26 percent. Only 28 percent were proficient or advanced in 2000, but 41 percent tested at these higher levels in 2011. As recently as 2005, 31 percent of 8th graders tested below basic in reading. Last year, that number fell to 20 percent, an achievement by teachers and administrators the Post should celebrate.

The O’Malley plan that the Post attacks would transfer some of the cost of teacher pensions to the counties where the compensation decisions get made, rather than passing it on automatically to the state. The local residents who want to increase teacher pay and benefits will have to assume direct responsibility for more of those costs. If the Post is narrowly concerned about cost and accountability, it should be applauding. But the Post isn’t satisfied because the county in which each school board resides will be responsible for the cost, but the school boards are separate political entities. So what? Both are elected bodies, and voters can balance their preference for lower taxes against a desire for good schools and vote accordingly.

The Post never says it clearly, but accountability isn’t really its concern. The paper won’t be satisfied until education spending is cut. Maryland, in the Post’s view, spends too much on its schools. What is their evidence? Other unnamed programs have been cut “by $456 million while increasing aid to schools by an almost identical amount.” Unless the Post provides evidence that these programs were more critical or less well funded than schools, this is a meaningless point.

If education is crucial to the nation’s future, we should all be grateful that the Post’s editors are only criticizing the government and not running it.