Saturday, May 1, 2010

Immutable Laws

Posted By on Sat, May 1, 2010 at 5:31 PM

The law of unintended consequences is immutable, and it has an equally immutable corollary that could be called the law of collateral damages. Both can be summed up by the old adage, Be careful what you wish for — you may get it. I’ve learned to watch for both when people talk about “reform.”

Here’s a prime example both laws at work: The fate of nearly 600 former (now retired) Orleans Parish public school employees — mostly teachers — who lost their jobs as a result of the state takeover of New Orleans’ failed public schools after Hurricane Katrina.

In the rush to reform public education after Katrina, the state allowed the newly created Recovery School District (RSD) to take over 83 percent of the city’s public schools, all of which were identified as “failed” schools. In taking over those schools, the RSD also took control of the local and state money allocated to those schools — based on enrollment at each school.

That seemed logical and fair; if the RSD was now responsible for educating students at those schools, it should also get control over the money needed to fulfill that mission.

But a curious thing happened along the way: The RSD quickly broke the teachers union contract and fired roughly 7,000 public school employees, costing them not only their jobs but also their benefits, particularly their health insurance coverage. Many opted to retire at that time, but they soon found themselves without their bargained-for health benefits.

They turned to the local school board, which had guaranteed those benefits, but the local system was overwhelmed by a host of fiscal issues, including millions in bonded debt. The new state-run RSD, which fired the teachers, declared the teachers’ benefits and other “legacy issues” a local problem — knowing full well that the local school board had no money to address those issues. The local board’s responsibility for the fired employees’ benefits was cruel irony in light of the fact that board played no part in terminating those employees.

The larger goal of reforming local public education thus had the unintended consequence of abandoning hundreds of former public school employees (the collateral damage). It seemed like one more example of people blaming teachers for the failure of a public school system that never allowed them to succeed in the first place.

Since 2007, the retired employees and the local board have petitioned the state to help pay for the teachers’ health coverage and to address other legacy issues. The results have been spotty. State lawmakers, led by state Sen. Ed Murray of New Orleans, got state funding for 25 percent of the health benefits for two years. That money supplemented 25 percent paid by the board each year. Last year, however, the board got no help. The retired employees have had to pay the difference, which averages about $670 a month right now.

This year, Murray introduced Senate Bill 240, which carves out $6 million from the Orleans Parish public education property tax millage and dedicates it to all legacy issues. The bill is supported by the local board and many education reform advocates. It won’t cover all the retired employees’ health insurance costs, but with the local board’s share it should cover about half — putting the employees back where they were before last year’s cuts.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously approved SB 240 last week. It now awaits action by the full Senate, and it must still clear the House.

If the bill passes, it will take effect nearly five years after Katrina, proving once again that unintended consequences and collateral damages take much longer to fix than “reforms” take to enact.

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