The ever-soaring cost of college is an understandable obsession of American parents. And it does seem as if the tide has begun to turn, with more parents scrutinizing tuition, student loan rates and even the value of the traditional four-year college path.
But for many of us, the questionable price and effectiveness of educating our children should be something we take a hard look at before it's time to consider college. A growing number of Americans are starting to demand a lot more bang for their buck when it comes to elementary, middle and high school education.
Two recent news items point to this trend, and I have to say it's a trend anyone who adheres to free-market beliefs should like a lot:
Colorado County Gets It Right
The school board in the Denver suburb of Douglas County implemented a policy this year moving teachers to merit pay over seniority-based pay. The board made almost $16 million available for the initiative by suspending both collection of teachers' union dues and the use of taxpayer money to cover union officer salaries, and tapping into a special state fund for great teachers.
It's too early to judge the program's total success. Most of the teachers are opting to be judged for their effectiveness and opting out of the seniority-only based process. Student achievement is close to the highest in the state, and a new report says teacher relationships with parents and administrators are improving.
Surely, there are many teacher union types who will question and attack the above results. But what they cannot do is show any proof of the Armageddon they predicted would happen by switching to merit-pay options. And while the policy change had a lot to do with the efforts of local politicians, parents' wanting to see their property tax dollars spent more wisely are a big reason this is happening.
Once again, caveat emptor works. Sure, demanding that we get more for our money in public education is likely to get you unfairly labeled as someone who hates children and teachers. But kids and adults alike should be grateful for those brave souls willing to take that abuse and push for real financial responsibility.
Sanity in Syosset
Speaking of abuse. ... Last year, an 18-year-old high school senior from New York's Long Island won a seat on his school board. The story would only be mildly interesting (because of the candidate's age) if it weren't for two things:
1) The district was the tony area of Syosset.
2) His sole campaign issue was calling into question the $500,000 to $700,000 (hard to tell when you add in all the perks and benefits) salary of school Superintendent Carole Hankin.
The student was not completely alone in his criticism; even Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Hankin's salary as unacceptable.
That young man, Josh Lafazan, is now 19. He and his family endured a smear campaign during the election, including the use of the district's special phone alert system (which is supposed to be used only in cases of kidnapping and serious school violence) on Election Day to launch a wild accusation about Lafazan's father and absentee ballots. (It didn't end there: An army of Hankin loyalists still bash him in the local press regularly.)
But Lafazan won anyway, and he has made the issue of Hankin's outsize compensation an item of discussion at school board meetings over the past year.
Late last month, Hankin announced that she's stepping down.
Sadly, her departure probably won't lead to substantial financial savings—her pension payments alone will be through the roof—but, hopefully, people in other school districts around the country will realize that if a teen-aged crusader can get results, maybe it's OK to stand up for change in their areas, too.
The real divide in America today is not right vs. left, rich vs. poor, or religious vs. secular. The real divide is the political class vs. the "rest of us." When even school superintendents act as if we lowly taxpayers have no right to question their salaries and teachers unions feel they have every right to use our money to pay their nonteaching officials and poorly performing members … well, we have a problem.
When it comes to public education spending, the lack of any real consumer scrutiny is particularly disturbing because no homeowner can simply opt out of paying property taxes. It's not like sales taxes, where you can choose to buy less, or income taxes, where you can choose to make less. You don't pay the property taxes, you lose your home, period.
Hiding behind school children, dedicated teachers and the legitimate need to fund education is an old trick for politicians and union leaders. We're all for making sure we give our kids the best education they can get. But more school spending often means more spending on pensions, administrative salaries and a dozen other things that have nothing to do with teaching.
So if you're already in the tough state of mind you should be in before you look at higher education options for your child, try adopting that attitude when you open up your next property tax receipt as well. It may not be as expensive as a $60,000 tuition bill, but it's still our money and it's still our kids.
—By CNBC's Jake Novak. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.