Another school year has begun in Connecticut, and with some notable service reductions. A recent survey found that some towns have eliminated sports for high school freshmen. Others have increased class sizes or lost full-day kindergartens, student literary magazines, and marching bands. Others have closed alternative education programs and are allowing fewer placements in magnet schools. Field trips have been canceled and purchases of supplies and textbooks have been postponed. School buildings are being closed to public use on weekends as custodian service is curtailed. As usual, school building maintenance is being deferred.

It's not that total school spending is going down. It's up, and substantially so, almost everywhere. Rather, it's that most of the increase is being consumed by increases in staff compensation. That school staff compensation now can be increased only at the expense of what had been considered basic services to students is another sign that the demands of Connecticut's law requiring binding arbitration of public employee union contracts are far outpacing the ability of taxpayers to afford such a generous and unaccountable system.

That is, because of binding arbitration, most school costs, the costs of personnel, have been put outside ordinary democratic control, and so schools are being cannibalized to support the arbitration system.

For the arbitration system turns the satisfaction of public employee unions into the highest objective of public policy. With schools, this means that the highest objective is not the education of students but compensation of their teachers that is superior to the compensation of most of their parents, who pay the taxes that support schools.

This conclusion is no mere inference. It was formally acknowledged by legislation a few years ago when state government foreclosed on the catastrophe that was (and remains) Hartford's school system, putting the system temporarily under the control of a state-appointed board.

The legislation temporarily modified the arbitration system for labor contracts for Hartford's schools. For the duration of state control, the legislation instructed contract arbiters to assign first priority to the interests of Hartford's students .

So for a few years, as a matter of law Hartford's schools, alone among schools in Connecticut, actually were to have been operated as most people have supposed all schools are to be operated. And with the return of Hartford's schools to city control, that requirement has been repealed.

Freshman sports, full-day kindergartens, textbooks and supplies, smaller classes, better school facilities, Connecticut can still afford them even as times get harder. But Connecticut will not be able to afford them and binding arbitration too. That is the inescapable choice that Connecticut's governors and state legislators continue to make in favor of teacher unions and against students and taxpayers.

One reason for this outcome is what calls itself the Working Families Party, a political party formed mainly by public employee unions in response to state government's layoffs in 2002. The party is providing a second ballot line to dozens of Democratic nominees for the General Assembly. Here and there the party has been running or threatening to run a candidate of its own.

The Working Families Party "is an independent voice for issues important to working- and middle-class voters," according to one of its founders, Salvatore Luciano, executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.

In fact the party is the device with which organized labor, that is, public employee unions, the great bulk of what remains of organized labor, means to keep Democratic legislators and legislative candidates in line on issues like binding arbitration and putting the financial advancement of public employees ahead of everything else in government.

If Democratic legislative candidates pursue the public-employee union interest, they will be rewarded with a second line on the ballot. If they don't, they will face a third-party challenger drawing away ordinarily Democratic votes and helping Republican nominees. This is a policy of "rule or ruin."

Of course "working families" deserve better from government. Most of all that means a government that gives them value for their taxes, that gives them public policy that actually accomplishes desirable goals instead of just comfortably employing people.

But for the most part the people behind the Working Families Party have already gotten plenty of value from the government. For government employees in Connecticut have substantially higher wages than people doing similar work in the private sector, as well as the best pensions and insurance plans around.

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