The High Cost of Teacher Pensions: Congressional Republican Edition: As I’ve noted for the past two years, the struggle among states to deal with the more thanĀ  $600 billion in pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare costs will be the single-biggest driving force in reforming American public education. But it will only happen once states start dealing honestly with these burdens (along with their overall insolvency). Reforming the lavish system of defined-benefit pensions, degree- and seniority-based pay, near-lifetime employment and abysmal performance management is one step. The other, as pointed out by theĀ  Manhattan Institute andĀ  Northwestern University Associate Professor Joshua Rauh, is to deal honestly with the actual deficits. This includes reporting accurate numbers and assuming conservative and realistic investment rates of return. Save for New Jersey and occasional efforts in New York and Vermont, most states have been unwilling to do the latter.

But soon, states may be forced to deal realistically with the insolvency thanks not to the Government Accounting Standards Board (which has done an admirable job of forcing states to finally admit to their retiree healthcare deficits), but to congressional Republicans, who take control of the House of Representatives in the next month. As Slate‘s David Weigel notes, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) will chair a House Oversight subcommittee that will investigate nation’s public pensions who have participated in the massive federal bailout related to the financial meltdown two years ago. One of the things McHenry plans to crib off New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s playbook and battle with the nation’s teachers and public employee unions. One way to do this: DemandingĀ  state governmentsĀ  to be more-transparent about the extent of their public employee costs — especially teacher pensions and healthcare costs.

McHenry’s colleagues have already begun the battle this month with the introduction of the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act, which would force states to fully publicize their actuarial assumptions and deficits beyond the usual tiny print in voluminous (and often year-late) pension annual reports. While the law had no chance of passing this time around, the prospects of similar legislation coming down the pipe in January has the public sector unions and pension systems on the defensive.Ā  On this front, they will likely get help from school reform-minded congressional Democrats such as Jared Polis and cheerleading from their allies among such school reform think tanks such as the Education Sector (which issued its own analysis of the nation’s teacher pension crisis earlier this year).

The efforts by McHenry certainly presents a major philosophical conundrum for congressional Republicans: On the one side, you have a committee chairman in the form of House Education and Labor Committee Chairman John Kline who is arguing for a scale-back in federal education policy (except when it doesn’t suit the suburban districts among his constituency), and a return to a mythic version of local control. This would essentially mean that the feds would also take no action on solving the teacher pension crisis. On the other hand, Kline’s colleague McHenry is actually arguing for a more expansive role in regulating teacher pensions (along with other public pensions and civil servant benefits), which means a more-activist role for the feds — especially for the departments of education and labor, which will be the agencies that handle the actual oversight.

This isn’t a surprise. For one, Republicans conveniently demand both scaled-back and more-expansive federal policy when it suits them. More importantly, given the party’s general divide between movement conservatives, leave-us-alone libertarians, suburban centrists and Joe Scarborough-style moderates (and its even more fractious divisions over school reform), there will be moments in which policy goals clash. One must also keep in mind the diverging interests between congressional Republicans and their gubernatorial counterparts (who want a stronger federal role in order to force the reforms they support). This could lead to a clash between Kline and McHenry over pensions because of the contrasting philosophies, and the fact that McHenry (along with the Budget and Oversight Committee’s overall chairman, Darrell Issa) is also crossing into Kline’s territory on what is in many ways an Education and Labor Committee issue.

More on the Hollywood Model: What is Happening: Last week, Dropout Nation looked at the debate in Memphis over whether the district would hand over its charter to the state and essentially merge itself with the smaller Shelby County district. On Tuesday, the board voted to put the question before the voters, offering an opportunity for Tennessee state officials to step in and actually consider essentially turning every school in the combined district into charters. Such a move would certainly be better than the current academic state of affairs for the two districts, neither of which are doing all that well in providing high-quality education to the kids in their care.

Meanwhile a school district in tiny Elkton, Ore., may be paving the way for the future for many rural districts: Converting its schools from traditional districts to charters. In the last year, Elkton ditched its traditional district model of school operations and took advantage of the flexibility given to charters under state law. In the process, Elkton essentially becomes a competitor to five other districts in the area, offering students in those districts new educational options that may fit their needs. While others in the state argue for consolidations of rural districts, the history of such efforts have shown that bigger isn’t essentially better when the underlying (and antiquated) organizational structures are failing students and taxpayers alike. And as online options and more charters come down the pipe, the idea of merely patching up the school district model of education will go the way of using hand-cranks to start car engines.

And in Louisiana, state Superintendent Paul Pastorek has gained approval for his plan for the future of the Recovery School District in New Orleans, which includes allowing the schools to either stay under oversight of the state-run district or fall under the watchful eye of the old New Orleans school system. This is an important step toward making the Hollywood Model of Education real. Why? Because the New Orleans district can only gain oversight over theĀ  schools if they are allowed to run in ā€œ21st century mannerā€, that is, the district will only serve in an oversight role similar to what the state would do instead of operating schools. The Recovery District schools, on the other hand, will operate on their own. Essentially, Orleans Parish wouldnā€™t be able to go back to mismanaging schools; given the district’s lack of capacity, it is also unlikely.