USC Price School of Public Policy

Price Student Q&A: Luke Holthouse

Hometown: Sherman Oaks (Los Angeles), CA
Major: Policy, Planning and Development (Public Policy & Law track); Print and Digital Journalism

Q. What inspired you to choose your major (and track)?

A. I’ve been interested in politics and public policy for as long as I can remember—my elementary school had its own debate team, which I joined in 5th grade. I’m more interested in the specific, hands-on policy issues than the broader political theories, which is why I chose Price’s program, though some of my favorite classes have been out of the political science department. I was torn between the policy track and the non-profit track because the latter is an even more hands-on approach to public service, but I ultimately went with the policy track because I wanted to take the pre-law classes.

Q. Give us a summary of your thesis project. Who is your faculty advisor? What inspired you to study this area further?

A. I am studying the legal, policy and administrative challenges of school districts with insolvent pension obligations. I’ve been very lucky to have Prof. T.J. McCarthy—one of Price’s experts on the overlap of economics and econometrics on all kinds of policy issues—as my advisor. I’ve also gotten a lot of help from Prof. Michael Thom, who has done a lot of research on the issue of public pension management.

I became really interested in the subject over this summer after reading about how significant of a problem some of these unfunded liabilities are across the country. For a while, public schools have had trouble recruiting and retaining enough teachers, and one of the ways public officials have attempted to draw people into the teaching profession is by offering teachers pretty significant retirement benefits if they teach for a certain number of years. The problem now is that several states have committed to paying their teaching force billions of dollars in retirement benefits without saving anywhere near the kind of money necessary to meet those contractual obligations.

So over the rest of the year, I’m going to study how exactly states get into the predicament and what they can do about it.

First, I’m looking at the legal obligation states have to both their teachers and their students. States are running out of room in their budgets to meet their pension obligations while also keeping their schools up and running, and they legally have to meet their contractual obligations on these pension payments. But they also have some legal obligation to pay for all of the other operating costs of a school system and provide all kids in their state with an equal opportunity for an education.

Secondly, I’m looking at the administrative challenges of running a school district in a state with unfunded pension obligations, in order to see what school districts can do at the local level when when there is so much financial uncertainty at the state level.

Lastly, I’m looking at what is the best state policy in order to avoid pension insolvency, as well as address insolvency when it starts to balloon. One thing I’m particularly interested in focusing on is whether these pension benefits – which are causing so much financial uncertainty for districts – are even an important factor for recruiting the next generation of millennial teachers.

Q. What skills have you developed while doing this thesis?

A. There’s a lot of stuff to keep track of on this issue. There are the federal constitutional obligations schools have, then each state has its own set of constitutional obligations. There’s also a big variety in school choice programs across states—such as what the concentration of charter schools is in an area—which can give individual families a lot more options in picking the right school for their kids, but can really complicate how money is budgeted across every school in the district. So I’m learning how to keep all my notes and outlines organized into coherent sections, which has been a challenge. But it’s the most fun I’ve had as a student so far. I’m really grateful Price has given me a chance to take everything I’ve learned from my various law and policy classes, combine it into one project, and really focus on what I think is the most important issue worth trying to tackle.

Q. What do you hope to do with the information you find?

A. I would love to see the project published by an undergraduate law review. As more and more millennials start heading up classrooms and leading school administrations, I think there are some significantly different ways our generation can try to address the inequity in educational opportunities that still exists more than 60 years after the Brown v. Board cases. Ultimately, by the end of the year, I hope to gain a much better understanding of how the administration of public education works in the U.S. and that I’ll be better prepared to potentially work in education administration down the road.

Q. What are your future career plans?

A. I’ll be joining the Teach For America 2017 corps this upcoming summer! I’m set to begin teaching high school math in Indianapolis by August—and hopefully will have found a lacrosse team I can coach by that spring. I could not be more excited to directly be working with kids next year, and I’m eager to see how education works from the ground up for the next couple of years. I would love to eventually work at the administrative level in schools. I’m also interested in possibly going to law school at some point and working in either the formulation of education policy or even litigation involving education policy.
Much like the Teach For America network, I’m so proud and lucky to be a part of the Price network. Despite some of the recent turmoil with our political system, I’m very confident that our generation will one day see much greater access to opportunity across the country because of how many smart and ambitious classmates I’ve come across in just my four years here.

Q. What is the best advice anyone has given to you regarding your education?

A. Don’t pick a side. Pick a battle.