March 13, 2011
Challenging the Teachers UnionsBy Jerry Shenk
The public school monopoly on taxpayer education funds is under challenge, and the unions are fighting back hard.
This year, Pennsylvania's state legislature will consider Senate Bill 1 - The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act. Intended to create education vouchers for kids trapped in failing schools. One of SB1's primary sponsors and most passionate advocates, Sen. Anthony Williams, is an African-American Democrat from Philadelphia. Sen. Williams understands the need for the bill. Philadelphia's inner-city schools are among America's worst.
At least one teaching professional has argued persuasively that, not only should students avoid such schools, so should motivated teachers. Everyone's best solution is to escape them, as SB1 would enable students to do.
Not surprisingly, SB1 is opposed by teachers unions and politicians whose political influence and campaign funds would be affected by its passage.
The reason school choice and other educational reform policies are so hard to enact is that passing such bills requires elected public officials and teachers unions to care about other people's children. In order to enact these bills, officials must set aside self-interest and re-direct priorities. Given human nature, some politicians will be indifferent to the quality of education, but loyal to the interests of the teachers unions who help fund their campaigns.
Access to quality public education is the civil rights issue of this century. David Horowitz once said: "If Republicans did to minority children what the Democrats do through their education policies, they would be denounced as the worst racists on earth."
But, in Pennsylvania, it's not just Democrats who resist school choice. There is bipartisan opposition to SB1 in the state legislature. Some members from both parties place a higher priority on the interests of teachers unions than on the children and taxpayers in their districts.
In effect, the members opposing the bill follow the money, when the money should follow the kids.
Unions are obstacles to school choice and other reforms. For all the concern unions express about children, their interests are limited to their adult, dues-paying constituencies. Teachers unions are big businesses managing big money with real political clout. Cumulatively, teachers unions are by far the largest contributor to political campaigns in America. Unions have taken over our schools, and they mean to keep control of them.
Unions continue to demand more money for their members, insisting teachers are underpaid and overworked. Really? Most have fifteen weeks off per year and are teaching fewer classes containing fewer students than they did five decades ago.
For fifty years, an obsession with class size has made public education in America significantly more expensive. But reducing class sizes has done nothing to improve student academic achievement. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the student-teacher ratio in public schools was 25.8:1 in 1960. It's now at an historic low of around 15:1. In fifty years, the number of teachers employed has increased by three and one-half times the rate of increase in K-12 enrollment. If schools had hired only enough teachers to keep up with enrollment while maintaining 1960s class sizes and instructional standards, we could be paying teachers perhaps as much as forty or fifty percent more than they now receive. But that would mean far fewer dues-paying teachers, a condition unacceptable to the unions. Increasing teacher headcount is the reason unions originally supported smaller class sizes.
To the unions, it wasn't about the kids then, and it isn't now.
Significant segments of American public education may not be very good at teaching kids, but they're terrific jobs programs for adults. There are more than three million teachers employed in American public education, plus as many or more administrators, assistants, aides, counselors, social workers, psychologists, therapists, secretaries, nurses, coaches, janitors, school bus drivers and other support staff. Some of those belong to unions, too.
In effect, American public education is a huge jobs and union dues creation program costing taxpayers unimaginable sums of money. So, why aren't we getting better results? Why have American kids who once led the world in academic achievement fallen so far behind in world rankings in math and science?
Unions point the finger in other directions. Some of their claims have merit: Parental interest and involvement have declined in many districts; disciplinary problems exist almost everywhere; cultural influences interfere with learning; mandatory mainstreaming lowers the common denominator. But, while acknowledging all of these things, teachers and their unions must face the significant contributions they've made to the problems.
Why won't the unions discuss merit pay for teachers or agree to eliminate tenure? Teachers know who the good teachers are, and the good ones aren't afraid to be measured on results. Teachers unions dedicate too much of their time and too many of their resources to protecting underperformers.
Teachers and their unions resist the argument that principals and school boards should be able to dismiss incompetent teachers. In fact, educators affirm that union protections make firing a teacher -- even a bad one -- nearly impossible. The unions argue that, without contract protections, teachers would be at the mercy of their employers.
In other words, they'd be just like private-sector working Americans. The teachers' unions' detachment from the practical reality of private-sector workers tells us something about how the public schools they control can fail to educate children:
If a teacher can't be dismissed for doing bad work, what's the incentive to do good work?
The poor results in American public education and current economic circumstances mandate that we discuss and change teacher headcount, curricula, positions, pay, benefits and the unaffordable Cadillac pensions awarded to teachers by politicians in many jurisdictions. We must end seniority protections, tenure rules and the "last in, first out" policies that keep our public schools from dismissing ineffective teachers.
Finally, we must encourage school choice, vouchers and charter schools. We should decouple the teachers unions from their near-monopoly of the teaching profession, get the federal government and their one-size-fits-all mindset out of public education and let the states be the laboratories for educational reform. The federal government supports less than 9% of the cost of public education. Why should Americans tolerate the central government directing policy in local districts? Rather than laundering tax money through the IRS, keep it at home and let school districts determine their own futures by competing in open education markets. Competition improves products and markets. It will improve public education, too.
In fact, if we are to stop turning our schools into politically-correct, progressive madrassas, we must endeavor to get politics out of the public education system entirely.