The Problem With Government Schools

Public -- that is, government -- education in America is in terrible shape. No matter what professional educators tell us, identifying the causes and solutions isn't rocket science.

There's plenty of blame to go around, but the fault lies largely with union influence and federal and state government interference and ineptitude. The political class erred only in creating and expanding social programs that have effectively weakened the family units that should be the main stakeholders in, and beneficiaries of, a good educational system. But politicians and those who support their candidacies arguably have been criminally negligent in the formulation and administration of education policy. Malefactors in labor and government have much to answer for.

Quality education is the fundamental civil rights issue of this century. Too many school districts have failed too many minority and disadvantaged students. Centralized governmental attempts to improve education have had poor results.

The parties sharing power sometimes agree on education. For example, there is bipartisan opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act. The stated purpose of the law was to prevent schools from hiding the poor performance of minorities behind the results of other, more successful students. By setting educational standards and testing, the government says that NCLB has improved math and reading scores and begun to narrow the gap between poor and more affluent students.

Though there are many reasons to dislike it, most conservatives oppose NCLB primarily because conservatives believe that the federal government has no legitimate constitutional mandate to interfere in public education.

Conversely, the American left's position on public education is based on denial of the problems. It makes no difference that the late Ted Kennedy, a liberal icon, wrote the bill. Attacking No Child Left Behind is a campaign applause line for liberal politicians. They don't like it because the teachers' unions hate it.

Ask Democrats to name a single aspect of American education that has improved since the teachers' unions took it over in the 1960s, and then cue the crickets. Unions are solely responsive to their own interests and the interests of dues-payers. It's all about the Benjamins for the unions and not at all about the kids, despite the teachers' protestations to the contrary.

Cash doesn't produce quality in education.

Throwing more money into the existing system isn't the answer unless one can explain how Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Kansas City, and New York, failed school systems by anyone's standards, can spend at least forty percent more money per student per year than more successful suburban districts and continue to fail.

No union-owned politician will answer a question about merit pay for teachers. Nor will they discuss eliminating tenure. That reveals all taxpayers need to know about the teachers' unions' financial stranglehold on the Democratic Party. But to be fair, plenty of Republicans, especially in state governments, slop at the union trough and do the unions' bidding, too. The teachers' unions want poor schools and, especially, incompetent dues-paying teachers to be spared the discomfort of objective scrutiny. But testing is the only way to know when underperforming students are being shortchanged.

Among the unions' most persuasive historical arguments for pay increases has been average teacher pay relative to other professional employment categories. Average teacher pay is a very misleading statistic. There's a lot of turnover in the teaching profession. History suggests that up to forty percent of the new teachers hired each year will be out of teaching in seven years. Accordingly, there are always a significant number of teachers at the bottom of the pay scale. The statistic also ignores teachers who moved into higher-paid positions in administration and never factors in teachers' time off or Cadillac benefit and pension packages.

In Pennsylvania, a union-friendly state, a teacher with a taxpayer-funded, tuition-reimbursed master's degree and thirteen to fifteen years of teaching experience can be paid more than $70,000 per year for 180 days of instruction plus a few in-service days -- that's fifteen work weeks of vacation. Teachers can also retire and collect immediate pension and lifetime health care benefits after only thirty years of service. The average household income in Pennsylvania is roughly $50,000.

Collective bargaining is an inequitable way to determine teachers' compensation. As in any business, teacher competence should determine pay, especially in low-income schools that can least tolerate poor teachers. The good teachers know who they are and don't fear being measured objectively. Their unions bargain for all dues-paying members, but they most vigorously protect and defend the bad ones.

It's not just teachers. Students are overprotected, too. American education has been sheltering students from society's realities for years. Conditioned by constant positive reinforcement about how well they're doing, students are too often rewarded for participation rather than for achievement. Their grades are inflated, and many are passed without their earning promotion. As a result, many never learn what they're really good at. Some kids don't learn anything useful at all. This often creates unrealistic expectations and causes problems later in life.

Standards and accountability for teachers and standards for student performance are reasonable starts to improving our schools, but the standards should be set locally, where their relevance and integrity can be best evaluated and measured. Standards for classroom discipline should be toughened, and the authority of teachers and principals to maintain discipline should be strengthened so teachers can concentrate on teaching kids instead of just struggling to maintain order.

High-quality, logical, content-based school curricula presented by qualified professional teachers and administrators are essential to quality education.

Since not all districts have such curricula, teachers, or administrators, and because the skills and needs of students differ, school choice is necessary, too. Specialization creates niches that strengthen other markets; it will benefit the education market as well.

Providing tuition vouchers to poor students stuck in bad public schools is a good way to break the cycle of school failure. We can learn from successful experimental programs for vouchers and school choice and implement them more broadly, especially in the worst districts. Results from existing programs confirm the moral and civil rights justification for vouchers.

The best chance for improving education is a combination of parental choice, including vouchers, charter schools, and tuition tax credits. Incentives work. Add results-based merit-pay plans for teachers, an end to automatic tenure, and accountability standards to evaluate school administrators.

The free market -- and the need to survive in it -- raises the quality of every other service provision business. Americans have huge numbers of choices in the way we live our lives and the services we choose. Why not have choices in education, too?

If we are truly concerned about our kids' futures, we must remove politics from education.

For years, politicians who take their campaign cash have voted with self-interested teachers' unions against parental choice, scholarships, and vouchers to keep poor inner-city kids in failing schools. By casting those votes, politicians have denied many thousands of children they will never meet a chance to get a decent start in life and condemned them to a lifetime of failure.

Jerry Shenk is co-editor of the Rebuilding America, Federalist Papers 2 website©: E-mail:
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