Reforming Education: Chasing the Wrong Rabbit

Schools closed.  Children abandoned.  Parents told to pound sand. 

Is a repeat defeat for students and parents in the works for this coming school year? 

It seems so.  What’s not in doubt is it will be another big win for teacher unions.  The Los Angeles union demanded a rich array of gimmes before it would consider any return to classrooms, reports Lee Chanian for the Hoover Institution. These included defunding police, shutting down competing charter schools, a 1% wealth tax, and a 3% income surtax on successful people, to name but a few.  Is this dedication?  For sure.  But not to students. 

Given the reach and power of teacher unions, it’s no reach to think that in the spring of 2020 union bosses pushed governors to close schools.  Then, in the fall of 2020, after governors shifted decision-making to school boards, teacher unions pressured local boards not to open with full in-person instruction.  It worked once, so, same play again for school year 2021-2022?

How did our public schools sink to this? 

We let them.  Parents of all hues and politicians of all stripes allowed teacher unions and many teachers to extort taxpayers for salaries, health insurance, and pension contributions for...  not showing up.  Too many teachers danced to the tune their unions called, not to the calling of a once dignified profession. 

Because we demand so very little of our public schools, so very little is what we get.  It’s an equilibrium of shameful surrender to selfish sophistry. 

What’s the damage done, beyond devastating families and fracturing communities?  Emma Dorn, et al., of McKinsey & Co., found “[s]tudents who move on to the next grade unprepared are missing key building blocks of knowledge that are necessary for success, while students who repeat a year are much less likely to complete high school and move on to college.” This harm will be with our children and America for a generation. 

While teachers have been complicit in what they’ve allowed their unions to become, the teachers’ epidemic desertion of duty forces us to see more clearly what has only been winked at: the teachers are the unions, and the unions are (when push comes to shove-it) foremost about the welfare of adults in the system, not children trapped in the system. 

This blunt truth tees up the question: If teachers refused to report to their duty stations to teach children during the epidemic, while, in striking contrast, grocery clerks and nurses and police officers reported every day to their duty stations, why would we think teacher unions and teachers will of their own hand now change their priorities from self-service to public service?  Why would we think the fifty-year on-again, off-again barren battle to reform public education is anything other than a fool’s errand? 

How is this situation even possible?  Sadly, it’s inevitable, and it’s inevitable because it’s a bad system full of otherwise good people who have no skin in the game.  The system guaranteed them full salary and an easy path; so they took both.  What’s more, this failed system will continue on and on if parents and taxpayers don’t forge ways to replace it.  Replace.  Not reform.  Endlessly moiling to reform our broken and unyielding system of public education is chasing the wrong rabbit.

At some level, we know this.  At some level, we can no longer deny parents have acquiesced to the teacher-union machine and meekly agreed to support subpar schools and underperforming teachers.  While the hard truth is that we have the schools we deserve, our children deserve better. 

How to get the schools our children deserve, our communities need, and that America must have if it is to survive?

The answer: parental choice through tax-supported school vouchers. 

How so?  In the current system, tax money goes from taxpayer pockets to state governments to the state’s school districts.  What the system achieves in government-style efficiency, it surrenders in real-world accountability.  Parents and communities have no leverage in this game.  Tax money flows to school districts no matter teaching effectiveness or curricula content -- parents must take what the system chooses to give their children. 

But what if the structure of funding were replaced (not reformed) so that tax money went from your pocket to your state government and then directly to parents in the form of vouchers parents would use to select and buy the kind and quality of education they know is best for their own children?   New kinds of schools -- public and private -- would emerge that would be rewarded for meeting parents’ expectations and children’s individual needs; no more one-size-fits-all factory schools.  Now the locus of control would shift from union-ruled, large, and unaccountable systems of schools to one school and one classroom at a time.  Now effective teaching would be rewarded by market forces, not stifled by union control.  Now parents would have leverage.  Now teachers  ̶  freed from the honey-trap of life tenure  ̶  would have skin in the game.  Now the rules of the game would change to favor children, parents, communities, and competent teachers. 

Clearly, our elected representatives are petrified into a state of catatonic inaction by the revenge teacher unions threaten if any dare challenge the unions’ increasingly visible fraud.  To the one side, the teacher unions are their never-to-be-crossed partner, to the other side, the problem is worth far more than the solution.  In this battle, if our children are to win, we must lead our leaders, and since politicians respond to political pain, parents and taxpayers must inflict political pain.  Taxpayers and parents must not waste this opportunity to dethrone the disgraceful teacher unions and replace the badly broken public school system as it now exists.

Yet words by themselves change nothing.  What then?  Focused political action: speak out, write articles, recruit others, launch PACs, elect vigorously committed pro-voucher candidates, and cease support for any politico who is not a rabid voucher-activist.  Turn up the heat until fully funded, tax-supported vouchers are, state by state, our reality.  Vouchers are the game-changer in the game we must change.

If we don’t use to our children’s advantage this opportunity the teacher unions have so imperiously laid at our feet, it is we who will not have reported to our duty stations.

Greg Moo, a former high school principal, district administrator, business owner, and author of Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children.  He lives in Sequim, Washington. 

Image: Piqsels

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