Are Democrats Seeing the Light in Education?

by Sydney Williams Arne Duncan blinked. After being hammered for […]

Image by © Dreamstime

Image by © Dreamstime

by Sydney Williams

Arne Duncan blinked. After being hammered for much of the summer by the two main teacher’s unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), the Education Secretary said states could delay the use of test results in teacher performance evaluations by another year. It was disappointing, but understandable, as he and his Party have been financially reliant on Teachers’ unions. Let us hope he only blinked and not shut his eyes, as did so many of his predecessors. Teachers’ unions (and, in fact, all public sector unions) have Democrats in a chokehold. (Collectively, unions are the largest contributors to political campaigns.) Over the past twenty-five years the NEA and the AFT have given about $100 million to political campaigns, with 97% of that going to Democrats. The relationship has been symbiotic, as elected Democrats have ensured that the demands of union leaders are met.

Nevertheless, I have always thought Mr. Duncan a good Education Secretary. And positive developments are altering the public school landscape. Two of those were highlighted over the past weekend. In the Sunday magazine section of the New York Times, Daniel Bergner wrote of Eva Moskowitz’s battle with Mayor Bill de Blasio regarding Success Academy Charter Schools, which Ms. Moskowitz runs. In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, Allysia Finley interviewed Kevin Chavous. Mr. Chavous is a founding board member and executive counsel for the nonprofit American Federation for Children (AFC). Both Ms. Moskowitz and Mr. Chavous are Democrats.

No one denies the success Ms. Moskowitz has had. There are roughly five applications for every seat available in her charter schools. Her students are among the top performers in the City and the State. She has achieved those results while operating in New York’s most challenging neighborhoods. However, Mayor de Blasio argues that all one million public school children must be “saved,” not simply the few thousand who attend charter schools – that money’s spent on charters is money that cannot be spent on other public schools. That argument is disingenuous, in that students in charter schools are public school students. And the success they have brought to minority students speaks for itself. The difference is that charter schools are non-unionized. Ms. Moskowitz can fire underperforming teachers and reward good ones. She can require dress and behavioral codes. She can demand longer hours on the part of students and teachers. Her standards are more exacting than what is permitted in traditional public schools. Diane Ravitch, a New York University professor and education historian fears that charters, with their wealthy Wall Street backers, are pulling the City and the Country toward the privatization of education. That may be the goal of some, but I believe most support charters simply because Traditional public schools are failing, in part because of a lack of competition, but more importantly due to union rules – tenure after eighteen months in some places, and the difficulty administrators have in firing bad teachers. Mayor de Blasio, while claiming to be supportive of children, acts as a front for the unions that helped put him in office.

Mr. Chavous refers to himself as “a recovering politician.” In 1992 he was elected to represent Washington, D.C.’s Ward 7, a predominantly black neighborhood. Visiting city jails he became aware of the link “between education and crime, homelessness, jobs, drug abuse [and] poverty.” He became one of the first Democrats to nationally advocate charter schools, and paid the price in an election when his opponent claimed he “hated kids.” He didn’t, of course; he wanted to improve their lot. In the 2000s he worked to bring vouchers to the District, drawing fire from unions. He did so, but, again, paid a price – this time being tossed off the City Council. In early 2009, newly elected President Obama offered a compromise that would have protected existing voucher participants, but when the president of the NEA called vouchers “an ongoing threat to public education in the District of Columbia,” Mr. Obama caved and voucher kids had to return to the failing public schools they had left.

The AFC remains a small organization, but has been making big inroads. It operates with an annual budget of $15 million, versus the NEA with revenues of $1.4 billion. It has 30 employees. The organization lobbies for school choice, arguing that school systems should offer vouchers, allowing disadvantaged children to attend private or parochial schools. They have been successful. Fourteen years ago four states had private-school choice programs, with 29,000 youngsters participating. Today 19 states have such programs, with 308,000 children enrolled. However, indicative of the influence of unions, the Justice Department has joined the fight against vouchers. Federal judges have slowed the process in states like Florida, Louisiana and Wisconsin. Like Ms. Moskowitz, Mr. Chavous’ bête noire is union antipathy. It has been a struggle, but his success suggests the good guys are gaining ground.

The symbiosis between teachers’ unions and Democrats has worked well for the success of both, but, less well for students. But cracks are appearing in the infrastructure of these unions, and it seems they may be losing the hearts and minds of Americans. For one, problems of pension and healthcare obligations are causing municipalities and states to recognize that the tail of that problem is coming into sight. For another, the abysmal performance of our young on international tests show that our schools are no longer the world’s best. Third, and perhaps most important, a recent court decision in California, scorned by AFT president Randi Weingarten but defended by Mr. Duncan, ruled tentatively that the state’s teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional.

Let’s look at those “cracks” more closely: For decades, a growing economy, increasing school employment and rising asset prices allowed state and local treasurers to place unrealistically high return assumptions on pension and retirement assets. The latter masked the underfunding problem – a problem that was kicked down the road for future administrations. That future is now here. Second, we know that our children are not innately dumber than those in Finland or Japan. Something else must be wrong. It is. It’s in the way bad teachers are protected, and promotion is based on longevity, not ability or accomplishment. Superintendants and principals need more flexibility to hire, reward and fire teachers. Third, union intransigence: Judge Rolf Treu of the Los Angeles Superior Court stated in his recent ruling that it was poor, minority children whose education suffered the most from union adamancy. Tenure after 18 months is not good for students. “Indeed,” he said, “it shocks the conscience.” What is wrong with charter schools that outperform traditional schools? What is wrong with voucher programs that permit choice?

When the two teachers’ unions were founded – the NEA in 1857 and the AFT in 1916 – it was to remedy flagrant wrongs: to educate emancipated slaves; to end child labor; to defend teacher independence; to remove pay discriminations and petty rules. It was to use the power of collective bargaining to increase pay and benefits, to levels that reflected the professional nature of the job. However, “Somewhere along the line,” wrote Amanda Foreman in last weekend’s The Sunday Times of London, in an article on America’s teachers’ union, “the needs of children, their rights and futures became irrelevant.” Following the decision in California, the Education Secretary suggested both sides pursue a constructive alternative. “It is for all involved to recognize, as the court did, that the status quo is broken,” is the way Mr. Duncan put it after Judge Treu’s ruling.

Public education is elemental to our society, but it must be good education. It requires good teachers and principals with flexibility. It should not be privatized, but competition should be welcomed, not feared. Charters and vouchers have become increasingly common because parents of poor minorities want what is best for their children. And they know the current system is broken. Unions, which once served a critical role, today demand blind obeisance from those to whom they provide funds. But when the consequence is defending the indefensible – refusing to fire teachers who molest small children, allowing students to graduate without the basics needed for a good job, promoting teachers based solely on seniority – they no longer serve the public’s interest. They serve themselves. Unions have become the single biggest impediment to better schools.

Democrats consider themselves to be the Party that looks forward, not backward. But in being tied to the deman
ds of regressive teachers’ unions, they are looking backward. They hurt those who should be helped. It is good to see that there are Democrats who recognize the imperative nature of the problem, including Eva Moskowitz, Kevin Chavous and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Mr. Duncan may have blinked last month, but I suspect he has not shut his eyes to the needs of students.


The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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