Commentary Magazine


Topic: public education

The Unions’ Warning to Hillary Clinton

Arne Duncan can rest easy. The current secretary of education has lately been on the receiving end of the pitchforks-and-torches treatment from the major national teachers unions, but he’s not really the target. They are calling for his job, not because they expect to radically alter the course of this administration but to encourage the others, as they say.

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Arne Duncan can rest easy. The current secretary of education has lately been on the receiving end of the pitchforks-and-torches treatment from the major national teachers unions, but he’s not really the target. They are calling for his job, not because they expect to radically alter the course of this administration but to encourage the others, as they say.

To recap: the Obama administration has been sufficiently deferential to the public unions that fleece the taxpayers to get Democrats elected at the state and national levels. The president’s hypocrisy on school choice is not only a sop to the unions but particularly glaring–it’s not unusual for a president to send his kids to private school, but it is rare that one does so while working assiduously to end opportunity scholarship programs in the same city simultaneously.

President Obama’s choice for education secretary, however, made the unions slightly nervous. Obama calmed their nerves by making sure that Duncan would simply carry out Obama’s antichoice crusade and not think too much for himself. But Duncan spooked the unions recently by saying something that is anathema to Democrats even if it was commonsense by any reasonable standard.

Last month, a California court ruled unconstitutional the union protections that made it virtually impossible to fire bad teachers and which have steadily degraded the quality of education in America’s public schools. This was a victory especially for poor and minority students, which tend to be harmed the most by the Democrats’ education policies. The courts were a last recourse for these students, thanks to the policymaking stranglehold the unions have over the state’s Democrats. Duncan understood that this kind of ruling was the only way to effect real change, by forcing the hand of the school systems:

The ruling was hailed by the nation’s top education chief as bringing to California — and possibly the nation — an opportunity to build “a new framework for the teaching profession.” The decision represented “a mandate” to fix a broken teaching system, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. …

Duncan, a former schools chief in Chicago, said he hoped the ruling will spark a national dialogue on a teacher tenure process “that is fair, thoughtful, practical and swift.”

At a minimum, Duncan said the court decision, if upheld, will bring to California “a new framework for the teaching profession that protects students’ rights to equal educational opportunities while providing teachers the support, respect and rewarding careers they deserve.”

“The students who brought this lawsuit are, unfortunately, just nine out of millions of young people in America who are disadvantaged by laws, practices and systems that fail to identify and support our best teachers and match them with our neediest students. Today’s court decision is a mandate to fix these problems,” Duncan said.

But teachers unions have mostly become a job preservation program, with the education of the students a secondary, at best, concern. So they lashed out at Duncan for defending the minority students over which the unions were running roughshod. In other words, for doing (at least part of) his job:

Delegates of the National Education Association adopted a business item July 4 at its annual convention in Denver that called for his resignation. The vote underscores the long-standing tension between the Obama administration and teachers’ unions — historically a steadfast Democratic ally.

A tipping point for some members was Duncan’s statement last month in support of a California judge’s ruling that struck down tenure and other job protections for the state’s public school teachers. In harsh wording, the judge said such laws harm particularly low-income students by saddling them with bad teachers who are almost impossible to fire.

Now the American Federation of Teachers has joined the mob, yesterday approving a resolution calling for his job–unless Duncan follows the unions’ proposed rehabilitation process, erasing even the façade of independence the administration would have from its union benefactors.

Duncan is to be commended for his comments. And he can take solace in the fact that the NEA and AFT attempts to wreck his career are not really about him anyway–a fact the reporting about this contretemps tends to miss. They are, instead, a warning shot. The unions want Hillary Clinton, or whoever turns out to be their next nominee, to see where the unions have drawn the line for a future White House. And Duncan is on the wrong side of that line.

For the teachers unions, anyway. He’s on the right side of that line for the country, and for public education. The unions aren’t interested in saving this particular ship, as long as their leaders and veteran teachers are guaranteed a lifeboat and a generous pension when it finally sinks.

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Time to Redefine Public Education

After decades of struggling to stifle any hope of giving children and their parents a chance to escape from failing schools, liberals are starting to fear their task is inevitably doomed to failure. The decision by the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this week to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s vouchers program that gives low- and middle-income families the right to use state money to attend private schools is a landmark in the long battle for school choice. While this is just one victory in a single state, combined with other developments elsewhere it may not only be the beginning of the erosion of the government education monopoly but a change in the way we define the term public education.

The Indiana case is significant not just because of its size (over 9,000 students took advantage of it this year) but because it challenges the notion that the only proper way for the state to educate children is via the public schools system. As even the New York Times noted in a front-page feature published yesterday, the growing number of efforts to offer families a choice that heretofore was only available to the wealthy is based on the idea that private and religious schools are just as valid a form of public education as those run by the state. More to the point, with so many public schools failing their students, the ideological resistance to vouchers is dooming large numbers of children, especially minorities in urban areas, to a future with no hope of a better life. While choice opponents still hold the upper hand in most states, what is happening in Indiana is bound to have an impact on the rest of the country.

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After decades of struggling to stifle any hope of giving children and their parents a chance to escape from failing schools, liberals are starting to fear their task is inevitably doomed to failure. The decision by the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this week to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s vouchers program that gives low- and middle-income families the right to use state money to attend private schools is a landmark in the long battle for school choice. While this is just one victory in a single state, combined with other developments elsewhere it may not only be the beginning of the erosion of the government education monopoly but a change in the way we define the term public education.

The Indiana case is significant not just because of its size (over 9,000 students took advantage of it this year) but because it challenges the notion that the only proper way for the state to educate children is via the public schools system. As even the New York Times noted in a front-page feature published yesterday, the growing number of efforts to offer families a choice that heretofore was only available to the wealthy is based on the idea that private and religious schools are just as valid a form of public education as those run by the state. More to the point, with so many public schools failing their students, the ideological resistance to vouchers is dooming large numbers of children, especially minorities in urban areas, to a future with no hope of a better life. While choice opponents still hold the upper hand in most states, what is happening in Indiana is bound to have an impact on the rest of the country.

While there have been other vouchers experiments, the Indiana program is the largest and most generous such program since it is the most broad-based such experiment. As the Indianapolis Star reports:

A family of four that earns less than $42,000 annually can receive up to 90 percent of the state aid for a child’s public school education. Families of four making $42,000 to $62,000 can receive 50 percent of the state aid amount.

The key to understanding this concept is that it is not a gift from the state to private or parochial schools but merely a re-allocation of the funding that would ordinarily follow the student wherever he or she might go in the public system. In Indiana the purpose of the money devoted to education is now regarded as geared to the welfare of each individual child rather than to government institutions and their bureaucracies. Instead of the state deciding where all of the money should go, now poor and middle-class families are empowered to make decisions for their children.

The teachers’ unions and the rest of the state education establishment that oppose school choice tell us that this drains money from public schools and will hurt children. But the well-funded legal and political struggle they have been waging to squelch every attempt to provide choice is defending is their education monopoly, not the best interests of those interred in schools that don’t give kids a chance.

Far from destroying public schools, the availability of private and other options, such as charters, provide the system with the competition that is the only way to incentivize their improvement. Without that, the bureaucracy will continue to process kids more than educate them, as is the case in all too many places around the country where the families with the means to choose other options have fled the public system.

While charters are often highly successful, they remain under the purview of the public schools bureaucracy that has more to gain from their failure than success. That’s why any real education reform program must open up the gates for underprivileged kids to attend private and religious schools that are forced to succeed without the government backing that often means failure is not punished.

Choice opponents also claim there is no proof vouchers can succeed in improving achievement, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy since almost every previous experiment has been so limited and often cut off by liberal politicians before they had a chance to succeed.

An excellent example of this was seen in Washington D.C. where Congress established a limited school choice program that offered a small number of poor kids a chance to attend private schools that were previously restricted to the capital’s elite. But after Democrats took back control of both the White House and Congress in 2008, the experiment was ended. That meant that in the future the poor urban African-American kids no longer could hope to attend Sidwell Friends, the private school where President Obama sends his two daughters.

The hypocrisy of Obama and other limousine liberals who are prepared to condemn the children of the poor to attend disastrous public schools they would never dream of sending their children to is breathtaking. But it is exactly that attitude that is at the heart of this issue.

The question for Obama and his friends in the teachers’ unions is the same it has been for years. For all of the lip service such liberals pay to the welfare of the poor and the need for education to break the cycle of poverty, they refuse to take the one step that actually offers a path to a better life for these kids. They do so because they regard the sanctity of the public education monopoly to be a higher priority than the needs of ordinary Americans.

The question for them is the same that they are quick to pose to their opponents on other equal access issues. Are they prepared to acknowledge that the children of the poor are made in God’s image the same as their own? Are they really willing to sacrifice another generation of the poor on the altar of the failed god of public schools merely in order to prop up an education bureaucracy and unions that are their political allies?

More and more Americans are starting to realize that if the object of public education is to give children a chance, they must widen their horizons and start letting the flow of taxpayer dollars to the schools follow the kids rather than the bureaucrats and the unions. What happened this week in Indiana could be the moment when the tide began to turn in favor of education rather than liberal ideology.

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Mitt Romney Sides With Rahm Emanuel

A week after Rahm Emanuel decided to extend his services to his former boss, President Barack Obama, in order to do some fundraising, this was probably the last headline he expected to read. At midnight Monday the Chicago Teachers Union announced that it would begin an indefinite strike, which would only end when their contract dispute with the city of Chicago is settled.

Despite an offer for a 16-percent pay raise in addition to an average annual salary of $71,000 the teachers already receive, the union refuses to budge, embarking on the city’s first teachers’ strike in twenty-five years. The pay raises offered would be mandatory and could not be rescinded for a lack of funds. The raises, insisted upon by a teachers’ union which claims to represent people who have the best interests of children at heart, could bankrupt the already failing school system. Bankrupting the schools where Chicago’s children already receive a below-average education is apparently not enough for the unions paid to represent the city’s teachers. The teachers’ union demands more concessions before agreeing to sign.

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A week after Rahm Emanuel decided to extend his services to his former boss, President Barack Obama, in order to do some fundraising, this was probably the last headline he expected to read. At midnight Monday the Chicago Teachers Union announced that it would begin an indefinite strike, which would only end when their contract dispute with the city of Chicago is settled.

Despite an offer for a 16-percent pay raise in addition to an average annual salary of $71,000 the teachers already receive, the union refuses to budge, embarking on the city’s first teachers’ strike in twenty-five years. The pay raises offered would be mandatory and could not be rescinded for a lack of funds. The raises, insisted upon by a teachers’ union which claims to represent people who have the best interests of children at heart, could bankrupt the already failing school system. Bankrupting the schools where Chicago’s children already receive a below-average education is apparently not enough for the unions paid to represent the city’s teachers. The teachers’ union demands more concessions before agreeing to sign.

Despite being placated on the wage demands, the union demands a degree of job security that is unparalleled in the rest of the economy, especially in its current state. If a teacher’s school closes, their union wants a guaranteed future job elsewhere else in the system. The union seems to be unaware that schools aren’t closed on a whim. They are closed because students are performing so poorly that the district decides that they would be better served elsewhere. Why would the district then move those teachers to another school, where the same students would then be instructed by the same teachers, but in another building? Do teachers really think that their students’ failures are due to the room they’re in or the blackboard they’re using?

Another aspect of job security, the scope of teacher evaluations and the possibility of dismissals based on job performance, is also a sticking point for the Chicago Teachers Union. Apparently being measured on one’s ability to teach is too much to ask of grown adults given the task of teaching the next generation not only math and science, but also responsibility and maturity.

Some of the union’s demands are actually reasonable. The Sun Times reports,

The union also has pushed for improved working conditions, such as smaller class sizes, more libraries, air-conditioned schools, and more social workers and counselors to address the increasing needs of students surrounded by violence — all big-ticket items.

Does the Chicago Teachers Union think that the city is in possession of a money tree? With a $1 billion deficit at the end of the year, how could the union expect that the city could possibly afford guaranteed pay raises, these “big-ticket” items, and paychecks for teachers whose schools have performed so badly? In a choice between the increased wages and the “big-ticket” items, one has to wonder what would be a greater priority for the union.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has refused to capitulate to these demands, stating “This is totally unnecessary. It’s avoidable and our kids don’t deserve this. … This is a strike of choice.” All strikes are strikes of choice, but what Emanuel seems to be implying is that the Chicago Teachers Union has no business striking based on their stated demands nor on the small differences of position between the city and the union — on almost every issue the two parties have worked to meet more or less in the middle.

In a surprising turn of events, Emanuel received support from the Romney campaign. The surprise is not that Romney has sided with the children of Chicago over their teachers’ union; he issued a statement today which read, “Teachers unions have too often made plain that their interests conflict with those of our children, and today we are seeing one of the clearest examples yet.” What is surprising is the total lack of support the Obama administration has offered to their fundraising surrogate and former coworker. Today White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, “We hope that both sides are able to come together to settle this quickly in the best interests of Chicago’s students. Beyond that, I haven’t got a specific reaction from the president.”

In the choice between students and greed, teachers’ unions have chosen greed. In the choice between unions and students, President Obama is yet again voting present.

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