Free Our Captive Public Schools
It seemed like a stroke of luck (or perhaps fate) that just when I began to prepare this essay on how the teachers’ unions have captured public education that Arne Duncan published his book, How Schools Work (2018). If anybody knows how schools actually work it is likely to be Arne Duncan. He was Secretary of Education for President Obama after serving as superintendent of Chicago schools for eight years.
One would think that the purpose of public education is to educate American children and prepare them for life in a very competitive adult world. America needs productive, educated citizens so that it can function as the Founders intended. But despite spending more per student than any other country, the academic achievement of our students is only mediocre. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings for 2015 place the US in 30th place out of 35 OECD countries in math and only slightly better in science at 19th. How is America going to be in the forefront of developing artificial intelligence or be the discoverer of the next medical breakthroughs with these mediocre achievement results? No, the purpose of our schools is not the academic development of our children but, apparently, to provide for the financial security of the teachers’ unions members.
Mr. Duncan confirms this in his book (you can tell he is on the right track because he has been criticized by both the right and the left). He first encountered this problem when he was in college and tutoring a high school student for his ACT exam. Despite having a B average the student could only read at a second grade level. Nevertheless he had been promoted every year and was now preparing to graduate. How was this young man going to cope with modern society (let alone get in and graduate from college) if he could only read at the second grade level?
In the private sector, if you produce an inferior product you will go out of business. If there is a better cheaper alternative, people will buy that product and not the shoddy, expensive one. But things are different in the public sector. The public sector strives to achieve “higher” goals than mere financial profits that are lusted after by the private sector. But in doing so they eliminate the “invisible hand”, as described by Adam Smith, that guides private sector transactions and makes the free market economy so effective.
Education in America has historically and traditionally been a local affair. There was no nation-wide government in the colonies and few resources available to fund colony or statewide school systems. Local communities were often required to fund their local school for basic literacy. The churches taught their parishioners so they could read the Bible. The early American education system was a hodge-podge of home schooling, church and parochial schools, private schools and public schools. Despite the lack of centralized education in the United States (or perhaps because of it) by the nineteenth century America had the most literate population in the world, a pivotal factor in its ascendancy as a world power.
But as government began funding more and more public schools teachers began to organize into unions. The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857 and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1916. American education continued to be the envy of the world well into the twentieth century but has fallen into third world status as we enter the twenty-first. All of the blame cannot be placed on the teachers’ unions’ shoulders, but a lot can. The unions’ progressive agenda has allowed our middle schools and high schools to descend into chaos as identity politics and moral equivalency replace learning. Mary Meeker, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, points out that while US students’ rankings against students of other OECD countries has fallen (and has continued to fall since she first made the chart below) their self confidence has risen. This disconnect between feeling good about yourself and your actual abilities is the result of the progressive agenda foisted upon our students by the teachers’ unions.
Teachers unions use member dues to fund political activities and support political candidates. They are one of the largest contributors to political campaigns in the country and about 95% of their campaign contributions go to Democrats according to the New York Times .
The teachers’ job to instruct our children is a valued service in the public interest. But the purpose of the teachers’ unions is to represent the private interests of the teachers. Teachers deserve decent wages and working conditions just like any other worker. But striking for higher pay and gold-plated pensions are not in the public interest.
The teachers’ unions try to convince the public that the teachers’ interests are one and the same as the public interest but this is clearly not the case. Teachers’ unions are constantly trying to reduce class size asserting that smaller classes are better. But better in what way? Singapore, which ranks at the top of the PISA rankings, has class sizes 33% larger than those in the US (and China, which whips us in math and science, has even larger classes). Whether smaller class sizes are better for students is debatable. But they are clearly better for teachers and, especially, for teachers’ unions. Small class size is a principal reason that the US spends more per student than almost every other OECD country.
Competition is what drives our free market economy that has provided us with so much prosperity. But the teachers’ unions want a monopoly on education and lobby their progressive Democratic representatives to block school choice (such as charter schools) by asserting that our taxes for education should only go to public schools. But as noted earlier (in Building Blocks-Part 3, July 17, 2018) monopoly is one of the forms of capture of the public interest by private interests. Further, it is our tax money that pays teachers’ salaries that go to union dues that work against our public interest.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that government workers could not be compelled to pay for union dues even though the workers benefit from the collective bargaining efforts of the union. The ruling overturned the 1977 decision of the court (Abood vs. Detroit Board of Education) that separated the unions’ collective bargaining activities from its political activities. But I think the court missed the point. It is not workers’ dues that should not be used for this union activity, it is the taxes we taxpayers pay that fund these union activities that work against the public interest.
The only resolution for this conflict between the public and private interest is to break the monopoly of the public schools and, with it, the capture of public education by left-wing teachers’ unions whose progressive views do not reflect those of the taxpayers that fund them. Parents should be given vouchers so that they can make the best educational choices for their children (why are progressive so insistent on giving pregnant women the “right to choose” but not parents?).
Once we have done that we can return our focus on actually educating our children.