The Leader (Lyndhurst, NJ)
When David Paterson addressed a joint session of New York’s State Legislature the day he took over as governor, school choice supporters were hanging on his every word.
Although the new governor only took a moment to stress the importance of giving New York’s children better schools, his fervent support of school choice has been widely reported in recent weeks. Citing his “reformist views on K-12 education policy,” the Alliance for School Choice and the Black Alliance for Educational Options announced their support for the new governor just days after the Spitzer sex scandal.
Indeed, Paterson appears to fit the mold of an increasing number of politicians in the tri-state area, many of whom are African-American Democrats.
In Newark, Mayor Cory Booker has long supported school vouchers. The Rev. Reginald Jackson, the executive director of the Black Ministers’ Council of New Jersey, has described school choice as the “right solution at the right time for the children.” Similarly, former Rep. Floyd Flake, the pastor of the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Cathedral of New York in Jamaica, Queens, today serves as a staunch advocate of choice.
Seemingly, these leaders recognize that America’s schools have lagged behind because public education has been insulated from competition — the driving force behind quality in the private sector.
Look at the facts.
Every year, U.S. taxpayers spend over 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product on education. Since President George W. Bush took office in 2001, the Department of Education’s spending on elementary and secondary education has jumped from $27 billion to $38 billion, an increase of almost 40 percent. Combined federal and state per-student spending has more than doubled since the 1970s.
Yet there’s been little improvement in America’s public schools. Over the past three decades, scores on nationwide high school achievement tests have barely budged.
So what’s blocking progress?
Principally, it’s the nation’s two largest teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Together, with their state and local affiliates, these unions push for contracts that undermine education and leave teachers and students to languish.
Like other negotiated contracts between unionized workers and their employers, these “collective bargaining agreements” guarantee wages, regular raises, health insurance, vacation time and other benefits.
What’s notable about teacher contracts, however, is that only rarely are these benefits tied to performance. And the contracts are filled with conditions that render school administrators powerless.
For example, the unions have fought tooth-and-nail against proposals to test a teacher’s proficiency in the subject he’s teaching. In almost every other sector of the economy, this sort of accountability is commonplace. But in the public school system, sub-par educators have nothing to worry about. School administrators are restricted in how they can evaluate teachers.
This runs counter to the interest of good instructors, as schools are explicitly prohibited from rewarding educators who are particularly adept in their subjects and whose students demonstrate progress. This has helped lead to a nationwide epidemic of poor teachers.
Especially in the nation’s inner-city schools, the best teachers tend to depart for better salaries, nicer neighborhoods, and less stressful working conditions — often outside the teaching profession. In fact, 40 percent of all teachers leave the classroom within their first five years on the job. Performance-based pay would make it possible for these schools to retain good teachers.
But the unions fight against it.
These contracts also make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.
Today, in New York City, for example, more than 600 schoolteachers spend each day in empty classrooms. Why? Because they’ve been accused of wrongdoing but can’t be fired until their cases are fully investigated. In just salaries alone, this costs City Hall nearly $35 million every year. Imagine if that money could instead be spent on improving education.
Unsurprisingly, these contracts directly harm students. As Stanford University’s Terry Moe recently concluded in a study that analyzed collective bargaining agreements in California, such restrictive agreements “have negative consequences for student achievement,” especially in “large districts [and] high-minority schools.” By tying the hands of school administrators, these contracts make it nearly impossible to manage effectively and remove ineffective teachers.
The national unions also lobby against efforts to allow students trapped in under-performing schools the opportunity to transfer somewhere better. This, despite indisputable evidence that school choice boosts student achievement regardless of socioeconomic background.
Thankfully, more and more politicians in New York and New Jersey are realizing that schools need modest reforms that inject competition into education. To improve schools and help teachers, union leaders really ought to consider supporting their efforts.
Educational progress is possible. But it’s going to require the same discipline that progress does in other, private-sector venues — incentive-based competition.
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