Tag: national education association

Washington Pushed Common Core on Us, and All We Got Was This Lousy Burrito Wrapper

The Common Core is slowly but surely becoming a big national issue, and three things in today’s news tell us a lot about what’s going on.

  • It is a major story – it was a lead Politico article this morning – that the National Education Association, after steadily, if quietly, backing the Core, yesterday slugged it. At least, President Dennis Van Roekel came out with guns blazing against the implementation of the Core, saying that in many states “implementation has been completely botched,” and calling for a slowdown in the Core rollout. To be sure, Van Roekel didn’t suddenly say the Core is poor-quality standards, but implementation is absolutely key, and it is there that experts across the spectrum have long been crushing the Core.
  • With the tide increasingly turning against them, Core advocates are no longer napping, feeling secure in the fact that Washington got a large majority of states to sign on to the Core before anyone really knew what was happening. This morning, news came out about survey results from the Core-supporting 50CAN. A big takeaway, according to 50CAN? Most people don’t know much about the Common Core, but would like it if they did: a sizeable majority support the idea of uniform standards. That’s probably accurate – in the abstract, one standard sounds nice – but what is more telling is the response to whether people trust policymakers in DC “to determine what is best for improving schools.” Only 17 percent either “strongly” or “somewhat” trust Washington. Eighty percent “do not trust” DC. Maybe that’s why Core-ites seem hell-bent on ignoring the crucial role Washington had, through the Race to the Top contest and No Child Left Behind waivers, in coercing Core adoption. So uniform standards may seem nice, but federally driven? Ick! Which brings us to our last story…
  • It was reported today that Missouri State Representative Mike Lair put an $8 provision into an appropriations bill to purchase “two rolls of high density aluminum to create headgear designed to deflect drone and/or black helicopter mind reading and control technology.” This was meant to be a riproarious slap at Common Core opponents, whom Core advocates insist on tarring as kooks for fearing stuff like nationalization of school curricula. And they may, indeed, seem crazy to you if you refuse to acknowledge that the federal government, at the behest of the “state” groups that created the Core, coerced adoption. And if you ignore that Washington selected and funded two consortia to create tests to go with the Core. And if you are unaware that the U.S. Department of Education has a “technical review” panel for those tests that meets behind closed doors. And if you forgot that the federal government still requires, though it has loosened the rules, that schools be judged in part on state test performance. Yes, if you ignore reality, you could conclude that Core opponents are bonkers. But if you know and accept reality, then you know that far from being crazy, opposition to the Core is based, to a large degree, on logic and facts. Which means few at whom Rep. Lair is aiming his little joke are going to be making a chapeau with the free foil. At most, they’re going to put it to good use and make a burrito wrapper, or a solar oven, or are just going to throw it back at Rep. Lair, yelling, “stop calling me crazy, and stop wasting my eight bucks!”

Democrats’ Problem: Teachers and Their Unions Just Like the Rest of Us

Let’s face it: everyone is trying to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s normal, with people doing things because they feel they’ll make them better off. The problem starts when you insist that you’re a saint—that you’re somehow far more selfless than most other people—and you just can’t keep up the charade any longer. Welcome to the Democratic Party’s teacher union problem.

It seems that trying to keep the party’s union-heavy base happy while simultaneously appearing unbeholden to entrenched interests is going to be a tricky balancing act for the Democrats. But dealing with teachers unions—which adding the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers together have about 4.7 million members—is going to be particularly treacherous. Educators are by far the biggest unionized bloc, and almost certainly the most troublesome. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports today, Democrats are particularly rent asunder on education issues, and a new movie about a parent taking on the union to turn a bad public school into a charter school—the so-called parent trigger—is driving another wedge.

The movie, Won’t Back Down, has already been panned by AFT president Randi Weingarten. But at least her union—unlike the larger and more obstinate National Education Association—acknowledges that there are education problems, and maybe the unions’ time-honored demand of “more money and no accountability” has had something to do with them.

“We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten recently told the New York Times. ”We were focused—as unions are—on fairness and not as much on quality.”

No doubt part of the reason that at least the AFT is accepting a little blame is that it sees that teachers unions are losing the sympathies of many members of the public. People are seemingly growing tired of seeing unionized educators enjoying good incomes and expensive perks while those paying the taxes struggle and test scores languish.

The problem with the union reinvention—at least as captured by the Weingarten quote—is that it probably strikes many people as hollow. Why? Because they know that unions are run by normal people and represent normal people, and what they want first and foremost is not what’s best for kids or “fairness,” but getting as good a deal for themselves as possible. In other words, they are starting to see through unions’ selfless-angels facade—the public relations sham of people just wanting a living wage while they give the mythical 110 percent “for the kids” —and are glimpsing normal, profit-seeking human beings who have had a fairly cushy deal over the decades.

Teachers unions, as those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have said, are not the root problem in education, nor are they or the people they represent any more evil or good than most other people. The root educational problem is that public schools are government schools, and politics—which cannot be detached from government—rewards concentrated special interests, of which unionized teachers are among the biggest.

For the Democratic Party, the big problem is that for decades the teachers unions have insisted that they and their members as far more noble than almost anyone else. At least, more noble than anyone openly seeking a profit, which is most people. But the public is catching on: teachers and their unions are just as self-interested as most other people, and government-run schooling has enabled them to get some awfully nice, taxpayer-funded deals. So what do you do? Acknowledge the paper-mache wings have fallen off and risk the wrath of the teacher unionists, or keep up the angelic charade and hope the public stops noticing reality? Neither is a happy prospect for the Democratic Party.

Teachers Unions Are But a Symptom of the Disease

Just as some public schooling defenders like to caricature their opponents as self-important, money-grubbing ”corporate reformers” or malevolent destroyers of “public education,” there is a tendency on the other side to attack teachers unions as the root of all evil. They aren’t. They are a natural symptom of a government monopoly that, because it is a monopoly, strongly favors the monopolization of labor. One employer, one employee representative.

Unless someone has compelling evidence to the contrary—I’ve never seen any—teacher union officials and members are no different than anyone else: they are simply trying to get the best deals for themselves.  What separates them from non-unionized workers—and unionized workers in the private sector—is not their desires, but that their employment comes from a system into which ”customers” must pay, and which is controlled completely by politics. Public-sector unions have big advantages in politics, where organization, numbers, and motivation—millions of people advocating for their very livelihoods—translate into power.

That brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal piece on union political spending. That spending is huge, and manifested in far more ways than contributions to candidates. Between 2005 and 2011 the Journal estimates unions spent $3.3 billion on political activities, which beyond candidate donations included everything from trying to persuade members to vote a certain way, to supplying bratwursts to demonstrators in Wisconsin.

There would be no major freedom issue if all of this were spending by unions with completely voluntary membership, and which operated in truly free markets. There would, then, be no compelled support of politicking. But this is absolutely not the case when it comes to teachers unions and other public sector unions.

For one thing, teachers often are, for all intents and purposes, forced to join unions as a condition of employment, even when they are required to ”just” pay big “agency fees” to cover collective bargaining. Moreover, the ultimately taxpayer-supplied dues money is used to get more dough out of taxpayers who have no choice but to be schools’ “customers.” And we’re not talking pocket change here: according to the Journal’s numbers, between 2005 and 2011 the National Education Association spent $239 million on politics and lobbying, and the American Federation of Teachers spent $138 million. And that doesn’t include the outlays of all their state and local affiliates.

Despite those power-wielding expenditures, the members and leaders of teachers unions still aren’t evil. They are normal, self-interested folks. The effects of their actions, however, are to compel people to fund political speech and activities against their will, and often against their personal interests. But we shouldn’t attack unions for that. We must attack the government schooling monopoly.

Weak Defenses of Teacher Bailout

As the Obama administration continues to send mixed signals about the proposed $23 billion public-school bailout, rescue advocates are offering some very wimpy defenses of their cause. That is, except for the National Education Association, which has launched a PR blitz for the bailout in its grandest – and most shameless – tradition of using cute kids to get lots of dues-paying members:

OK, enough of the NEA. The more numerous defenses of the bailout try to offer more reasoned and less emotional arguments for the bailout than does the NEA. But not much more reasoned.

Case in point, the The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson, who takes issue with an op-ed I had in the New York Post yesterday making clear that even cutting 300,000 public-school employees – the worst-case scenario – would hardly be the “catastrophe” people like U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan say it would be. As I wrote, even that cut would only constitute a 4.8 percent reduction in the public K-12 workforce. More important, we have seen decades of huge per-pupil spending and staffing increases in education with essentially no accompanying improvement in academic achievement. In other words, even far bigger cuts than the worst-case scenario would likely have little adverse effect on achievement.

So the worst cuts wouldn’t actually be that big, and they’d likely have little negative effect on achievement. But to Thompson, they’d be akin to the suffering of cold-turkey drug rehab:

At the risk of invoking a cliche, our education system is a bit like a painkiller junkie who just had his wisdom teeth pulled. In the long term, we probably want to wean the patient off drugs. In the short term, the patient happens to be in dire need of some drugs.

Perhaps more troubling than this overwrought analogy is that Thompson dismisses my complaint that the $23 billion bailout would, in addition to being educationally worthless, add to our staggering national debt.  $23 billion, Thompson essentially says, is just too small a piece of federal change to complain about its debt implications.

“Well,” he writes, “if we’re playing the put-it-in-context game, $23 billion is ‘only’ 0.6% of the 2010 budget. An unfortunate bailout, perhaps, but hardly catastrophic…”

OK. If the game we’re supposed to be playing is the “this-expenditure-isn’t-all-that-big” game, then we can forget about ever cutting the $13 trillion debt. Heck, the Defense Department’s budget in FY 2010 was “only” about $693 billion, a mere 5.3 percent of the national debt.

Joining the bailout defense today is White House Council of Economic Advisors chair Christina Romer, who pushes for it in the Washington Post.

In addition to repeating the usual, now thoroughly debunked proclamations of impending educational disaster, Romer rolls out boilerplate about the government needing to maintain high employment in order to keep people spending and paying taxes:

Because unemployed teachers have to cut back on spending, local businesses and overall economic activity suffer. And the costs of decreased learning time and support for students will be felt not just in the next year or two but will reduce our productivity for decades to come…

Furthermore, by preventing layoffs, we would save on unemployment insurance payments, food stamps and COBRA subsidies for health insurance, and we would maintain tax revenue.

Given the at-best highly dubious short-term positive effects of the “stimulus,” it is hard to believe that too many people at this point will find these arguments persuasive. Worse yet, Romer glosses right over the fact that the mammoth debt will eventually have to be repaid, and that that will have huge negative effects for local businesses and everyone else as their money goes from useful pursuits to government debt repayment.

In light of how flaccid the arguments are for the bailout, it’s really no surprise that the Obama administration is sending mixed signals about how much it really wants the rescue. By offering some support – including having the Education Secretary appear at the launch of the NEA’s PR blitz – the administration keeps on the good side of the teachers unions. But by not going all out, the administration doesn’t end up too closely connected to a debt-be-damned expenditure that neither addresses a real emergency, nor has any meaningful connection to education quality.

Teachers Union Channels Teen Talk Barbie

“Math class is tough!”  –Teen Talk Barbie

Political scientist Jay Greene bravely decided to read the new NEA paper that is billed as showing that “Teachers Take ‘Pay Cut’ as Inflation Outpaces Salaries.  Average teachers’ salaries declined over the past decade.”

But a funny thing happened when he reviewed the study: it didn’t support the NEA’s own claim. Here’s Jay:

The only problem is that this is not what the data in the NEA report actually show.  In Table C-14 “Percentage Change in Average Salaries of Public School Teachers 1998-99 to 2008-09 (Constant $)” we see that salaries increased by 3.4% nationwide over the last decade after adjusting for inflation…. I can’t find a single table or figure in the report that would justify the headline and claims in the press release.  But when the Ministry of Truth speaks, who are you supposed to believe — them or your lying eyes?

Of course the real reason that public school labor costs have risen so much in the past 40 years is not that salaries have skyrocketed, but that employment has. We now have 70% more staff per student than we did in 1970, and students’ scores are not a whit better for it at the end of high school.

Would the NEA be happy if we gave every teacher a raise but returned to the staff/student ratio of 1970? I doubt it. It would drastically cut the union’s dues revenues.

In any event, the union’s impact through collective bargaining, as I wrote in the Cato Journal recently, appears to be negligible. Where they make a difference is in effective lobbying to preserve the existing government education monopoly. The monopoly is great for public school employee unions, but lousy for kids, parents, and taxpayers.

Retiring General Counsel’s Shocking Admission: The NEA Is a Union!

YouTube video that catches Bob Chanin, retiring general counsel of the National Education Association, calling right-wing groups ”bastards” for attacking his soon-to-be-former employer has recently been making the rounds. Not surprisingly, some right-wingers haven’t been too happy about Chanin’s retirement speech, not caring for the “bastard” label. I, however, want to thank Mr. Chanin for his salty valedictory. 

Why? First off, because his pugnacious presentation has a certain Teamsters feel to it, furnishing almost visceral confirmation that the National Education Association is a labor union pure-and-simple — not the high-brow “professional employee organization” it bills itself as — ready to slash tires or do whatever else it thinks necessary to get its way.

But I’m especially grateful because Mr. Chanin all but declares that the NEA is a power-obsessed, hyper-political union that serves not children, but adults. Of course, anyone who has followed the NEA knows that — indeed, its exactly what we should expect considering that it’s the adults who pay the dues — but it’s a shocking admission from someone so high in the association, and a reality the public all too often misses.

What follows is my transcription of the speech’s most revelatory section. Of course, if you would prefer to catch all the inflections, hemming and hawing, and crowd reactions, you can just watch the video. If you’re going to do that, either start at the beginning for the whole address (obviously) or go to about the 15-minute mark to hit the really revealing stuff. And maybe, when you’re done either reading or watching, send Mr. Chanin a retirement card with a little thank you note in it. After all, giving this honesty-filled speech could very well be the best thing he’s ever done for children or the public:

Why are these conservative and right-wing bastards picking on NEA and its affiliates? I will tell you why: It is the price we pay for success. NEA and its affiliates have been singled out because they are the most effective unions in the United States. And they are the nation’s leading advocates for public education and the type of liberal social and economic agenda that these groups find unacceptable….

At first glance, some of you may find these attacks troubling. But you would be wrong. They are, in fact, really a good thing. When I first came to NEA in the early ’60s it had few enemies, and was almost never criticized, attacked, or even mentioned in the media. This was because no one really gave a damn about what NEA did, or what NEA said. It was the proverbial sleeping giant: a conservative, apolitical, do-nothing organization.

But then, NEA began to change. It embraced collective bargaining. It supported teacher strikes. It established a political action committee. It spoke out for affirmative action, and it defended gay and lesbian rights. What NEA said and did began to matter. And the more we said and did, the more we pissed people off. And, in turn, the more enemies we made.

So the bad news, or depending on your point of view, the good news, is that NEA and its affiliates will continue to be attacked by conservative and right-wing groups as long as we continue to be effective advocates for public education, for education employees, and for human and civil rights.

And that brings me to my final, and most important point. Which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child. NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power. And we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them, the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees.

This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality, and the like are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay!

When all is said and done, NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions, and what unions do first and foremost is represent their members.

NEA Asks President to Nationalize Industries

The NEA demands that “a dying laissez faire must be destroyed,” and calls on the president to nationalize the credit agencies, utilities and major industries (see AP story at right), and we hear hardly a peep from the punditocracy. Strange.

Well, okay, I’m not actually surprised. This is a real story that actually ran on March 1st… 1934. I tweaked the image to refer to president Obama rather than FDR.

It’s taken three quarters of a century, but the NEA’s plan to nationalize the credit agencies and major industries seems to have finally gotten under way, particularly given the recent assertion of federal control over GM.

One advantage of the delay is that we now have generations of experience with another state-run industry, education, as a guide for what to expect from the latest state takeovers.

And since the president (Obama, not FDR) is starting with GM, it seems only fitting to take a look at the public schools of Detroit. Rather than give you the typical statistical wonkery, though, I thought I’d point readers to this compelling photo essay.

After flipping through it, do you think the Detroit auto industry would have worked better over these past 75 years if it had been run like the Detroit public schools?