Tag: nea

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.

One Step Forward, One Step Back

This weekend I opened The Washington Post to find the editors arguing that Congress should cut federal subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Institute of Peace, and the National Endowment of the Arts, and George F. Will arguing that Congress should preserve federal subsidies to Teach for America.

Weird.

While You Were Watching the Race to the Top…

…President Obama and Congress were doling out tens-of-billions of dollars to the education status quo while doing little of meaningful, reform-y substance. Now we see the payoff: President Obama has gotten bipartisan accolades for supposedly being a different kind of Democrat on education – one willing to take on teacher unions – while he’s fully kept union allegiances.

Reports the Washington Post about National Education Association plans to spend $15 million on largely Dem-friendly, midterm-election advertisements:

Karen M. White, the NEA’s political director, said the 3.2 million-member union is in sync with Obama more often than not. As an example, she pointed to his support for a $10 billion education funding bill that the Democratic-led Congress passed in August over Republican opposition.

“That education jobs bill got so many of our members engaged,” White said. “It was a turning point for us.”

She played down controversy over Obama’s school reform agenda as “bumps in the road,” adding, “we share the same goals as this administration.”

It really wasn’t hard to see the politics at play here: Talk a lot about reform, expend riches to protect the status quo, win good will from all sides. And heck, who gets hurt? Only taxpayers and students, that’s all.

Uh-oh: Here Comes Edu-Goliath!

The hard-nosed, content-at-all-cost folks at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation have been warned, and warned, and warned some more: Get the national curriculum standards you think are so incredibly important, and they will almost certainly be captured by the pedagogical progressives who have dominated education for decades – and whose notions you disdain. Well, if what’s being reported by Common Core’s Lynne Munson – and reiterated in this lamentation for Massachusetts by the Pioneer Institute’s Jim Stergios – is accurate, that is already happening. (Actually, some prominent analysts have long said that the national standards – created by the Council of Chief State School Officers and National Governors Association – are already nothing the Fordhamites should embrace.) Writes Munson:

This is strange. P21 is being subsumed into CCSSO. There’s nothing to be read about this on either CCSSO’s or P21′s websites. But according to Fritzwire the two organizations have formed a “strategic management relationship” that will commence December 1.

So what is P21 –  the group cozying up with the standards-writing CCSSO – you ask? Let the Fordham Institute tell you:

The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) has some powerful supporters, including the NEA, Cisco, Intel, and Microsoft. Fourteen states have also climbed aboard its effort to refocus American K-12 education on global awareness, media literacy and the like–and to defocus it on grammar, multiplication tables and the causes of the Civil War. Its swell-sounding yet damaging notions have been plenty influential–but the unmasking and truth-telling have begun, thanks in large part to a valiant little organization named Common Core. And new research validates this and other skeptics’ criticisms. Today the contest resembles David vs. Goliath–but remember who ultimately prevailed in that one.

Uh-oh. It might be time to end the biblical references – it looks more and more like Goliath is going to win.

Not Just a ‘Special Interest,’ A Super Special Interest

In the gag-inducing tradition of National Education Association propaganda, President Obama’s “Organizing for America” has released the video below taking issue with House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) calling teachers a “special interest.” Watch…and wince.

Now, certainly many teachers want nothing more than to teach and do a good job. Some might even do it as much “for the kids” as their own personal satisfaction.  But teachers, at least as represented by the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, sure as heck are a special interest. Indeed, they might be called a super-special interest, with unparalled sway over Democrats especially, and an incredible ability to get money out of taxpayers.

But what about teachers’ saintliness?

Certainly many teachers work hard and spend some money out of their own pockets for the kids. But no public-school teacher is so poor that, unlike the no doubt intentionally bedgraggled-looking Jeff in the video, he or she can’t afford anything other than an undershirt to wear. Indeed, as I made clear in my PA Unbearable Burden? Living and Paying Student Loans as a First-Year Teacher, even the lowest-paid public school teachers can afford nice apartments, good food, and much beyond life’s essentials. And the average teacher, on an hourly basis, earns more than the average accountant, nurse, or insurance unerwriter.

Ah, but teachers work “twelve, thirteen hours” a day, right? I mean, isn’t that what destitute Jeff said?

Again, maybe some do, but the vast majority do not. Indeed, according to time-diary research done a few years ago, during the months when teachers are actually working as teachers – so not including lengthy summer and other vacations – the average teacher only does about 7.3 hours of education work inside or outside the school on weekdays, and about two hours on weekends. That’s 18 minutes less per day than the average person in a comparable, full-time professional job. And again, that doesn’t account for teachers’ long, built-in vacations.

So get off it, teacher unionists and apologists. Teacher unions are a gigantic special interest, and all the super-earnest-sounding, unkempt video subjects in the world aren’t going to change that.

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.

Federal Education Results Prove the Framers Right

Yesterday, I offered the Fordham Foundation’s Andy Smarick an answer to a burning question: What is the proper federal role in education? It was a question prompted by repeatedly mixed signals coming from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about whether Washington will be a tough guy, coddler, or something in between when it comes to dealing with states and school districts.  And what was my answer? The proper federal role is no role, because the Constitution gives the feds no authority over American education.

Not surprisingly, Smarick isn’t going for that. Unfortunately, his reasoning confirms my suspicions: Rather than offering a defense based even slightly on what the Constitution says, Smarick essentially asserts that the supreme law of the land is irrelevant because it would lead to tough reforms and, I infer, the elimination of some federal efforts he might like.

While acknowledging that mine is a “defensible argument,” Smarick writes that he disagrees with it because it “would presumably require immediately getting rid of IDEA, Title I, IES, NAEP, and much more.” He goes on to assert that I might “argue that doing so is necessary and proper because it’s the only path that squares with our founding document, but policy-wise it is certainly implausible any time soon.” Not far after that, Smarick pushes my argument aside and addresses a question to “those who believe that it’s within the federal government’s authority to do something in the realm of schools.”

OK. Let’s play on Smarick’s grounds. Let’s ignore what the Constitution says and see what, realistically, we could expect to do about federal intervention in education, as well as what we can realistically expect from continued federal involvement.

First off, I fully admit that getting Washington back within constitutional bounds will be tough. That said, I mapped out a path for doing so in the last chapter of Feds In The Classroom, a path that doesn’t, unlike what Smarick suggests, require immediate cessation of all federal education activities. Washington obviously couldn’t be pulled completely out of the schools overnight.

Perhaps more to Smarick’s point, cutting the feds back down to size has hardly been a legislatively dead issue. Indeed, as recently as 2007 two pieces of legislation that would have considerably withdrawn federal tentacles from education – the A-PLUS and LEARN acts – were introduced in Congress. They weren’t enacted, but they show that getting the feds out of education is hardly a pipe dream. And with tea parties, the summer of townhall discontent, and other recent signs of revolt against big government, it’s hardly out of the question that people will eventually demand that the feds get out of their schools.

Of course, there is the other side of the realism argument: How realistic is it to think that the federal government can be made into a force for good in education? It certainly hasn’t been one so far. Just look at the following chart plotting federal education spending against achievement, a chart that should be very familiar by now.

Education Spending

Notice anything? Of course! The federal government has spent monstrous sums on education without any corresponding improvement in outcomes!

Frankly, it’s no mystery why: Politicians, as self-interested people, care first and foremost about the next election, not long-term education outcomes. They care about what will score them immediate political points. That’s why federal politicians have thrown ever-more money at Title I without any meaningful sign it makes a difference. That’s why No Child Left Behind imposed rules that made Washington politicians look tough on bad schools while really just pushing more dough at educrats and giving states umpteen ways to avoid actual improvement. That’s why Arne Duncan vacillates between baddy and buddy at the drop of a headline. And that basic reality – as well as the reality that the people employed by the public schools will always have the greatest motivation and ability to influence government-schooling policies – is why it is delusional to expect different results from federal education interventions than what we’ve gotten for decades.

OK. But what about a law like the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? Hasn’t it helped millions of disabled kids who would otherwise have been neglected by states and local school districts?

For one thing, it is constitutional and totally appropriate under the 14th Amendment for the federal government to ensure that states don’t discriminate against disabled children in provision of education. IDEA, however, does much more than that, spending billions of federal dollars, promoting over-identification of “disabilities,” and creating a hostile, “lawyers playground” of onerous, Byzantine rules and regulations, all without any proof that the law ultimately does more good than harm. And again, this should be no surprise, because federal politicians care most about wearing how much they “care” on their reelection-seeking sleeves, no matter how negative the ultimate consequences may be.

Alright-y then. How about the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)? Isn’t it an invaluable source of national performance data?

NAEP results are used in the above chart, so obviously I have found NAEP of some value.  But does its usefulness justify ignoring the Constitution? Absolutely not. For one thing, instead of NAEP we could use extant, non-federal tests such as the SAT, ACT, PSAT, Stanford 9, Terra Nova, and many other assessments to gauge how students are doing. And as useful as NAEP may be, it sits perilously close to being as worthless as everything else that Washington has done in education. All that has kept it from being hopelessly politicized is that there is no money attached to how states and local districts do on it. And as Smarick’s boss at Fordham, Chester Finn, testified in 2000, even with that protection NAEP and other supposedly netural federal education undertakings are under constant threat of political subversion:

Unfortunately, the past decade has also shown how vulnerable these activities are to all manner of interference, manipulation, political agendas, incompetence and simple mischief. It turns out that they are nowhere near to being adequately immunized against Washington’s three great plagues:

• the pressing political agendas and evanescent policy passions of elected officials (in both executive and legislative branches)and their appointees and aides,

• the depredations and incursions of self-serving interest groups and lobbyists (of which no field has more than education), and

• plain old bureaucratic bungling and incompetence.

Based on all of this evidence, it is clear that the only realistic avenue for getting rational federal education policy is, in fact, to follow the Constitution and have no federal education policy. In other words, the very realistic Framers of the Constitution were absolutely right not to give the federal government any authority over education, and it is time, right now, for us to stop ignoring them. Doing anything else will only ensure continued, bankrupting failure.