Commentary

Unions vs. Education: Teachers Unions Beat the Latest Reform Initiative

This article was first published in National Review Online, November 20, 2001.
“L.A. Unified [School District] has done nothing for us,” says Fa’alagilagi Meni-Siliga. “We don’t have enough textbooks, and it takes far too long for the district to respond to problems.”

She’ll have to keep waiting. On November 6, voters rejected an initiative to withdraw from the Los Angeles Unified School District and create a new school district in Carson, California, a few miles northwest of Long Beach. It would have been the first school district to secede from LAUSD since Torrance, in 1948. But, the education establishment feared, it might not be the last. Other groups have been seeking to carve two new districts out of LAUSD in the San Fernando Valley.

Responding to this latest threat to its grip on the schools, the Los Angeles teachers union spent more than $125,000 to defeat the measure. Carson mayor Daryl Sweeney sent out a mailer urging a “no” vote. Reform advocates managed to scrape together less than $5,000, relying on lawn signs and precinct walks. Outspent by more than 25 to 1, they lost the election by a 3 to 1 margin.

Why would anybody want to leave the LAUSD? Start with the size: The sprawling L.A. district has more than 700,000 children in 791 schools. What school board could effectively manage such a system?

Then there’s quality. A recent poll found that 70 percent of parents in LAUSD schools feel the board of education puts politics above the interests of students. Almost half give the system a C or worse in helping students achieve their academic potential. Two-thirds of the parents thought the schools were not even safe.

Considering the quality of L.A. schools, what’s surprising is that the parents’ grades were as high as they were. Three out of four ninth-graders failed the math section on California’s high school exit exam, and most failed the English section as well. California has named 13 schools that will be subject to state takeover if they don’t improve; 10 are in the LAUSD.

Which is why Carson grandmother Carolyn Harris called Tuesday’s vote “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to turn the situation around, to control our own schools and our own money.” A middle- and working-class town, Carson is 36 percent Latino, 26 percent black, 23 percent Asian/Pacific Islander (including lots of Samoan and Filipino Americans), 12 percent white, and 3 percent American Indian.

Secession advocates believe that the town can educate its own 21,000 students better than the vast district can. There’s a lot of research to confirm their view. There were 117,000 school districts in the United States in 1940. Fifty years later, there were about 15,000. The average size of American schools quadrupled during that period, so the typical student was part of a much larger school in a much larger district. Meanwhile, the percentage of education funding generated at the local level declined, while state funding increased. All of this moved decisions about education away from the local school and community, to district and state bureaucracies.

A 1993 study from the Heartland Institute in Chicago found that “the factors most associated with effective education are local — school- and neighborhood-based… State-average school district size, school size, and state share of funding all are significantly and negatively related to student achievement.” A 1989 study in the journal Education and Urban Society found that “in large [school] systems, time and energy are more likely to be shifted away from core service activities.”

But despite the evidence, resistance to change is strong. The education establishment fears that once people get a taste of choice and local control, they may want more. Eight years ago, the teachers unions spent more than $17 million to defeat a voucher initiative that would have given families the right to send their children to public, private, or parochial schools. And they have been equally vigilant in fighting reforms across the country, most recently in little Carson, California.

In the small Kentucky town where I grew up, if my mother had a question about the schools, she could go down to the shoe store and talk to a member of the school board. Imagine trying to do that in the LAUSD. Not 10 percent of the parents could name a member of the board, much less know where to find him or her. That’s the reality that prompted people in Carson to try and take back their schools.

The tide of educational reform is now running toward competition and decentralization — charter schools, vouchers, tax credits, private management, smaller schools, and maybe even smaller districts. The evidence suggests that these reforms would produce better results than the trend toward monopoly and centralization that dominated the late 20th century. But the education establishment won’t give up its control without a fight.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute.