Market Solutions to the Education Crisis

July 1, 1986 • Policy Analysis No. 75
By Myron Lieberman

In recent years, hundreds of prestigious reports, studies, surveys, recommendations, and policy statements have told us what’s wrong with education and what to do about it. Nevertheless, significant reform in public education has not occurred, nor is it occurring. Why is this, and what must be done to increase educational achievement in the United States?

To answer these questions, the issues ignored in the reform reports have to be recognized.[1] One is the role of the two teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and their state and local affiliates.[2] The vast majority of proposed reforms either are subject to bargaining or would affect teacher unions in major ways, whether or not subject to bargaining. Proposals for a longer school year, a longer school day, more individual attention to pupils after school, more teacher‐​parent conferences, restrictions on courses taken for salary credit, deletion or reduction of some non‐​academic subjects, easier dismissal of incompetent teachers, and more in‐​service training for teachers would adversely affect the terms and conditions of teacher employment. Teacher unions exist to maximize teacher benefits, not to represent pupils or parents or the community. Of course, at some point, teacher interests must be subordinated to other interests, but the political influence and bargaining power of teacher unions frequently ensure an indefensibly high priority for teacher interests.

Significantly, teaching is perhaps the most heavily unionized major occupation in the United States. In 1984, 72.5 percent of the nation’s public school teachers were covered by collective bargaining agreements negotiated with teacher unions.[3] The unions will not accept, and cannot be forced to accept, reforms that would reduce teacher benefits as long as public school teachers enjoy monopoly or near‐​monopoly status. Nevertheless, the reform reports blithely ignore the existence and role of teacher unions. For example, the most prestigious and highly publicized reform report, A Nation At Risk, makes no reference to the subject; not even one of the more than 40 position papers prepared for its sponsors deals with it.[4] The omission is particularly egregious because teacher unions have more power than private‐​sector unions to block changes to which they are opposed.

Similarly, for all intents and purposes, the education‐​reform reports ignore the teacher‐​tenure laws enacted in over 40 states.[5] Although teacher‐​tenure laws vary widely, several severely restrict school‐​district ability to replace teachers who are incompetent or who are no longer needed because of program changes or declining enrollments. By ignoring this problem, the reformers have conveyed the erroneous impression that it is not an obstacle to school improvement.

In addition, none of the reform reports recommend changes in the governance structure of education or even raise it as an issue. Textbook legislation illustrates the importance of this omission. In some states, local districts must choose textbooks or receive state aid only for textbooks from a state‐​approved list. The list might not include the textbooks sought by a local district. It may be several years before the list is to be revised, and even then there is no assurance that a desired text will be included on it.[6]

In short, despite all the rhetoric about local autonomy, most local school boards operate within a framework of state and federal regulation and judicial decision that severely limits their decision‐​making authority. Consequently, public education is characterized by many groups with veto power and virtually none with “do power.” Authority is diffused among parents, local school boards, municipal and county governments, state legislatures, state departments, state boards, state superintendents of education, independent educational agencies, institutions of higher education, judicial bodies, administrative agencies, and state employment‐​relations boards, and by federal statutes and judicial decisions. The vast majority of citizens, even the most sophisticated, are unable to protect their educational interests in this situation.

For the most part, it is not necessary to debate whether proposed changes constitute genuine reform or merely a fine‐ tuning of the status quo. Most of the proposed changes are not going to happen, regardless of whether there would be beneficial consequences. For example, some reform reports allege that teacher training requires too many courses in pedagogy and too few in the subjects taught. The fact is, however, that at least a dozen books and scores of articles have expressed this criticism since 1950.[7] There is little reason to believe that the same criticism will be more influential now than it was in the past.

To put it bluntly, educational reform simply cannot surmount the hurdles in the way of basic changes in public education. Isolated, ad hoc improvements are possible, but large‐​scale institutional improvement is not, at least under the present governance and regulatory framework of education. Educational deterioration is at least as likely as improvement in the next five to ten years.

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About the Author
Myron Lieberman, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, is author of Beyond Public Education.