For 40 years, education reformers have aimed at the heart of teacher-union power by seeking to establish charter schools and voucher programs, and to dilute union-security and check-off provisions. Relatively feeble attacks have also been made on teacher tenure and seniority practices. These efforts have not been without result: About 5 percent of K–12 students now attend charter schools.
But a lot of energy has been wasted. Despite their validation by the Supreme Court in the Zelman case, for example, voucher schemes benefit far less than 1 percent of students. So-called “accountability” reforms, meanwhile, may have actually had perverse effects: They promote uniformity in instruction, over-testing, teaching to the test, and neglect of history, geography, foreign languages, art, and music. On a deeper level, arguments about whether reforms have worked center almost entirely on test scores, without discussion of whether the reforms promote individual or family responsibility, instill better values in students, promote maturity, or are consistent with what Judge Learned Hand once called “the preservation of personality.”
Defenders of the status quo extol district public schools as “community schools” without asking whether such schools are in fact controlled by the community or what they achieve for students. The argument is framed as one between the public interest and “privatization,” easy to sustain in “stockbroker suburbs” satisfied with their schools or in rural areas where the creation of alternatives is difficult. There is limited enthusiasm for the erection of a new system to replace that which already exists; the neighborhood elementary school has its appeal, even though such schools are almost inevitably less socially diverse than private or charter schools; and there is pride in buildings, basketball teams, and the like.
After all, public high schools cost parents nothing, get adolescents out of the house when they are at their most difficult, feed them at least once per day and sometimes three, transport them, introduce them to the opposite sex, entertain them on weekends, conduct heartwarming graduation ceremonies, and eventually present young adults with certificates entitling them to admission to college or at least employment in some not-too-demanding service business. What’s not to like? The fact that by international standards the students are innumerate and by the national standards of a hundred years ago illiterate is beside the point.
Reformers too often have put all their eggs in the “choice” basket, to the detriment of proposals that would attract a broader constituency, divide defenders of the status quo, and undermine the strength of the unions and organizations that are its apologists.
There follow some suggestions that shatter the unions’ preferred narrative. For they advance not “privatization” but a sensible model of a public school that the unions and their sympathizers reject.
Such a school is:
1. A school in which teachers and principals retain control over student discipline, without fear of “disparate impact” claims, procedural steeplechases, or ruinous attorneys’ fee awards;
2. A school in which disruptive students are promptly removed from the classroom, so as not to delay or disturb the education of other students;
3. A school in which the hiring of teachers is reposed at the building level, without seniority “bumping” and other curtailments of schools’ ability to build a team;
4. A school in which the principal is selected by and responsible to a building-level board that enlists the energies of parents, teachers, and community members with relevant expertise;
5. A school that is free, like private schools, to recruit its teachers from the 90 percent of college graduates excluded from the teaching force by today’s certification rules;
6. A school that can hire properly qualified teachers of physics, chemistry, computer science, Arabic, Chinese, and other critical languages, and teachers trained to educate the blind, the deaf, and the seriously physically disabled, without being obstructed by the unions’ single salary schedule;
7. A school that can adjust its salary schedules to recruit members of single-earner families in the interest of not having an almost entirely female teaching force;
8. A school that includes in its teaching force persons of varied ages and backgrounds, including career-changers, scientists, returning housewives, and retired military, law-enforcement, business, professional, and civil-service personnel;
9. A school in which inadequate teachers can be terminated without lengthy grievance procedures;
10. A school in which learning disabilities are identified early in a student’s career through school health examinations;
11. A school that takes seriously its role in discouraging drug use among its students, and that does not, for fear of lawsuits, relegate students in wholesale lots to the criminal-justice system;
12. A school in which the quality of teachers renders unnecessary heavily prescribed curricula; in which books are read, not bite-sized chunks of them; and in which “teaching to the test” is unknown;
13. A school that treats 11th and 12th graders like the incipient adults they are, separating them from adolescents;
14. A school that does not shrink from the inculcation of cultural and religious traditions and values, and that respects parental rights of choice in this respect;
15. A school in which teachers are rewarded with adequate salaries, not with over-elaborate fringe benefits encouraging malingering and “gaming the system,” and in which “burned out” teachers are not locked into their jobs by seniority benefits and vesting requirements for pensions;
16. A school with meaningful and internationally recognized graduation standards that will not be waived by reason of supposed “disparate impact”;
17. A school with meaningful connections to the ensuing experiences, educational or industrial, of its graduates;
18. A school in which handicapped students enjoy the services of specially qualified and properly paid teachers, and in which resources are not wasted on bureaucracies preparing “individual treatment plans”; and
19. A school whose teachers are able to use new distance-learning and digital technologies free of state-level restrictions imposed by the unions.
When increasing proportions of the public are made aware of how far the typical public school departs from this model, there will be greater pressure for reform—including, where necessary, competition and “privatization.”
George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer and volunteer executive director of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, is the author of various books on public policy and history, including Solving Problems Without Large Government: Devolution, Fairness, and Equality (Praeger, 1999), reprinted as Neighborhood Futures (Transaction Books, 2003).