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Sick of the Teachers: Time for Reform

The pandemic presents an opportunity to bring the public-school teachers’ unions to heel.

If the nation’s nurses had the same devotion to duty displayed by unionized teachers, the COVID death toll might be twice what it is. The virus crisis has exposed our teachers’ unions for what they are. The United States is far behind almost every other advanced country in returning its children to in-person learning. This presents a political opportunity for serious education reform that is not to be missed. 

The public can now be made to understand the consequences of our destructive education regime. Some 90 percent of college graduates are excluded from the teaching force by absurd education course requirements. There is no discretion at the building level to hire and fire, or to open schools. A single salary schedule creates artificial shortages of teachers in math, science, and special education. And since the use of computers and distance learning was discouraged by state rules and union contracts, schools were left unprepared for the virus crisis.

The public-school establishment and the Biden administration are begging for federal financial relief for computers, ventilation systems, and the like. The urgency of these demands is exaggerated, but any money provided should be doled out over a period of years. Since new money will be involved, the Supreme Court’s Sebelius decision imposes no barriers to attaching new conditions to this new aid. Therefore, four conditions are appropriate:

  1. Each recipient school should have its own building-level board with substantial powers over both personnel and spending, subject to annual audit. On the model of the British Education Act of 1986, some members should be elected by secret ballot by parents and teachers; others should be appointed by local government, including some with skills in accounting and building repairs, or co-opted when members retire. Three- and four-step grievance procedures are unnecessary under this regime, since the building-level board is a check on arbitrary actions by the principal and since there will be dozens of public school employers in each county, not one monopoly employer. This reform would also address the seniority bumping systems, which operate to allocate the most experienced teachers to the schools with fewest problems.
  1. Not more than a single term of education-methods courses should be required of elementary school teachers and none at all of secondary schoolteachers, eliminating the protective tariff that excludes 90 percent of college graduates from the teaching force, and that renders schools vulnerable to illegal strike threats. The market approves this reform; millions of parents spend thousands of dollars a year to send their offspring to private schools and colleges none of whose teachers have been required to spend a day in “methods” courses. The exclusion of educated housewives looking to work after their children are grown is indefensible, as is the exclusion of retired military and law enforcement personnel, who are at loose ends at a relatively early age. Teachers’ colleges (once called “normal schools”) are an early twentieth century invention. The great private school headmaster Horace Taft once described them as places where “Sub-normal students are taught by abnormal teachers.” Most state laws require a year of “methods’” courses for teachers, two years for principals, and three years for superintendents, equivalent to a pre-frontal lobotomy. This explains why most large school districts are administered by a small fraternity of a few hundred doctors of education, who tour the nation, failing upwards, and who frequently award each other lucrative consulting contracts on the way, the subject of more than a few criminal indictments.
  1. Any aid should include extra pay for teachers in STEM disciplines, critical languages, and some branches of special education. The inadequacy of our secondary schools explains the outsourcing to the Far East and South Asia of many scientific and technical jobs, resulting in the disappearance of manufacturers, and the proletarianization of an increasingly semi-skilled work force increasingly composed of hewers of wood and bearers of water in service industries.
  1. Finally, it may be useful to insist upon the complete conversion of the twelfth grade to a voucher system, or its severance from the public school system entirely and its annexation to community colleges, vocational institutions, and the higher education sector. The adolescent culture of our high schools is inappropriate to young adults, many if not most of whom are beyond the compulsory education age. The schools of the Province of Quebec, which some judge to be the best in North America, have annexed the 12th grade to the college system and may serve as a model.

The total effect of these reforms is to break the educationist monopoly in our public schools, frequently composed of the weakest graduates of our weakest colleges. The experience of Great Britain, all the Australian states, and New Zealand in the 1980s suggest that the more drastic reforms outlined above are feasible. Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan made fitful and foredoomed efforts at certification and single-salary reform by offering states discretionary grants, but those efforts were abandoned as soon as he was gone. If, as is likely, the Biden administration resists these reforms, it is at least time to start making them a public and widely discussed issue. 

Vouchers and charter schools involve only tinkering around the edges. What is needed is a regime that makes every school a charter school, and gives every school the administrative advantages of private schools. The credibility of Randi Weingarten—the president of the American Federation of Teachers—and her cohorts has never been lower. The time to strike is now.

George Liebmann is president of the Library Company of the Baltimore Bar, and the author of numerous works on law and public policy, most recently Vox Clamantis In Deserto: An Iconoclast Looks At Four Failed Administrations (2021).