A Change Sen. Obama Won't Make

Breaking the teachers unions.

A few months back, Sen. McCain passed up our advice to make a strong pitch promising school choice to black voters.  We noted that most black parents are well aware of the potential of education to improve their children's lives - as long as ten years ago, two-thirds of poor blacks supported the idea of school vouchers.

Although he promised to offer school choice to all who wanted it when speaking to the NAACP, Sen. McCain has not pushed this issue as hard as it deserves.  Sen. Obama spoke favorably of school choice until the teacher's union got to him; he then switched to promising to pour more money into our current non-performing system.

It's truly sad that neither candidate will properly own up to the abysmal failures of our schools.  Our educational system is not delivering the educated workers we need to sustain either our lifestyle or our technology.  Losing our comfortable lifestyle is bad enough, but if we lose our technology and go back to muscle-powered agriculture, half our population will starve.

The implicit contract between students and schools is that in return for the child doing time at school, the school prepares the child for a place in adult society.  When unionized schools fail to do this, they've committed educational fraud and stolen the child's youth.

Our failure at all levels to address education as a political issue is all the more galling because a number of successful fixes to our broken educational system are well known.  Let's take a look at not one, but two solutions which are known to work - and yet which, for reasons of partisan politics and personal greed, remain rare and strictly limited.


The basic idea behind vouchers is that the money follows the child, not the school.  If a parent puts a child in any school, that school receives a check for some fraction of the money the public school system would spend if the child were in a public school.

Teacher's unions hate vouchers because voucher systems work.  Their successes are so well known that as we noted above, two-thirds of poor blacks support the idea of school vouchers.

The success of vouchers in improving educational achievement simply cannot be denied.

A great deal of the credit for the inspiration behind voucher systems goes to the late insurance magnate J. Patrick Rooney.  According to a Wall Street Journal editorial on p A22 of the September 19, 2008 issue, Rooney had his company launch a privately-funded voucher program back in 1991.  "When all families, no matter how poor, have the freedom to walk away from bad schools, " Rooney told the Journal at the time, "competition will force the public schools to improve."  His program now serves 1,700 students and stimulated the creation of other programs all across America which provide alternatives for more than 50,000 students.

The Economist points out that voucher systems work even in Sweden, a nation which is famous for its hostility to the free market in the provision of social services.  Their article "The Swedish Model" reports:

BIG-STATE, social-democratic Sweden seems an odd place to look for a free-market revolution.  Yet that is what is under way in the country's schools.  Reforms that came into force in 1994 allow pretty much anyone who satisfies basic standards to open a new school and take in children at the state's expense. [emphasis added]

The important point is that there are not many restrictions on how a private school operates.  So long as the school attracts students whose parents choose to send them there of their own free will, the money comes along.

The Swedish system contains egalitarian requirements:

Children must be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis - there must be no religious requirements or entrance exams. Nothing extra can be charged for, but making a profit is fine. [emphasis added]

Effective use of the Internet makes it possible for students to learn at their own pace:

Youngsters spend 15 minutes each week with a tutor, reviewing the past week's progress and agreeing on goals and a timetable for the next one. This will include classes and lectures, but also a great deal of independent or small-group study.  The Kunskapsporten allows each student to work at his own level, and spend less or more time on each subject, depending on his strengths and weakness.

Nobody anticipated that once a school perfected its web-based curriculum and presentation methodology, economies of scale would make it profitable to operate more and more schools on the same pattern.  However, Kunskapsskolan Enskede, the largest chain, operates 30 schools which teach 10,000 students, and appears to be demonstrating just that.

Letting each student participate in setting weekly goals and proceed in their own way supports self-development.  "Our aim is that by the time students finish school, they can set their own learning goals," says Christian Wetell, head teacher at Kunskapsskolan Enskede. "Three or four students in each year may not manage this, but most will."

What an astounding statement - out of 10,000 students being educated by his chain, three or four each year won't graduate with a proper education.  An American public school system of similar size would be lucky to have only three or four hundred failed students annually; more likely, it's three or four thousand.

Given the pace of technological and economic change, people must learn new ways to make a living throughout life.  There is no possible way that any student, on leaving school, will know everything that they will need to know to be a successful employee for the next 50 years or so of their working life; odds are, many of the technologies they'll need to know towards the end of that time haven't even been invented yet.  Learning how to set learning goals is an essential foundation for this critical skill.

Since private schools were permitted in Sweden, their market share has risen to just over 10%.  The Swedish system is extremely popular with parents, but not with teachers unions.

In the United States, private schools have always been permitted, but for the last 150 years have carried a heavy disadvantage: public schools are free to the parent, but private schools must be paid for with after-tax dollars.  Even so, about 11% of American students are in private schools.

Think of it - one out of every ten students has parents who have decided that it's best to pay enormous amounts of money for their child's schooling rather than send them to the public schools which are free; this number, large as it is, doesn't even include home schoolers.  No clearer proof could be asked that, at the very least, an awful lot of parents are profoundly dissatisfied with what's being done with their education tax dollars.

Charter Schools

There have been so many richly-deserved attacks on public schooling over recent decades that even recalcitrant education bureaucrats recognized that they had to allow some change.  The trick was to come up with a change that would offer something parents wanted while keeping educational tax dollars under the control of the bureaucracy.  Charter schools are the answer to this political challenge.

Charter schools operate as public entities, directly funded as line items in the normal educational budget of the local government, but are relieved from most of the regulations which apply to traditional public schools.  The bureaucrats decided to throw the teachers unions under the bus to keep control of the money.

The main characteristic of a charter school is that teachers and students must follow the rules or get thrown out - and unlike normal public schools, this can and does actually happen.  We've previously looked at an incident where two teachers at a charter school disobeyed the principal and were dismissed for insubordination. You can argue over the specific merits of that case, but the point is, the principal of a charter school does indeed have the power of sacking in a very real way; if nothing else, this serves to encourage the other teachers to try harder.

In an article "Where Paternalism Makes the Grade," the Washington Post tells of a young man who's taking remedial classes at a charter school even though he hasn't been admitted.  The school is tutoring him because he won't go away.

The son of Indian immigrants from Mexico, the boy decided he is going to be a doctor, heard about the American Indian Public Charter School here and started showing up.  Ben Chavis, AIPCS's benevolent dictator, told the boy that although he was doing well at school, he was not up to the rigors of AIPCS, which is decorated with photographs of the many students it has sent to the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.  So the boy asked, what must I do?

Telling young people what they must do is what Chavis does.  With close-cropped hair and a short beard flecked with gray, he looks somewhat like Lenin but is less democratic.  A Lumbee Indian from North Carolina, he ran track, earned a PhD from the University of Arizona, got rich in real estate ("I wanted to buy back America and lease it to the whites") and decided to fix the world, beginning with AIPCS. [emphasis added]

Founded in 1996, it swiftly became a multiculturalists' playground where much was tolerated and little was learned. Chavis arrived in 2000 to reverse that condition. Charter schools are not unionized, so he could trim the dead wood, which included all but one staff member. [emphasis added]

The principal runs his domain with an iron hand; of necessity, a successful school is not a democracy, and can't be if it's to do its job.  Teaching in the sense of transferring mastery of the subject matter to students isn't rocket science, but it's hard work and requires an environment of discipline and dedication.

AIPCS forbids makeup, jewelry, and electronic devices and requires students to ignore interruptions and pay attention to the teacher.  Although their year doesn't match the 220-day Japanese school year, it runs longer than most American schools:

AIPCS's 200 pupils take just 20 minutes for lunch and are with the same teacher in the same classroom all day.  Rotating would consume at least 10 minutes, seven times a day.  Seventy minutes a day in AIPCS's extra-long 196-day school year would be a lot of lost instruction. The school does not close for Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Day or César Chávez Day. ... There are three hours of homework a night, three weeks of summer math instruction.  Seventh-graders take the SAT.  College is assumed.

Charter schools also work on the opposite coast.  The New York Sun reports:

New York State's charter schools are in a majority of cases outperforming their districts on state tests, even amid the sky-high gains shown throughout the state this year, an analysis by the New York Charter School Association of the scores released yesterday shows... some charter schools ... had as much as double the portion of students scoring proficient in math and reading. [emphasis added]

If charter schools work so well, why aren't there more of them?  What's the problem with charter schools?

There's only one problem, but it counts for a lot.  Charter schools are not unionized. Charter school teachers don't pay dues to the teacher's union.

Without income from dues, unions can't engage in political action.  If they can't pay for political action, politicians won't pay any attention to the leaders of the teachers unions.

No bureaucracy likes to see its income or influence threatened; the New York Times had to break its union to survive.  That's why teachers unions try to strangle charter schools any way they can.

It's a real tragedy that neither Sen. McCain nor Sen. Obama have seen fit to loudly and prominently promise to fix our schools using proven, effective methods.  That would be a change we could believe in, if we could believe that either of them actually meant it.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Partisanship.
Reader Comments
I recently had a discussion about vouchers, on a forum with a lot of "professional educators", who basically claimed (without support, of course) that vouchers don't work. Since they don't necessarily pay for 100% of the cost of private school, they don't really benefit the poor.

I pointed out that the poor have a different opinion. The response? "I'm sure they would have a different opinion about surgery than a doctor, too". Basically, I was told that the "professional educators" know what's best, and that all the people clamoring for school vouchers only want it because they're uneducated.

That's the sort of elitist arrogance we're facing here.

As for McCain - are we really surprised when he doesn't stand up for conservative values?
October 9, 2008 12:58 PM
As a non-member of the NEA and a teacher in the government school system, the only response the "professional educators" have is the Obama-elist answer. Special Ed, psychologists, special interest legislators, and parents who want to be their kids' friends have trashed the education system. In 20+, my school has had to dumb down the college preparatory classes as the edubabble and social engineering projects mount. We don't have Americans going into the tough academic disciplines because the up and coming generation is too fragile, too neutered, and too expectant that everything will be done for them. The current generation would not have been able to fight WW2. They are, on average, too weak intellectually, physically and emotionally.
October 12, 2008 3:23 PM
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