Bullies in the Schoolyard
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Republished on VDARE.COM on March 04, 2003

Wall Street Journal; New York, N.Y.; Feb 19, 2003

Copyright Dow Jones & Company Inc Feb 19, 2003

THE WORM IN THE APPLE  By Peter Brimelow  (HarperCollins, 296 pages, $24.95)

Andrew Creighton-Harank, a highly regarded Arizona schoolteacher, asked the Kyrene School District board for a raise a few years ago. The board was sympathetic but turned him down. Individual pay increases, it determined, violated the district's collective bargaining agreement. For its part, the union was not about to make an exception. "People felt like he shouldn't be out for himself," the president of the district local told the press. Mr. Creighton-Harank resigned from the school.

Earlier, the California Teachers Association waged a relentless, multimillion-dollar crusade to delay and then defeat a statewide voucher initiative that would have allowed parents to send their kids to the schools of their choice, including private ones. The union played hardball—some members physically blocked people from signing public petitions to put the initiative on the ballot. Union president Del Webb claimed that school choice was so evil it "should never even be presented to the voters." What about democracy? "We would not think it's 'undemocratic' to oppose voting on legalizing child prostitution."  Both episodes, recounted in "The Worm in the Apple," typify the power that teacher unions use to block any change that might threaten their finances or power. And both illustrate Peter Brimelow's thesis: So long as most K-12 schooling takes place within a unionized public sector, it will continue to deliver a crummy, substandard product at inflated and ever-increasing prices.

Take merit pay, a proposal popular with the public but anathema to the unions. Mr. Brimelow cites the president of the Kentucky Education Association, who testified before a task force that "research has shown that quality teaching is the key to improved student achievement." True enough. Nevertheless, she also testified that "individual student achievement should not be a factor in teacher evaluation or compensation."

Mr. Brimelow logically asks: "If improved student achievement is due to quality teaching, why can't we evaluate and compensate teachers based upon it?" Well, we can. But merit pay implies individual distinctions and is inconsistent with union compensation systems geared to seniority.

The union solution to the quality issue is simple: Pay higher salaries to attract and retain better educators. Fine—but higher salaries to everyone? Yes, it says. What about teacher shortages in math and science? In the private, nonunion sector, employers would raise the pay for those jobs, which otherwise go begging. Teacher unions say no; raise them all.  It's easy enough to see how this engine drives payrolls forward. But Mr. Brimelow explains that the braking mechanism is defective, too. Since public schools are run by government entities, union reps can sit on both sides of the bargaining table. "Union participation in school board campaigns is enormous," he notes. When the union can't find candidates to support, they'll put up their own members. Indeed, union members "are prominent in many state legislatures, state policymaking positions, and local school boards."

In Minnesota, Gov. Jesse Ventura couldn't understand why state aid to education never seemed to be enough. "He has found out," one state senator (a Democrat) told the press, "that when you put money on the education formula, salary settlements are higher than that number, no matter what the number is." Another senator (a Republican) added: "The pattern repeats itself with uncanny predictability. We give x, the school district negotiates x plus one."

Since competitive markets would disrupt this cozy game, unions oppose vouchers, charter schools, tuition tax credits, you name it. "What the unions fear from vouchers," Mr. Brimelow argues, "is not the effect on education, and certainly not the effect on students. They fear the effect on collective bargaining, on union membership and wages."

Indeed, their opposition to school choice is so strong that unions will grab at anything. One vice president of the National Education Association voiced a common objection to vouchers for "siphoning the best students and the most motivated parents away from the inner-city public school systems." As Mr. Brimelow tartly observes: "Teachers abandon lousy schools by the busload every year, and the unions don't denounce them. In fact, unions go out of their way to ease the transfer."

Mr. Brimelow's laser-beam focus on unions and collective bargaining is unusual among writers on educational reform, and the "Worm in the Apple" is a searing indictment. One can't help wishing that the writing had been more careful: The phrasing is sometimes sloppy, and there are more than a few unnecessary rhetorical cheap shots. The facts are damning enough.

Without competition and real markets, Mr. Brimelow concludes, the school system will continue to fall prey to top-down pedagogical fads (liberal or conservative), slanted textbooks and bogus curricula—at great cost to students. "All community colleges," he notes, "four out of five public four-year colleges, and more than six out of ten private four-year colleges" end up "teaching students things they should have learned in high school."  It has been 20 years since the famous Nation at Risk report revealed the extent of public school failure, yet 20 years of reform have had little effect. "The Worm in the Apple" helps explain why.

Mr. Dickman is the author of "Industrial Democracy in America" and an editor at Reader's Digest.

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