Market system works for schools, too
By JERRY SHENK
Fifty years after graduation, I have no residual nostalgia for public school, though I remain mindful of the value I received from some excellent teachers during my 12-year hostage ordeal.
I wouldn't relive high school, though the chance to be school age again has some appeal. A do-over would allow me to change some things, to correct or avoid 50 years of the personal blunders to which most people are susceptible.
A do-over for the mistakes of groups involved in public education would be beneficial, too. If federal and state governments granted greater autonomy to school boards, administrations and faculties - allowing restoration of the policies, standards and quality of education provided by public schools in the 1950s - today's parents, kids and taxpayers would all benefit.
Major reasons for the decline of public education include union domination and governmental interference and ineptitude. Politicians erred in creating and expanding social programs that effectively weakened the family units that should be the main stakeholders in and beneficiaries of good educational systems.
Furthermore, politicians have been derelict in formulation and imposition of broad education policies that primarily benefit the unions that finance political campaigns. Nothing in public education has improved since the teachers' unions took it over in the 1960s, while academic achievement has declined.
Unions are solely responsive to their own interests and those of dues-payers. Though individual members may not, union bosses prize teacher tenure, compensation, benefits and head count above kids, despite union protestations to the contrary. Unions use school kids as leverage in contract negotiations.
Harrisburg, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Cleveland and New York prove that cash doesn't produce quality education. By anyone's standards, these systems fail repetitively while spending far more per student annually than do more successful districts.
Unions and union-owned politicians won't willingly consider merit pay or the elimination of tenure for teachers, clearly demonstrating the unions' stranglehold on the political process. Teachers unions want poor schools and incompetent dues-payers to be spared objective scrutiny.
Teachers unions' most-used argument for pay increases involves a very misleading statistic: average teacher pay relative to other professional employment categories.
There's substantial turnover in teaching. Accordingly, there are always significant numbers of teachers at the bottom of the pay scale. The statistic also ignores teachers promoted into higher-paid administrative positions and never factors in teachers' time off, paid sabbaticals or generous benefit and pension packages.
The average Pennsylvania household income is about $50,000. In union-friendly Pennsylvania, a teacher with a taxpayer-funded, tuition-reimbursed master's degree and 15 years of teaching experience can be paid more than $70,000 per year for 180 classroom days, plus a few in-service days.
This schedule permits 15 work weeks of vacation, not counting contracted paid personal-day allowances. Teachers can collect immediate pension and lifetime health care benefits after only 30 years of service, a time when other professionals are just approaching their peak earning years.
Collective bargaining is an inequitable way to determine teacher compensation. As in any business, competence should determine pay, especially in schools in low-income neighborhoods that can least tolerate incompetents. Good teachers know who they are and don't fear objective measurement. Union contracts protect bad teachers.
Standards and accountability for teacher and student performance are reasonable requirements for improving schools, but standards should be set locally where their relevance and integrity can be best evaluated and measured. The authority of teachers and principals to maintain discipline must be strengthened so teachers can concentrate on teaching instead of just struggling to maintain order.
High-quality, content-based curricula presented by subject-qualified professionals are essential to good education. Since not all schools have such curricula, teachers or administrators, and because the skills and needs of students differ, school choice is important, too.
The need to survive in free markets raises the quality of every other service-provision business. Americans have many choices in the lives we live, the products we buy and the services we choose. Why not choices in education, too? In a free market, superior public schools can attract students from failing neighboring districts, forcing the latter to improve.
Choices for poor students stuck in lousy schools, including vouchers, charter schools and tuition tax credits, can break the cycle of school failure. Successful experimental programs for school choice should be implemented more broadly, especially in the worst districts. Results from existing programs confirm the moral and civil-rights justifications for school choice. Add results-based merit-pay plans for teachers, an end to automatic tenure and accountability standards for evaluating school administrators. Incentives, positive and negative, work.
For years, politicians who take their campaign cash have voted with teachers' unions to keep poor inner-city kids in failing schools. In doing so, politicians have denied millions of children they will never meet a chance to get a decent start in life and condemned many to a lifetime of failure.