Big labor's principles: a recipe for more of the same

The nation’s two largest teacher labor unions (AFT and NEA), the largest public-sector employee labor union (SEIU), and other national organizations are rallying today on their “National Day of Action.” Unfortunately, this conglomerate of labor and liberal interest groups has put forward a slate of tired and worn-out “adequacy” principles and solutions that are better suited for another time and place. The principles represent an input-driven, compliance-based public education model that has yielded decades of academic mediocrity and nary a whiff of excellence.

Meanwhile, this coalition portrays any effort from education “outsiders” to reform America’s public school system as “corporate”—not because there is any evidence of a corporate conspiracy but because it polls well in our increasingly polarized society. This is an unambiguous attempt by teacher unions to preserve their monopoly over the public-school system. The message to those outside the union sphere of influence is clear: Butt out.

We won’t be so kind as to accede. For, as we argue below, the seven principles that this coalition has laid out are deeply flawed. If our ultimate objective is for our public schools and students to achieve higher academic performance, Ohio needs a bolder set of guiding principles. To its credit, the Buckeye State (sometimes with and sometimes without labor support) is indeed undertaking bold, promising educational reforms in our K–12 schools.

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Labor’s principle #1: Public schools are public institutions.

Public schools are of course public institutions; as such, taxpayers—individuals and businesses alike—have a stake in our public schools. The coalition, however, has failed to acknowledge that public schools depend on the goodwill of taxpayers. Decisions about public school budgets, teacher contracts, and curricula must be made transparently. (Collective-bargaining negotiations, for example, are sealed from public inspection under Ohio’s open-meetings laws.) Meanwhile, public schools must be held accountable for their academic performance (for more, see points #4 and #7).

Our perspective: Public schools are public institutions, and they must be transparent and accountable to parents and taxpayers.

Labor’s principle #2: Our voices matter.

Few would argue against this principle—certainly, educators must be engaged in the dialogue about the future of public education. But make no mistake: Local teacher unions have extraordinary influence over district-level decision making—and unions have a material interest in doing what is best for teachers, not necessarily what is best for students. They can influence school-board elections, creating situations where union interests are represented on both sides of the negotiation table. And labor contracts can make it virtually impossible for a school to dismiss a teacher for weak performance. Terry Moe of Stanford University, arguably the nation’s sharpest observer of teacher unions, concluded in his magnum opus Special Interest that while teacher unions are constrained in some ways, “they are by far the most powerful groups in the local politics of American education.”

Our perspective: To reform public education, a broader group of leaders needs to be engaged—one that includes state policymakers, city mayors, business leaders, and—most of all—parents.

Labor’s principle #3: Strong public schools create strong communities.

Strong public schools are important, but too often the opponents of reform cite the effects of poverty when analyzing the weak performance of many urban schools. While this is undoubtedly a challenge, it cannot be an excuse. All students can learn, and we know that a high-quality education is the fastest means of escaping poverty. For far too long, the children of low-income parents have been assigned to a persistently low-performing school based on geography, with no recourse. School-choice options—inter- and intra-district open enrollment, charter schools, and vouchers—allow students to escape when the public schools in their area have failed them. While we should continue to work to improve struggling public schools, students can’t wait for someone to figure it out.

Our perspective: High-quality school options are badly needed to provide educational opportunities to all children, and the need is most pressing for children who grow up in poverty.

Labor’s principle #4: Assessments should be used to improve instruction.

Assessments should be used both to improve instruction and to hold schools accountable for academic performance. Public schools—as public institutions—depend on the goodwill of their stakeholders, and both parents and taxpayers have the right to know whether a school’s students are meeting achievement standards and whether a school is contributing to student learning. Standardized assessments, though imperfect, still remain the best objective gauge of achievement and progress. Without outcome measures, we might feel swell about the academic performance of our schools, but we won’t have any actual information about whether the typical student is on track for success in college or a career.

Our perspective: Parents and taxpayers must have information about how their public schools perform—and assessments play a crucial role in depicting school performance.

Labor’s principle #5: Quality teaching must be delivered by committed, respected, and supported educators.

Licensure requirements, rigid salary schedules, and weak teacher-prep programs have contributed to a less-than-robust teaching profession. These bureaucratic barriers discourage many of Ohio’s smartest and most talented young people from entering teaching. Meanwhile, among those who enter the profession, the truly fantastic teachers fail to receive the recognition and reward they deserve, while teacher-tenure policies make it virtually impossible to dismiss persistently low-performing teachers. Labor unions’ interests have erected unnecessary barriers to entering the profession, resulting in disparities in the distribution of quality teachers and ossifying the profession for those who are in it.

Our perspective: We sorely need a bold new vision for the teaching profession—reforming credentialing, pay and benefits, teacher assignment, tenure, and teacher training—to improve the overall quality of teaching and instruction.

Labor’s principle #6: Schools must be welcoming and respectful places for all.

Cultural diversity, inclusion, and respect are important for all schools. Let’s also acknowledge that children are different—and that there isn’t one single solution for how to educate students with such widely varying needs. In addition to their welcoming neighborhood or general-education charter school, students benefit from having a wider variety of options (e.g., schools for gifted students, schools with a specialty program in the arts, schools with a vocational focus, and schools that serve kids with special needs), which may be better geared toward their needs and interest.

Our perspective: School choice can supplement traditional public and charter schools by encouraging the creation of schools with a specialized mission and focus.

Labor’s principle #7: Our schools must be fully funded for success and equity.

Ohio spent $11,924 per pupil in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Ohio’s per-pupil expenditure has increased by $1,448, compared to 2002; by $3,669, compared to 1990; and by a whopping $6,279, compared to 1980 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). Contrary to what labor unions claim, Ohio’s taxpayers fund public education more generously than ever. There simply isn’t much substance to the incessant complaint of “devastating budget cuts to our schools.” To put it another way, we don’t have an education-funding problem, we have an inefficient-school-expenditures problem.

Our perspective: School leaders must be able to allocate existing funds efficiently, while being held accountable for their academic results.

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The era of factory-style public schooling is drawing to a close, and a new day is dawning in the Buckeye State. Below is just a sampling of the bold reforms that Ohio is presently undertaking—some with the help of labor, others without:

  • Cleveland school reform: State lawmakers, business and city leaders, and the local teacher union worked together to repeal the district’s archaic single-salary schedule for teachers, which bases pay on seniority and credits earned. In its place, Cleveland’s traditional district is in the first year of implementing a performance-driven teacher-compensation system.
  • Teach For America: Public schools (including both charter schools and traditional district schools) in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Dayton are in the second year of having Teach For America (TFA) members teach in their classrooms. TFA is a proven teacher-recruitment model that has the potential to strengthen Ohio’s pipeline of talented young people who work in our public schools.
  • A-to-F school report cards: In the 2012–13 academic school year, Ohio began to rate schools and districts based on an A-to-F rating system that has nine components of school performance. The A-to-F ratings provide a more coherent view for parents and taxpayers on how public schools are performing.
  • Competitive grants to spur innovation: Ohio has just completed its first cycle of an ambitious $250 million competitive grant program (the “Straight-A Fund”), aimed at kick-starting innovative and fiscally sustainable educational projects.

There remain mountains to scale in order to get Ohio’s public schools (both district and charter) where we need them to be. And it will take all of Ohio’s collective will—not just the will of narrow special-interest groups—to dramatically improve Ohio’s K–12 public school system.

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