Responding to Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, & others on education, democracy, and unions

Monday’s post, “Dealing with disingenuous teachers unions: There are no shortcuts,” sparked a wave of discussion and criticism—which,
let’s face it, is every writer’s hope. But I wasn’t just trying to be
provocative; we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute strongly believe that issues of governance and politics have been too often ignored in the education reform debate. We’re
happy to help put these issues at the top of the policy agenda. In
fact, we’ve teamed up with the Center for American Progress on a
three-year project to do exactly that. (Join us on December 1st in Washington, D.C.—or online—for a groundbreaking conference on the topic.)

Diane got right to the heart of the matter when she wrote, “Gosh, Mike, it sounds as though you have identified the real problem that ‘reformers’ face: democracy.”

My knee-jerk reaction, which I zapped to her instantly over email,
was that union-dominated school boards represent a perversion of
democracy. Just as liberals complain about the “one percent” corrupting
our politics through unlimited campaign financing, so too do public
sector unions thwart the public will by buying off officeholders with
their own lavish spending and political muscle. And this problem is
multiplied in education, what with its separate boards, which are often
elected in off-cycle, low-turnout contests, making them even more
accessible to “capture” by employee interest groups.

That’s all true, I believe—at least in large school districts. According to a survey of school boards
published earlier this year by the National School Boards Association
in partnership with Fordham and the American Enterprise Institute, 35
percent of school board members in large districts reported receiving
campaign contributions from teachers unions, versus just 1 percent of
board members of small districts. (Maybe that’s why some of the school
board members who commented on my blog post complained about my
characterization of all boards as “union-dominated.” They are right;
many—maybe most—are not.)

But Diane’s not wrong that democracy itself creates challenges.
Today’s reformers aren’t the first ones to notice this, of course. As
Diane and other historians have written, reformers have been trying to
“take politics out of education” for over a century now. In fact, that’s
what school boards were originally supposed to do—remove education from
the stains of cronyism and corruption that came with municipal
governance at fin de siècle America. And, you could argue, it worked
rather well for over fifty years—until modern-day teachers unions came
on the scene, and used their collective power to put politics back into
education again.

It’s not just teachers unions that
present “democracy” challenges, of course. The reason we have such
inequality in education funding also comes back to politics—in that case
the politics of affluent communities protecting their own public
schools but resisting tax increases to pay for those in far-off places.
Or the identity-group politics that lead to an overstuffed social
studies curriculum. And so on and so forth.

The solution is not to abandon democracy, but to consider whether
different iterations of it might work better than others. Most policy
domains don’t have their own special boards like education, but they are
still overseen by democratic institutions. Is it less “democratic” for a
city council to be responsible for schools than a board of education?
For a state legislature to be in charge? Virtually no other nation
around the world has school boards as we do, yet most of their school
systems aren’t run in tyrannical ways.

Randi Weingarten, meanwhile, asks me what problem I’m trying to solve for.

Helping kids succeed? Dealing with an economic recession
American workers didn’t create? Getting rid of any ability for workers
to have a voice? Getting rid of democratic principles?

The immediate problem is that our schools are broke—a problem that workers, including teachers, did not
create—and we face tough choices. Some options (like reducing learning
time or art and music) throw the kids under the bus. Other options (like
reducing wages and benefits) throw teachers under the bus. Some options
(like moving to online learning or reforming special education) can
lead to better results for less cost and are conceivably good for
everyone. But if we’re choosing between throwing the kids under the bus
or the adults, I vote for the adults.

The longer-term challenge we face is that the days of big spending in
education may never come back. Because of unaffordable promises we’ve
made to Baby Boomers (including Baby Boomer teachers), we don’t have a
ton of money to invest in programs for the young, including our schools.
What we can do in our corner of the policy world, at least, is address
the spiraling retirement costs (pensions and health care) that are
taking money directly out of the classroom.

Beyond economics, reformers are trying to deal with the fact of
counter-productive—no, criminal—collective bargaining agreements that
protect the rights of senior teachers at the expense of everything else.
(See this report—with
your favorite cover, Randi—for more on that.) There’s no defense for
LIFO, for “bumping rights,” for rubber rooms, and all of the rest.

And yes, in some districts, such as New York, those provisions have
been taken out. And that brings me to my last point. The reason they’ve
been eliminated is because “management” in those locales finally got a
backbone. In Gotham it was because of mayoral control; in other places,
reformers have successfully taken over school boards. Randi says we
should learn from leading business and work collaboratively with labor;
that’s fine, but only works if management is labor’s equal. Because of
our governance problems, that’s rarely been the case, at least in urban
America. If reformers gain a foothold on local boards, perhaps
labor-management negotiations will finally result in good outcomes for
kids.

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