A gift horse, not a Trojan horse

Whenever ed reformers put a new idea on parade, it's expected that the unions will quickly conjure up storm clouds. So it came as no surprise that, a few days after the release of Fordham's weighted student funding (WSF) proposal, the union thunder rumbled.

Never mind that many respected R's and D's embrace the plan as a viable model for tackling one of the biggest problems facing our public school system: creating equal opportunities for all children to attain a high-quality education in schools that work for them. Never mind that even prominent conservatives like Bill Bennett and Rod Paige came out in favor of spending more on poor kids. Both the NEA and AFT dismissed the plan outright.

Providing more education dollars for poor children used to be an issue dear to the unions' hearts. Yet their criticism of WSF unwillingly revealed today's primary goal: More money, period. As NEA President Reg Weaver wrote in a letter to the New York Times, "The answer is not to carve up the pie so some schools get a bigger piece. We need to make the whole pie bigger."

The unions yearn to shift the debate from "equity" to "adequacy" and from "fairer funding" to "more funding." Indeed, some of their comments make it sound like the equity problem has already been solved. EdWize--the blog of the United Federation of Teachers (AFT's New York City affiliate)--argues that Title I's need-determined supplements and weighted state and district formulas are sufficient to address problems of inequitable funding. But the problem is the money hits a dam at the district level. From there, it flows into a complex maze of tributaries--staffing ratios, funds for buildings, or whatever formulas the districts use--and never trickles down to the students who really need it. Even Title I includes a loophole that drives funds away from poor schools by ignoring the vast differences in teacher seniority (and thus salaries) from campus to campus. In a typical city, poor students still attend schools that receive many thousands of dollars less than those across town.

WSF is also designed to empower school leaders--to give them the ability to make decisions without relying on central-office bureaucrats. In other words, it cuts through red tape and allows people closer to kids to make important decisions. Teachers should love this idea--and many of them do--but their unions seem to think otherwise.

EdWize worries that WSF will "give principals an incentive to ‘buy' cheap teachers in order to divert more funds to [their] pet programs or people." On the contrary, principals would be motivated to spend money more wisely than districts do now. Why? Because principals are held accountable under state and federal law for their schools' progress. More likely than EdWize's alarmist prediction is that principals would pay more for highly qualified teachers. And that action--while not good for the few teachers who coast through the year without really teaching--would increase overall teacher pay in hard-to-staff schools.

WSF also makes education funding more transparent. The government has managed to track the secret financial transactions of suspected terrorists all over the world, but it can't tell you how much the public school down the street spends on its students. A simplified funding system would remedy this. Perhaps union leaders aren't eager for the education system's bloat to be more readily apparent--and for the world to clearly see how much they take off the top of their members' five-figure incomes to pay their own six-figure salaries.

But the union's biggest fear is that Weighted Student Funding would pave the way for a voucher system. EdWize asks, "So is this vouchers redux--via a Trojan horse?" By that logic, they should oppose homework because it could pave the way for home schooling.

We know where the unions stand. But we don't think students, parents, or most teachers stand with them. That's why innovative ideas such as WSF command bipartisan support. And that's why if unions don't change their defeatist tune, they're going to fade into obsolescence. Storm clouds, no matter how foreboding, always dissipate in the end.

Eric Osberg is a Vice President and Treasurer at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute