The Education Gadfly

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="190" caption="Photo by Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times"][/caption]

This past weekend, the education-reform world lost a long-time champion with the passing of David T. Kearns, former deputy secretary of education under President George H. W. Bush. Here are some thoughts from those with whom he served.

Leslye A. Arsht

Former Counselor to the Secretary of Education, When David Kearns was Deputy Secretary

It was impossible, when I heard that David Kearns had passed, not to have a sad, then bittersweet moment.

David, who might have coined the ?believe in better? attitude, defied death for a very long time?and he lived his life?post-cancer diagnosis?with the grace, dignity, energy, and enthusiasm that he modeled before it.

I believe everyone who worked with David, as I did for only a brief time, while he was deputy secretary, was energized and empowered by him in ways that may not have been apparent, until we'd left his daily presence.

He taught us to be undeterred by big obstacles, and to meet those barriers with big solutions; to use the tools/ ideas/strategies available, regardless of their genesis; while at it, be open to a better approach; be relentless and unwavering in the demand for forward movement; know it will be messy but bring people along; be as kind and as cheerful as your nature will allow.

Never STOP trying.

I'll never forget him. His memory


For those of you following the public union fights in the Midwest, I recommend Steven Greenhouse's story in today's New York Times.? According to Governor Mitch Daniels and other Hoosier state government managers Greenhouse spoke to, Daniels' 2005 executive order eliminating collective bargaining by state employees has saved millions of dollars while streamlining services.? Not everyone is happy, of course, but when you hear that because of union rules in Wisconsin a county executive can't close a juvenile detention center that houses just one child, the logic of public sector collective bargaining seems hard to support.? And it is a logical impasse that has so many teacher union representatives tongue-tied.? Here's Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which represents 98,000 public school employees in the Badger state, worrying to Greenhouse about the abolition of collective bargaining:? ?Layoffs may not be based on merit or effectiveness, but on anything management wants it to be.??

Uh?? This would seem to presume that the union is for merit and effectiveness layoffs.? I guess she has forgotten?about?the Last In First Out union rule.

?--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

In an essay about the fracas in Wisconsin Jonah Goldberg argues in the L.A. Times that ?Public unions have been a 50-year mistake?.

A crucial distinction has been lost in the debate over [Gov. Scott] Walker's proposals: Government unions are not the same thing as private sector unions.

It is a point well-worth making.? While private sector unions came from the ?bloody adversarial relationship? between management and labor, says Goldberg, public unions are ?rankly political? animals. They deliver money to legislators who, not surprisingly, vote them nice salaries and benefits. Public sector unions are simply ?the party of government.?? It's like bargaining with yourself.?

--Peter Meyer, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

Liam Julian

Richard Kahlenberg takes on Michelle Rhee, whose ?dramatic, often authoritarian, style is ill-suited for education.? He also takes on the ?elite press,? which has been far too uncritical of the former schools chancellor because she is ?a hard-working Ivy League graduate? who reporters simply ?respect?. . .?as one of their own.? (Kahlenberg graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, which doesn't at all invalidate his point but does make his phrasing sort of weird.) And Kahlenberg also takes on Richard Whitmire's new book about Rhee, The Bee Eater, which he calls too flattering of its subject and too uninformed about the topics it covers.?Per the latter plaint, Whitmire writes in The Bee Eater that Rhee's tenure-reform proposals ?represented an existential challenge? to the AFT: ?If the union couldn't protect their members' jobs,? Whitmire wonders, ?what was the point of having a union?? Kahlenberg responds: ?In fact, teachers' unions were created to do lots of things: lobby for more funding for public education, increase teacher salaries, reduce class size, improve the ability of teachers to discipline students, and fight private-school-voucher initiatives.? In other words, Kahlenberg contends that teachers' unions don't exist only to protect their members' jobs but also to raise their members' salaries; improve their members' working conditions; oppose vouchers so students will remain in public schools and out of private ones; and lobby for smaller class sizes (which mean more teachers, more members, more money, more power). I doubt Whitmire (or Rhee) would disagree with any of...

In fact, as the cover story in New York magazine begins, ?Cathie Black is lost in Queens?. Usually when Black goes east, she's headed to her $4 million house in Southampton,? not the Coney Island elementary school where the new Gotham schools chief was supposed to be going.????

It goes without saying that the chancellorship of New York City schools is -- sui generis. ?Nothin' quite like it. ?Over a million kids. Eighty thousand teachers.? Hundreds of buildings.? A budget of over $20 billion a year.? Staggering numbers.? You might as well be running a small country ? for small people! Worse, there are four major TV networks, four major newspaper dailies, and dozens of Internet denizens ? all looking over your shoulder, tracking every cough or sneeze, trolling for news!? In week three, her comment to a group of parents worried about school crowding ? ?Could we just have some birth control for a while?? ? earned headlines. ?The Times already has a page devoted to Black stories and profiles.

Running New York City's schools is not so much a job as a penance. ?(I didn't see Governor Andrew Cuomo (who makes $179,000), while castigating the state's school superintendents for their exorbitant salaries, offer to trade places with Gotham's school's chancellor, even though she makes $250,000. In fact, Black, as the New York story points out, is taking a considerable pay cut from what she was used to in the corporate CEO world.)...

Liam Julian

In 1973 William F. Buckley Jr. gave a speech at the New York Conservative Party's annual dinner in which he addressed the fall of Spiro Agnew, who had resigned his office just five days earlier. ?There was,? Buckley recalled years later, ?a fleeting temptation, encouraged by emissaries of Mr. Agnew, to think him victimized.? The speechmaker resisted temptation. The ?tendency to anthropomorphize our ideals is an American habit that can get us, indeed has just now gotten us, into deep trouble,? Buckley told his audience. How true. And is this troublesome tendency more reliably followed anywhere than in education policy, a storybook realm of heroes and their nemeses?

Look at Michelle Rhee. Here is a well-intentioned but flawed woman who by some bizarre, secret ritual was anointed Chosen One by education ?reformers.? Michelle Rhee was not simply one among many who had little patience for status quo K-12 governance. No, Michelle Rhee became education reform. The two were and still are one?and the same, inseparable. Is she uniquely intelligent? Uniquely courageous? Uniquely successful? She is not. In fact, her avowed monochromatic beliefs?are rather unintelligent, and her recent departure from her post as D.C.'s schools chancellor was?hardly the manifestation of success (and as for being a paragon of courage, come on: if a feisty school superintendent is the new pinnacle of this virtue, Theseus is turning over in his grave, er, temple). Oddly, Rhee's discharge from DCPS has only made her stronger; she has become the still-alive-yet-martyred anthropomorphism, if that's...

As Peter noted earlier, we're witnessing something rare in New York right now ? a Democratic governor cutting budgets, pushing for property tax caps, even targeting education spending for aggressive reductions. With a $10 billion budget deficit and all its Federal stimulus funding squandered, this may be just what the state needs.

What is perhaps most laudable in Andrew Cuomo's proposed budget is that he seems to be taking the crisis as a chance to bend the cost curve in government for good, taking on basic funding formulas in addition to proposing temporary cuts.?What's not clear, however, is that he, the legislature, public-sector unions, or other players in the state are thinking creatively enough about how to re-envision how government works.

On Monday, Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM, had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing for just this kind of restructuring, and one of his fundamental tenets is, ?Focus on programs, not costs.? In a previous life, when I was a management consultant, this was my dogma. If tasked with cutting 5% of a business unit's budget for a client, my first step was to think about how I would fulfill that unit's mission if I had to start from scratch. If I could succeed in reinventing a process or two more cost-effectively, I could usually make cuts while improving operations ? not making things worse.

At least when it comes to schools, the powers that be in...

I was just finishing up my ?Sunday morning, big picture memo about school district priorities when the phone rang.

I should know better by now than to answer a phone on Sunday morning.? But I did.

It was Ken*, my son's one-time classmate and a member of the memorable 3rd grade basketball team I had coached -? what I remember is that the kids, three of them sons of state troopers, spent more time fighting each other than the other team ? almost ten years before. ?I had recently helped bail one of those kids, now 19 and not a trooper's son, out of jail.

I had run into Ken a few months earlier, and we caught up a bit. He had been a wonderful athlete,?though shy?and unassuming on the court, and not a fighter.? An African-American, he too was now 19, unemployed, the father of a two-year-old and living with his girl friend ?in one of our town's many subsidized housing units. Nothing unusual there. He had said he was getting his GED and wanted to go to college and I had told him to let me know if he needed a reference and gave him my number.? And that's what I expected him to be asking for when I heard his voice yesterday.

Instead, he told me that his mother and younger brother were being evicted from their HUD-operated, low-income housing apartment.? Could I help?

I knew how this would go if I...