Testimony prepared for delivery to the Committee on Science, U.S. House of Representatives, August 4, 1999.

For months, leaders from LAUSD and the UTLA have
stalled within a deep tunnel of negotiations, unable to reach consensus on,
well, anything. This week, light broke at the end of that dark passageway: Los
Angeles Superintendent John Deasy and the newly elected union president, Warren
Fletcher, have reached a partial agreement. And it’s an exciting one: Under the
new pact, district schools could exercise charter-like autonomy over hiring,
curriculum, and work conditions. If a school wants to diverge from current norms
by, say, altering its salary structure or length of day, neither union nor
district officials can object. (Take note of this innovative approach for
combating union strong-arming: Pitch the reforms to teachers as a respite from
meddling district policies, not just cumbersome
union ones.) So, what catalyzed this union change of heart? Pressure from
charter schools—which hold a 10 percent market share of L.A.’s student
enrollment. According to Fletcher, “There’s been a lot of focus on
out-of-district resources and answers. This is the beginning of moving back to
some semblance of balance.” Before the agreement becomes official, though, it
must be ratified...

As education governance rises on the policy
agenda, should American reformers be looking toward greater decentralization or
centralization—or a judicious mix of both? Eric Hanushek, Susanne Link, and
Ludger Woessmann argue that, in a country like the U.S., greater school-level
autonomy offers the best shot at boosting student achievement. Using the four
available rounds of PISA data (2000-09), the trio compared achievement in forty-two
countries with their levels of school-based autonomy, as reported by principals.
(Specifically, they analyzed autonomy of academic content, personnel decisions,
and budget allocations.) Dividing the countries up by GDP per capita, the
authors find that developed nations tend to see spikes in student achievement
when school autonomy increases, while scores in developing countries drop with
greater decentralization. Autonomy works when local leaders have both
an interest in making decisions that benefit students and the capacity to do
so. The stronger governmental institutions and the rule of law, the logic goes,
the more likely leaders are to align their interests to those of their
students. Thus, in richer countries, pairing greater autonomy with test-based
accountability magnified the bump in scores. In short, how...

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...

After its big referendum victory last week, Ohio teachers union vice president Bill Leibensperger said ?There has always been room to talk. That's what collective bargaining is about. You bring adults around a table to talk about serious issues.? He voiced an argument made by union supporters through the fight over Senate Bill 5 (and the similar battle in Wisconsin over public sector union rights): All employees want is the right to bargain; they are more than willing to make concessions during these difficult times.

[pullquote]If we want to win the fight for the more immediate future, we're going to need to take on the unions directly, and take over the school boards.[/pullquote]And to be sure, you can find examples of unions?of police, firefighters, even teachers?who have agreed to freeze wages or reduce benefits in order to protect the quality of services or keep colleagues from being laid off. But they are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Consider the survey of big-city school district leaders published by the National Council on Teacher Quality a few weeks ago. When asked how they ?reduced their budget gaps? over the past two years, fewer than half had eliminated or...

Illinois may finally be addressing its dysfunctional teacher retirement system with meaningful, bipartisan reform:

The sweeping pension changes, presented by House Republican Leader Tom Cross and Democratic Speaker Michael Madigan, would establish three retirement options for government workers to choose from going forward. State employees could keep their retirement benefit in place but pay more; take smaller benefits but pay no more; or set up a 401(k)-style plan that would give employees more control of their investments but also see them roll the dice on the markets.

I've made no secret of how little I think of last year's "reform" in Illinois, which simply took money out of the pockets of young teachers to make up for the bad choices made by legislators and unions. This is a much better start, and it's cheering that the Democratic leadership is on board.

Labor doesn't like it, with the Illinois AFL-CIO's president claiming this measure would reform the pension system "on the backs of working families." But working people are going to be hurt no matter what, since the retirement system is in terrible fiscal shape. The question is whether reform shares the pain or soaks only new...

I'm not so sure Mike is right that ?we have a parenting problem, not a poverty problem,? and I'm even less sure that he is right that educators should ?start talking about the problem."

I know this may sound heretical, since anyone who has spent more than a minute in an inner city school or neighborhood (see my Ed Next story on two Chicago charters) knows the intensity of the social dysfunction ? and no school is immune to its effects. But parenting is not a problem that educators are equipped to handle ? they have a hard enough time agreeing on curriculum.? I think of a sixth-grade teacher in our small district who, on meet-the teacher-night, passed out no ?parent contracts? and no? ?student contracts? ? both were then the rage -- and gave no lectures about student behavior and the role of the parent.? He described what he was going to teach that year, what books the kids would be reading and then said to the assembled parents, ?You don't have to worry about a thing; I'll take care of your kids.? And he did.? He had the same kids from the same bad families...

Despite doomsday projections of huge layoffs as a result of the "new normal" of lower or flat education funding, NCTQ found in a recent survey that layoffs in large urban districts were modest ? 2.5 percent on average ? and only affected roughly half of surveyed cities.

The story of how cities avoided layoffs is interesting. More districts cut class time or school days than cut or reduced workers' benefits. Most simply reduced head count through attrition. These data could bolster the case of reformers like Scott Walker who argue that state policy should tackle runaway growth in benefits because school boards and administrators will not. Clearly only a tiny minority of districts were willing to touch these areas of their budget.

Some districts were much harder hit than the average, however, including our hometown of Dayton, OH. No doubt our Ohio team will comment on the particulars of the case there. Overall, however, NCTQ's survey suggests that many cities have found a way around massive layoffs and the Obama administration's dire predictions of huge job losses in education going forward may not be justified.

? Chris Tessone...

In a new AEI/Heritage paper that is sure to create some buzz, Andrew Biggs and Jason Richwine say yes, teachers are overpaid relative to similar workers based on several different metrics. The most interesting result in the paper for me was this table, illustrating that teachers take a pay cut of roughly 3% when they leave the profession, while new entrants actually see a raise of almost 9% compared to their previous non-teaching job:

As the authors point out, this result is not consistent with teachers being "desperately underpaid," in Education Secretary Arne Duncan's words.

We need to take the conversation on teacher pay beyond averages, however. As we and others have noted before, younger teachers are under-compensated for the dramatic increases in effectiveness they realize in their first few years of teaching. We also ignore the alternatives certain teachers have in the labor market, paying PE teachers (who have few job options in the private sector) much more than physics and math teachers.

If we want to spend every education dollar effectively, we have to move beyond one-size-fits-all strategies and focus on...