When Obama started to speak about the need to improve education, upgrade our schools and attract quality teachers, an elephant appeared in the living rooms of most Americans who were watching. Obama never mentioned the beast, but most of the country saw clearly the three letters on his back — AFT. American Federation of Teachers — the union that, along with its counterpart, the NEA, National Education Association, has destroyed public education in America.
How can we take seriously any proposal to improve schools that does not deal with the force that has dragged them down — the teachers union?
Detroit is a great example of the damage they have wrought. Due to the costs imposed by the union, the public school system has already had to close 59 of its 200 schools, and another 70 are slated for closure. The result will be eighth-grade classes of 40 children and high school classes predicted to have more than 60 students.
Why is Detroit in such bad shape? The same reason its car companies are broke: the unions. Not only do they get high salaries and benefits, but their union has a monopoly on health insurance coverage for teachers and marks the coverage up a third higher than private insurance companies with no better benefits — and it’s all paid by the taxpayer. Detroit will actually now have to pay teachers more to compensate them for their bigger class sizes.
In New York, it is almost impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. It took three years of litigation and $300,000 in legal fees to fire a teacher who sexually solicited a 16-year-old student.
Governors throughout the country are getting it, even if the president is not. Rick Scott in Florida, John Kasich in Ohio, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania and Chris Christie of New Jersey have all proposed major new initiatives to promote school choice. (This week is National School Choice Week). They will promote private, parochial, charter, and virtual schools and home schooling, and provide vouchers and scholarships to permit the poor and middle class to afford them.
Over the next two years in these states, public schools will face real competition for students for the first time. Just as our colleges maintain standards of excellence in order to attract good students, so our lower schools will have to do the same.
As states grapple with intractable budget problems, the attractiveness of alternative schools that cost, on average, about one-third less than public schools will be irresistible. The teachers unions will run afoul of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that socialism cannot succeed because, sooner or later, “you run out of other people’s money.”
Missing from this list of innovative states, conspicuously, is New York state, where the state government is totally beholden to the teachers union. No experimentation, no opening of the system seems in the offing, and the Empire State appears to be content to continue its downward spiral. If they don’t turn things around, they are headed for the same place as Detroit.
The real question is: Can our cities and states free themselves from the ropes with which the unions have bound them? The problem is that states cannot abrogate contracts. It’s in the Constitution. But a federal bankruptcy court can. So to free ourselves of the ties that bind, we need Congress to create a procedure for federal Chapter 9 voluntary bankruptcy for states. When that initiative is coupled with the school-choice policies of the new Republican governors, the teachers union will have lost its power, and then we can have the kind of schools Obama professes to dream about. But not before.