Robert A. Teegarden's Blog

June 15, 2010

Bailout for Public Schools – Every Man/Woman for Himself/Herself

Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, authored a missive a week before last for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Public Schools Need a Bailout.”  She advocated for the  swift-boat passage of $23 billion in bailout funds for America’s schools, government schools only.  Weingarten posits that failing these bailout dollars would be tantamount to robbing “an entire generation of students of the well-rounded education they need and deserve.”  One has to ask about the two or three generations that have been failed thus far by the system she wants to bail out–one of three students won’t make it from ninth to twelfth grade, 50% of those who graduate with honors and matriculate at a state college or university will have to take remedial courses just to survive entrance, and 60% of the students attending community college will have to do the same.

When I hear the word “bailout” I’m immediately reminded of the likes of Spencer Tracy having to leave his burning B-25 aircraft after a treacherous but successful raid on some synthetic rubber plant in Tokyo during World War II.  One after the other, the crew leaves the crippled ship, each gliding to safety and a hopeful future under the open canopy of their parachute.  The parachute silk in WWII was white; I’m thinking Ms. Weingarten was thinking more along the lines of a golden parachute, one that protects the adults, but not the students.

 The other image is of that forlorn lifeboat adrift in mid-Pacific.  In high waves and troubled seas, the captain gives the order for everyone to “bail.” All hands muster the energy to remove water from their craft and thus save them all; all try to avoid this harmful situation.  The first rule of sailing is that you cannot run from the wind, you face the music, trim your sails and carry on.  But in the case of Weingarten’s ship of state I have to ask, “Who’s really being saved by this magic bullet bailout?”

Since the early 50s, state teachers’ unions have lobbied, threatened and sued to place their funding (salaries that amass into union dues) as a percentage of each state’s fiscal budget—automatically.  They’ve spent years bloating their budgets to provide what he describes as this “well-rounded education.” Now that the states experience the need to tighten belts, spend less and be more transparent stewards of these fiscal responsibilities, the unions cry, “That’s not fair; we need more.” Why?  It’s for the children.

The author echoes her worst fears throughout his piece.  There will be “sharp reductions (in teachers),” “cutting to the bone,” “eliminating classroom teachers,” “teachers and other school personnel will receive pink slips.”  A good crises is, indeed, a terrible thing to waste.  Ever notice that so-called cuts never seem to occur to the credentialed teachers who don’t have a classroom; in some states there is one “extra” teacher for every classroom teacher.  How come the cuts never reach into the higher echelons of administrators and directors… or union representatives?

Weingarten acknowledges, however, that school reforms are under way, though, “some of the most effective reform efforts in decades.”  Her conclusions about these reforms, however, just don’t follow.  Money is the key to Weingarten’s reforms; money, more money is needed to bring about the changes necessary.

When confronted with the legislative process that government spenders have developed over the years, she cries, “Foul.”  Forget the add-ons, forget the earmarks, forget “everyone’s favorite education initiatives.”  We need a clean bill.  We just need more money.  The funny thing about educational reform and the cry for more money is that we never hear what “enough” really is.  What is adequate? What does it really cost? When is enough enough?   We’re spending close to $25,000 per student in the nation’s capitol and reaping what?  Number one in spending, 51st of 51 states and the District of Columbia in academic progress.  How much more is needed to achieve these taunted reforms of which she speaks?

They had a solution to the academic achievement  problems in DC up through this year; it cost about one-third of the current spending.  When Congress and the Obama administration cancelled the Washington Scholarship Fund, they rang a death knell for the next generation of students in DC.  They cancelled it for political reasons.  So much for the education of the public.

The union boss goes on to suggest that “public schools” are like Wall Street—they’re too big to fail. But failure in this case is not so much due to the recent downturn in the state economies.   Failure has occurred because of the four-fold spending increases that have occurred since 1983, a period in which the student population only increased by about nine percent.  This “well-rounded” spending matrix is at the heart of the problems/crises experienced by schools.  To suggest that they’re too big to fail borders on the height of arrogance and chutzpah. This is one of the problems.

Now don’t get me wrong.  We must support and protect the education of the public in America. But that doesn’t mean that we continue to make the same mistakes year after year.  Our students deserve better; we all deserve better  The problem is that the monopoly that is called “public education” in American has absolute no resemblance to the economic conditions that make this country great.  There is little to no competition and there is no choice in the matter.  What we have in American schooling more closely resembles the nineteenth century Prussian state, or more recently the five-year plan of the failed Soviet Union.  Coerced attendance, forced placement and no recourse are not the stuff of the American dream.  Most government schools and school systems have become iatrogenic: they tend to foster the very problems they were designed to overcome.  But look at what Florida’s achieved.

Florida’s fourth-grade, low poverty Hispanic kids are currently scoring higher in reading and math than the entire fourth grade averages of at least 15 other states.  They didn’t achieve this remarkable success because they kept asking for more money.  On the contrary, the legislature and governor got behind a complex serious of reforms that attacked the core obsolescence of years of draconian spending, false reporting, and coerced failure.  They ended social promotion, they linked promotion to the passage of certain testing protocols, they gave parents transparent measures about their own school’s progress and they gave families a broad and real choice in the education of their children.  It’s a model I highly recommend.

While she does tug at the heart strings, Ms. Weingarten’s piece is biased toward her own agenda not necessarily the truth, her sense of the social structure of America’s government education is skewed only toward adults, her grammar and syntax lean on hyperbole, and a Clintonian-spin of the facts.

It’s time for a change. But change won’t occur in a magic-bullet sort of way.  Real, systemic change can only occur from within—from the people—the parents of kids in school.  Legislatures might flirt with the ideas, but fundamental adjustment and changes will be born at the local level when people exercise choice to educate America’s public. It’s time we abandon the man-overboard drills every funding cycle and finally invest in every child in America by giving them the wherewithal and the ability to choose a school they wish for their children.

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