Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Feds and Unions: Foes to Educational Reform

"The fate of our country won't be decided on a battlefield. It will be determined in a classroom." Do you believe that?

Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker called on 14 state Senate Democrats, who had fled the state instead of voting on a deficit-cutting anti-teachers-union bill, to return and do their jobs. Senate Republicans hold a 19-14 majority there but can't vote on the bill unless at least one Democrat is present.

Does that sound like democracy at work to you? Do you think it?s just a coincidence that the two largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are the largest campaign contributors in the nation -- $55 million in just the past two years, more than the Teamsters, the National Rifle Association or any other organization -- and that 90 percent of those contributions fund only Democratic candidates?

As I began to point out last week, the U.S. public education system is flailing now more than ever, and teachers unions are aiding and abetting its demise. Some teachers unions may indeed be fighting for some of our teachers, but they are failing our students by protecting adults at the expense of the reformation of a crippled and dying system.

I became even further aware of that in a big way when I recently watched the movie "Waiting for ?Superman,?" a deeply personal look into the state of U.S. public education and how it is effecting our children. It is a movie my wife, Gena, and I encourage every American to watch. (It just came out on DVD and Blu-ray.)

"Waiting for ?Superman?" demonstrates how:

--Teachers unions are crippling the education of our children.

--Tenure and its guaranteed jobs are perpetuating educational dysfunction.

--Existing bureaucracies in education, from the U.S. Department of Education to state school boards, are doing more harm than good.

--Many public schools have become "dropout factories" (schools with high dropout rates).

--Many public school districts are engaged in "lemon dances" (sending their worst teachers to other schools and then in turn accepting failing teachers themselves).

--Many public school districts have "rubber rooms," places where teachers placed on disciplinary leave are waiting for hearings that could take three to four years to be heard. These teachers waste their time playing cards and other games while getting paid full salaries and benefits -- to the wasted sum of $100 million a year of taxpayer money.

Think about this: If a teacher knows he can?t be fired, why should he work or care? What other profession, besides college professor, has that kind of contractual agreement? None.

Don't misunderstand me; I fully know and believe that the majority of public-school teachers and principals are dedicated and highly qualified. I know some. But I also know that more often than not, even their hands are being tied by bureaucratic red tape, federal and state regulations, and teachers unions? special interests, agendas and contracts. By and large, teachers are good, but government regulation and teachers unions are a menace and impediment to real public education reform.

The fact is, as "Waiting for ?Superman?" also documents, the federal government has gone from spending $4,300 per student in 1971 to more than $9,000 today (and that?s adjusted for inflation and costs of living). In our spending double, one would think we?re getting double the results, but most of our public schools are worse off now than they were in 1971.

From coast to coast, reading and math scores have flat-lined since then. In Connecticut, only 35 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math. In Alabama, that number is only 18 percent, and in California, it?s only 24 percent.

And when the nation?s eighth-graders were tested in reading proficiency, most states scored between 20 and 35 percent of grade level, with the absolute lowest scores in reading being in the nation?s capital, Washington, D.C., where only 12 percent of eighth-graders are proficient.

I discussed last week how we all can fight to improve U.S. public education. But if our local schools aren?t imparting a quality education or reforming fast enough to do so for our children, then we must seek educational alternatives. The minds, hearts and future of our children and nation are on the line.

But choice is something the feds and teachers unions are not exactly thrilled about offering. In fact, President Barack Obama's appointed secretary of education, Arne Duncan, explained in an NPR interview, "I'm a big believer in choice and competition, but I think we can do that within the public-school framework."

Our children deserve the best education we can give them. We can?t be satisfied by failed government-run schools that don?t provide the level of education we want. But there are alternatives, and I would encourage you to look into them. Charter, parochial and private schools and home-school co-ops are a few. Gena and I are very committed to home-schooling our 9-year-old twins.

'Superman' is not going to rise up in the ranks of the federal government or teachers unions. He or she is going to rise up from within our homes.

In this respect, "Superman" Christopher Reeve had it right: "A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles."


What Madison Revealed: Teachers as Rent Seekers

"Rent" is a technical term in economics but it is explained below

"The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist." -- John Maynard Keynes

The particular defunct economist who most dominates the minds of the Obama administration and the Democratic Party is Keynes himself. But events in Wisconsin and a few other states are bringing other economists -- some still very much alive -- to the fore.

In Wisconsin and other states facing severe budget crises, we are witnessing the clash of special interests versus the public interest. Though the term "special interests" is usually deployed as an epithet by Democrats and is meant to refer to oil companies, "the rich," or other undesirables, in fact, as economist James M. Buchanan and other "public choice" theorists explain, a special interest is any community that attempts to gain a particular advantage from government.

Buchanan taught that government officials -- office holders and bureaucrats alike -- respond to incentives and pursue their self-interest just as other economic actors do. So do "rent seekers." The classic example offered is that of protectionism. An industry -- say, the sugar growers -- lobbies the government to impose tariffs on imported sugar in order to keep prices high (they are the rent seekers). A tariff will benefit each and every sugar grower substantially. So it is in the sugar growers' interest to form a trade association, to make campaign contributions, and to pay close attention to the way office holders vote on the question.

The broad public, by contrast, is potentially disadvantaged by a tariff on imported sugar because prices for candy, soda, and other products that contain sugar will rise. But the incremental added cost, per consumer, is very small. It is therefore extremely difficult to organize the public to oppose sugar quotas, or a host of other measures. Thus does government spending ratchet ever upward.

Public employees in many states are classic rent seekers, but they do sugar growers and the like one better. Through collective bargaining, unions negotiate with elected officials for wages and benefits. (SET ITAL) They then get the state to collect union dues for them by withholding the dues from public employees' checks. (END ITAL) With the accumulated cash, the union then makes campaign contributions to the favored public officials. Neat.

As labor historian Fred Siegel told John Fund of the Wall Street Journal: "Ending dues deductions breaks the political cycle in which government collects dues, gives them to the unions, who then use the dues to back their favorite candidates and also lobby for bigger government and more pay and benefits."

This system has worked well for public employees across the nation. Until 2010, New Jersey teachers contributed nothing to their lavish health care packages. Permitted to retire after 25 years of service, teachers receive pensions of 70 percent or more of their top salary (among the highest in the country) as well as health care for life. Yet the NJ Education Association howled when Gov. Chris Christie asked them, in light of the state's dire financial straits, to accept a one-year wage freeze and to contribute 1.5 percent of their salaries to the cost of their health plans.

Wisconsin teachers, too, have negotiated cushy deals for themselves. As Gov. Scott Walker has pointed out, private employees contribute an average of 29 percent of the cost of health benefits. Wisconsin union members contribute only about 6 percent. With the state budget in the red, something had to be done.

The bargains between governments and unions (or other special interests) require one thing above all to be successful -- an inattentive electorate. Just as the sugar growers would be eager to keep people in the dark about quotas or subsidies, so unions want the public to be kept ignorant of the overly generous compensation packages that are negotiated at the taxpayers' expense.

That's why the massive, tub-thumping, sign-waving, hippie sit-in staged by teachers and their allies in Madison over the last week makes no sense. (By the way, did you notice the demise of "civility" in politics? Where are the denunciations of the pictures of Walker as Hitler and Mubarak? The signs calling him a "Midwest Mussolini"?) The protests, with their attendant disdain for the school kids (so many teachers fraudulently called in sick that schools in Milwaukee, Madison, and Janesville had to close), serve as a huge neon sign alerting the sleeping electorate to what has been happening to their tax dollars.

The rent seekers stand exposed. Nothing that Walker and the Republican legislature had in mind is as damaging to the teachers union as that spotlight.


British pupils from poorest backgrounds stand one in 100 chance of top university

This wail will go on to the end of time. Smart people tend to get rich and also tend to pass on their brains to their kids. So, on average, the children of the rich will always be smarter and have higher educational achievement

Pupils from the poorest backgrounds stand just a one in a hundred chance of going to one of the country’s top universities. Their peers are seven times more likely to attend a university such as Oxford or Cambridge, figures released to MPs show.

The trend will be seized on by Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, who wants institutions to make it easier for students from poorer backgrounds to gain entry. Last week he accused elite colleges of "social segregation" and told them to do more to bring in students from low-income families.

From next year, all universities will be allowed to charge annual fees of up to £6,000. Those who want to charge more, up to £9,000, will have to sign agreements with the Government promising to admit more children from poorer homes.

Universities will submit their own proposals on how to widen access, but will be monitored by the Director of Fair Access, an independent regulator. And the Government can specify how much of a university's additional tuition income should be invested in access projects. Those who fail to comply could be fined up to £500,000 or have their right to charge more than £6,000 a year revoked.

In 2007/08 just one per cent of pupils who had been on free school meals were at one of the Russell Group universities, which include Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, Manchester and the London School of Economics. Only 15 per cent of them went to any university at all. In contrast, some seven per cent of pupils not on free meals were at a top university and a third were at any.

The figures were obtained by Charlotte Leslie, the Tory MP for Bristol North West and a member of the Education Select Committee. She said: “These statistics show the shocking reality beneath the last government's complacency about the welfare of our poorest pupils.

“In far too many cases, our schools system is failing our most disadvantaged children. “No child should be denied the chance to go to a top university purely because of their background, but tragically this is what is happening to our children today.”

However, other Tories are concerned about the access proposals.

A Commons motion published last week and signed by 25 Tory MPs said they "would view with concern any attempt to put political pressure on universities to discriminate between applicants on the basis of their school, family income, background or any other factor unrelated to their academic merit". "Any such policy would be to the detriment of standards in universities and highly unlikely to lead to any improvement in standards in schools," they said.


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