Undue Influence Harms American Schools
The need for change in U.S. public schools is clear.Everyone who has a role in the day-to-day operations within most public schools, including the principals, the support staff, the teachers, and even the janitors, has a contract which provides them a specific return for their investment of time, and their contracts get upgraded periodically.
It is only the students and their parents that have no such guarantees. A 2011 report in the Atlantic by former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein noted:
…three decades after A Nation at Risk, the groundbreaking report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, warned of ‘a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people,’ the gains we have made in improving our schools are negligible-even though we have doubled our spending (in inflation-adjusted dollars) on K-12 public education…While America’s students are stuck in a ditch, the rest of the world is moving ahead. The World Economic Forum ranks us 48th in math and science education. On international math tests, the United States is near the bottom of industrialized countries (the 34 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), and we’re in the middle in science and reading. Similarly, although we used to have one of the top percentages of high-school and college graduates among the OECD countries, we’re now in the basement for high-school and the middle for college graduates. And these figures don’t take into account the leaps in educational attainment in China, Singapore, and many developing countries.
Why is this situation tolerated? Politicians bear great responsibility. Klein notes:
From their point of view, the school system can be enormously helpful, providing patronage hires, school-placement opportunities for connected constituents, the means to get favored community and business programs adopted and funded, and politically advantageous ties to schools and parents in their communities.
Democrats are heavily dependent on union support for their electoral victories, and the teachers’ union, which vehemently opposes school choice, is a key element. Open Secrets notes,
Led by the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, teachers unions contributed a total of about $19.2 million in the 2012 elections. The NEA, which is more than 150 years old and advocates for teachers on a number of issues, contributed more than $14.7 million in 2012. Since 1989, it has been the fourth biggest donor out of all organizations tracked by CRP. AFT is another heavy-hitter, having given $4.4 million in 2012 that went to Democrats or liberal groups.
Within the Democrat Party, the influence of teachers’ unions is significant. In a study at Oberlin College, Molly Brand wrote:
My case studies, centered on state-level electoral politics through the gubernatorial primaries in New York and Rhode Island, lead me to believe that teachers’ unions are strong enough to have an influential outcome in a Democratic primary election.
Clinton’s bow to teachers’ unions may have been a factor in her defeat. Slate reports:
Following eight years of federally driven closures and turnarounds of schools with low test scores, which have put union jobs at risk, it was music to the NEA’s ears when the presumptive Democratic nominee promised to end ‘the education wars’…the only time Clinton referenced ‘accountability’ was to refer not to getting rid of bad teachers, but to giving unions a bigger voice in education policy.
While successful in manipulating Democrat Party politics, unions have had negative impacts on the success of students. Science Direct notes,
[There is evidence that] students have lower test scores in larger school districts and in districts in which the district’s teachers’ union has negotiated a contract that is more favorable to the district’s teachers. The teachers’ unions at the state and national levels contribute a great deal of money to candidates for state and federal offices. This gives the unions some influence in passing (defeating) bills that would help (harm) the state’s teachers… [There is] remarkably strong evidence that students in states with strong teachers unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.
The Illinois Policy organization concurs.
… new study from the University of Chicago shows that union bosses…are actively advocating for policies that have a negative effect on people they are supposed to care the most about: students.
Originally published on the New York Analysis of Policy and Government.