Responding to Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, & Others on Education, Democracy, and Unions

By 11/16/2011

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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 the public will by buying off officeholders with their own lavish spending and political muscle. And this problem is multiplied in education, what with its separate boards, which are often elected in off-cycle, low-turnout contests, making them even more accessible to “capture” by employee interest groups.

That’s all true, I believe—at least in large school districts. According to a survey of school boards published earlier this year by the National School Boards Association in partnership with Fordham and the American Enterprise Institute, 35 percent of school board members in large districts reported receiving campaign contributions from teachers unions, versus just 1 percent of board members of small districts. (Maybe that’s why some of the school board members who commented on my blog post complained about my characterization of all boards as “union-dominated.” They are right; many—maybe most—are not.)

But Diane’s not wrong that democracy itself creates challenges. Today’s reformers aren’t the first ones to notice this, of course. As Diane and other historians have written, reformers have been trying to “take politics out of education” for over a century now. In fact, that’s what school boards were originally supposed to do—remove education from the stains of cronyism and corruption that came with municipal governance at fin de siècle America. And, you could argue, it worked rather well for over fifty years—until modern-day teachers unions came on the scene, and used their collective power to put politics back into education again.

It’s not just teachers unions that present “democracy” challenges, of course. The reason we have such inequality in education funding also comes back to politics—in that case the politics of affluent communities protecting their own public schools but resisting tax increases to pay for those in far-off places. Or the identity-group politics that lead to an overstuffed social studies curriculum. And so on and so forth.

The solution is not to abandon democracy, but to consider whether different iterations of it might work better than others. Most policy domains don’t have their own special boards like education, but they are still overseen by democratic institutions. Is it less “democratic” for a city council to be responsible for schools than a board of education? For a state legislature to be in charge? Virtually no other nation around the world has school boards as we do, yet most of their school systems aren’t run in tyrannical ways.

Randi Weingarten, meanwhile, asks me what problem I’m trying to solve for.

Helping kids succeed? Dealing with an economic recession American workers didn’t create? Getting rid of any ability for workers to have a voice? Getting rid of democratic principles?

The immediate problem is that our schools are broke—a problem that workers, including teachers, did not create—and we face tough choices. Some options (like reducing learning time or art and music) throw the kids under the bus. Other options (like reducing wages and benefits) throw teachers under the bus. Some options (like moving to online learning or reforming special education) can lead to better results for less cost and are conceivably good for everyone. But if we’re choosing between throwing the kids under the bus or the adults, I vote for the adults.

The longer-term challenge we face is that the days of big spending in education may never come back. Because of unaffordable promises we’ve made to Baby Boomers (including Baby Boomer teachers), we don’t have a ton of money to invest in programs for the young, including our schools. What we can do in our corner of the policy world, at least, is address the spiraling retirement costs (pensions and health care) that are taking money directly out of the classroom.

Beyond economics, reformers are trying to deal with the fact of counter-productive—no, criminal—collective bargaining agreements that protect the rights of senior teachers at the expense of everything else. (See this report—with your favorite cover, Randi—for more on that.) There’s no defense for LIFO, for “bumping rights,” for rubber rooms, and all of the rest.

And yes, in some districts, such as New York, those provisions have been taken out. And that brings me to my last point. The reason they’ve been eliminated is because “management” in those locales finally got a backbone. In Gotham it was because of mayoral control; in other places, reformers have successfully taken over school boards. Randi says we should learn from leading business and work collaboratively with labor; that’s fine, but only works if management is labor’s equal. Because of our governance problems, that’s rarely been the case, at least in urban America. If reformers gain a foothold on local boards, perhaps labor-management negotiations will finally result in good outcomes for kids.

-Mike Petrilli

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