Can Education Association Setbacks = School Reform?

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Recent political losses for teachers unions nationwide may result from past gains made by the associations but could lead to better results in education.

The biggest setback for the largest teachers’ union, namely the National Education Association (NEA), came in the presidential election. Not only did the NEA endorse Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., but word leaked out of its convention here in Washington, D. C. last summer that members gushed to each other that promoting the presidential contender’s cause to the parents of their pupils would result in a landslide victory for the Democratic ticket.

On the heels of this defeat came local setbacks in two rather liberal states widely viewed as laboratories for social scientists—Washington and even California. Although voters in the Evergreen state narrowly elected a Democratic governor, at least for now, Washington’s citizens resoundingly defeated a proposed ballot initiative that would have raised taxes to fund public schools.

“I-884’s billion dollar increase in funding would have made great progress toward ensuring our schools have the resources they need,” the Washington Education Association concluded. “The defeat of R-55 and I-884 says to us that the public clearly supports our existing public schools, but there is mixed agreement on the most effective way to fully fund them.”

What could the voters have been thinking? Marsha Richards [pictured] gives us a clue in her post-mortem for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a think tank in Washington state.

“We’re spending more today than ever before,” Miss Richards notes, “yet one out of three students fails to graduate from high school, 61 percent of our tenth graders fail state assessments, and 43 percent of our new high school graduates must take remedial courses in reading, writing or math.”

How much are taxpayers shelling out to support the state’s failing public schools? Miss Richards gives us the eye-popping answer.

“We’re currently spending about $9.2 billion a year for K-12 schools (local, state and federal funds combined),” Richards reports. “That’s about $9,400 per student per year.”

Part of the problem, Miss Richards found, is that less than half of that multi-billion dollar bankroll actually makes it into the classroom. “Only 42.5 percent was used for ‘basic instruction’ (teacher salaries, curriculum, etc.),” Miss Richards notes, “which means nearly 60 percent was used for other programs and support services.”

In the golden state, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is set to take on one of the teacher’s union’s most cherished benefits—tenure. And the 335,000-member California Teachers Association (CTA) is not taking the challenge lightly.

“California will spend $50 billion on K through 14 education this year; that’s $2.9 billion more than last year,” Gov. Schwarzenegger said recently in his State of the State Address to the General Assembly. “Nearly half of the state’s budget is dedicated to education.”

Despite this largesse, Gov. Schwarzenegger pointed out, one-third of California’s high school students do not graduate. Of the pupils still in school, the governor notes, most cannot perform at grade level.

While lauding California’s “many wonderful and dedicated teachers,” Gov. Schwarzenegger proposes that those who do not measure up to professional standards be held accountable. “I propose that teacher pay be tied to merit, not tenure,” Gov. Schwarzenegger told state assembly members early this year. “And I propose that teacher employment be tied to performance, not to just showing up.”

Predictably, Gov. Schwarzenegger’s proposal makes the CTA anxious. The CTA opposed the recall of former California Gov. Gray Davis that set the stage for Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial candidacy. Once the recall election became inevitable, the CTA endorsed the Democratic state chief executive’s lieutenant governor, Cruz Bustamante.

Speaking to Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plans, CTA president Barbara E. Kerr said, “The governor’s proposals on education—including merit pay for teachers—are nothing more than smoke and mirrors designed to avoid dealing with the real issues.

As Lance T. Izumi shows in a column for the Pacific Research Institute, California’s tenure rules form a barricade that can protect incompetent teachers. For one thing, teachers in California’s public schools receive tenure after their first two years on the job. For another, once in place, they are difficult to displace.

“In the Los Angeles Unified School District from 1990 to 1999, only 13 dismissal panels were convened and just one tenured teacher’s case went through the dismissal process from beginning to end,” Izumi reports.

The long lag time might protect innocent teachers but it can also buy time for guilty ones. “Take the case of Juliet Ellery, a San Diego high school teacher,” Izumi notes.

“Ms. Ellery refused to answer questions, demeaned and insulted students, and refused to adhere to lesson plans,” Izumi writes. “Frustrated students circulated a petition to have her dismissed.”

“The district then spent eight years and $300,000 trying to fire Ellery,” Izumi recounts. “Although her teaching credential was eventually suspended for one year, Ellery returned to teaching after the suspension.”

“Unsurprisingly, few districts try to fire teachers.”