Why we need action from citizens on behalf of school reform

American schools need to be transformed, and to accomplish that, many ideas need to be repudiated. But to attack ideas is not to attack the human participants in what Harriet Tyson Bernstein has termed “a conspiracy of good intentions.” No force is going to remove the tenured professoriate at education schools or replace the two and a half million teachers in our public schools. These very diverse persons are not the enemy. And in any case, the human participants in American education are the participants we shall continue to have. In fact, they are some of the most dedicated and sympathetic members of our society. No, the enemy is the controlling system of ideas that currently prevents needed changes from being contemplated or understood. It is the enemy within that needs to be defeated.

~ From “The Schools We Need” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

My belief is simple: we will never see the kind of reforms in our public schools that will lead to increased student achievement until taxpayers, parents, disaffected teachers, administrators, and local school board members begin to aggressively oppose the current public school establishment, especially the teachers unions.

In nearly every segment of our society, from heath care to computers to telecommunications, we see progress. Yet our public schools fail to improve, weighed down by misguided bureaucrats beholden to politically powerful special interests.

Most parents and taxpayers and members of the community give their local school administrators the benefit of the doubt, trusting that the education professionals know what they’re doing.  Unfortunately, this approach hasn’t worked, as perennial fiscal problems accompany continued mediocre student test scores.

The problem within the public schools is not the people, but faulty ideas and institutions that resist change. Twenty years after the publication of the landmark “A Nation At Risk,” students in America’s public schools continue to lag behind the rest of the world in academic performance in math, science, and reading. Remedial education has become the norm at our colleges and universities.

The excuse of the education establishment for many years has been that they are inadequately funded. After four decades of pouring money into the public schools, that excuse no longer holds water. Billions of dollars have been appropriated and spent, and we’ve little to show for it. In fact, in many schools, the results are worse.

Illinois provides an instructive case study. For decades, taxpayers have been increasing funding levels to the public schools at better than twice the rate of inflation. Yet the news in early 2003 is that 80 percent of public school districts are in deficit spending.

To understand why the call is still for yet more money (meaning higher taxes), you need to know a few basic facts. Over 80 percent of the Education Fund of a school district goes for labor. Desks, pencils, paper, and books, typically amount to less than 10 percent. Labor costs must be controlled or budgets will be busted. And simply put, they haven’t been controlled.

There is a growing consensus that the politically powerful unions are the chief opponents of the kind of structural reforms that are necessary. Legislators, school boards, and administrators cower in their presence. Any thought of bringing change quickly evaporates as would be reformers realize that if they don’t play nice with the unions, they will pay with their jobs.

The teachers unions are the biggest, richest, most politically powerful union of them all. The Teamsters are pussycats in comparison. During the 2002 election cycle in Illinois the teachers unions contributed more money than any other interest group, in fact over $5 million more than anyone else. That doesn’t include the cost of the political apparatus or legions of teachers and union employees to organize and walk precincts in an election. What is needed is for parents and taxpayers to stand up to the unions and use those same tactics.

The war will be for public opinion and the battles will see victory or defeat at the ballot box. To bring about the needed change, information will have to be gathered and disseminated to the voters. The goal will be electing school boards that are up to the task of negotiating with the unions, electing legislators with the courage to champion education reform legislation, as well as turning back the growing number of tax increasing referendums.

If voters don’t begin to exert pressure, the special interests will continue to have their way. Oversight of taxpayer-funded schools is a good place to start. It promises to be a difficult but rewarding struggle.

What we are advocating is reestablishing true local control through the democratic process. The same citizen efforts that are needed when it comes to the school districts are identical to what’s needed regarding every taxing body from city hall to the state house and the U.S. Congress.

The only real solution in the long term is school choice, where taxpayer dollars will follow students to the school of their parents’ choice. The short-term solution is for groups of citizens at the local school district level to organize, study the inputs and outputs of the schools, and act as watchdogs and as a counter-veiling force to the teachers unions.

There are solutions. An amazing nation-wide network of school reform activists and organizations have arisen over the past thirty years. Private foundations and countless scholars have been researching how children learn. That our public school systems resist the findings of these scholars is the reason citizens must act.

A common refrain heard whenever the subject of school costs and performance comes up is that the public schools are under attack. Citizen action is not an attack on the public schools, but rather one more in a long line of efforts to improve them.

Success is possible. The struggle against the teachers unions is one that can, and must, be won.  To use their words, it must be done “for the sake of the children.”

©2007 John Francis Biver