Alberto Carvalho, the highly regarded Miami-Dade schools superintendent, jokes that he wants to be the most “underpaid” public servant in the country. Underpaid? Public-school types keep using that word; I do not think that it means what they think it means.
I don’t really want to beat up on Carvalho, who seems to be a pretty good guy doing some pretty good things. But bottom lines matter. Under the leadership of the district’s (“underpaid”) $320,000-a-year superintendent, who has a $4 billion budget at his disposal, a fifth of Miami’s tenth-graders still read so poorly that, in the bland words of the education bureaucracy: “Performance at this level indicates an inadequate level of success with the challenging content of the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards for reading.” Carvalho blames this on “diversity,” the fact that many Miami students are learning English. Reasonable enough. But 54 percent of Miami-Dade’s tenth-graders get Florida’s lowest rating for math, and multiplicación de fracciones is what it is in any language.
For this, Carvalho has been celebrated, feted, and splendidly compensated. Even conservative education reformers have good things to say about him — as they probably should. He was Florida superintendent of the year for 2014, he was national superintendent of the year for 2014, his district won the prestigious Broad prize in 2012 as the most improved urban school district, and he is said to have recently turned down a job in the Obama administration. But good by comparison isn’t the same as good: His district includes a high school in which the dropout rate is 55.2 percent — a school with the words “stellar” and “leadership” in its name, two words that, like “underpaid,” apparently mean something else in Miami.
You know what Miami is by Florida standards?
According to NPR, more than half of Florida’s college-bound graduates in 2011 “couldn’t read, write or solve math problems well enough” for college, and required remedial education. In that crowd, Carvalho stands tall, indeed: Best of the worst.
That being the case, some Florida families are looking for the exits, especially those in low-income areas where the schools tend to be even worse than average. For the moment, Florida accommodates them, offering a $5,272 tax credit to help parents send their children to schools of their own choosing, including private and religious schools. Yesterday, the teachers’ unions and the Florida School Board Association filed a lawsuit to stop the program, and to cruelly strip 70,000 low-income families of the ability to choose their children’s schools, on religious grounds.
The religious argument is bunkum. The First Amendment prohibits the establishment of a federal church; the Netherlands, one of the most secular countries on Earth, directly funds education in religious schools, and nobody would mistake it for a country with an established church. (The Dutch Reformed Church was disestablished in 1798.) But the union goons are always happy to resort to bigotry and the tools of bigotry, and also are suing under Florida’s Blaine amendment, an atavistic vestige of 19th century anti-Catholic fervor and anti-immigrant sentiment that forbids aid to “sectarian” schools. Thus are Florida teachers deploying the Ku Klux Klan’s favorite legal innovation against families who are poor and disproportionately immigrant. The more things change . . .
The Blaine case against the tax credit is pretty weak, too: The program is designed, rather baroquely, to forefend just such a challenge: The money goes from business donors, which are compensated with a tax credit, to a nonprofit that in effect writes a two-party check to each family and the school of its choice, which must be endorsed by the beneficiary. The money never hits the treasury, so there is no state expenditure.
In fact, there is the opposite of a state expenditure. The scholarships are only $5,272, far less than Florida taxpayers spend each year on a child in one of their (sort of terrible, if we’re going to look at the data) government monopoly schools. The tax-credit program on net saves Florida taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.
On the same day the Florida lawsuit was filed, New Hampshire’s supreme court upheld that state’s similar school-choice program.
This isn’t about religion; it’s about protecting the narrow financial interests of a monopolistic public-sector cartel that produces a whole lot of six-figure salaries, $28-an-hour baby-sitters, and $90,000-a-year shop teachers. You think it’s not about the money? Consider that Florida uses a similar system to provide pre-kindergarten education to 140,000 low-income children, about 40 percent of whom are in religiously affiliated schools. Florida offers college scholarships, too, which students are free to use at religious institutions. (Three of Florida’s historically black colleges are Christian schools — shall we revoke their students’ federal aid?) Nobody is filing any lawsuits about college scholarships — the union goons are not looking out for anything but their own selfish interests.
Which would be more or less fine, if they didn’t stink quite so much when it comes to educating children.
We know they do a terrible job. The data show that they do a terrible job. And, most significant, they know that they do a terrible job, too: That’s why they do not want families to be allowed to choose. Given a choice, 70,000 low-income Florida families are saying “No” to the monopoly. If more families are allowed to choose, more are going to tell the cartel to pound sand, thus putting its members at a higher risk of being forced to work for market wages.
And let’s remember who these families and children are: 100 percent low-income, 75 percent minority, 60 percent single-parent families, heavily immigrant black and brown families earning on average about half of the median income.
Underpaid, you might say.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.