The School-Reform Battle

Signs at a rally as public school teachers strike in Denver, Colo., February 12, 2019. (Michael Ciaglo/Reuters)
Teachers’ unions are fighting hard against educational innovation, but many welcome reforms are here to stay.

Whose argument is this?

“The teacher unions currently have no countervailing force. We envision the National Parents Union as being able to . . . redirect the conversation from one about adults to one about students.”

It might surprise you to hear that that’s the position of Andy Stern, longtime president of the Service Employees International Union. SEIU is the only labor organization in the U.S. that has been even more politically active in recent decades than the teachers’ unions. Stern was known for visiting the Obama White House more than any other person.

So why is a supreme labor activist now annoying the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and other union defenders of the public-school establishment? At one point, Stern discovered that members of a janitors’ union in his network overwhelmingly supported charter schools as crucial to the success of their children. He started backing families in school-reform battles and served on charter-school boards. He continues to rally opinion in favor of educational experiments. Despite his impeccable left-wing credentials, his labor friends are provoked about that.

You see, teacher unions are pushing hard in a different direction. The strikes they launched in West Virginia in February 2018 subsequently swept the nation. The movement spread to Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, Los Angeles, Oakland, other swaths of California, and beyond. These were the most militant labor actions in the U.S. in decades — involving 485,000 total strikers in 2018, more than in any other annual period for the past 32 years. These teachers from conventional public schools mobilized powerful pressure on politicians to curtail education reforms.

And the politicos responded. Democrats running for governor in 2018 in states such as Wisconsin, Connecticut, Michigan, New Mexico, and Illinois campaigned loudly against alternative schools. A panel appointed by California’s governor in response to the strikes proposed this June to place many new strictures on charter schools, including giving school districts the ability to ban them. New York City mayor Bill de Blasio has tried to choke off charter-school growth, and many of his fellow Democrats running for president are now calling openly for an end to charter expansion.

And it’s not just charters. The Houston school board kicked Teach for America out of their city on the grounds that it undermines union power. New online-learning technologies face growing resistance. Efforts to end the Lake Wobegon effect in teacher assessments (where nine out of ten instructors get certified as excellent even in miserable districts) have been collapsed by foot-dragging and personal attacks that wore out leaders of the effort, such as the Gates Foundation. An expansion of Pennsylvania’s popular and oversubscribed program that offers needy children scholarships useable in private and religious schools was recently vetoed by the governor amid pressure from teachers’ unions.

A $600 billion–per–year educational bureaucracy that resents competition and enhanced scrutiny is squeezing school innovators. Until recently, reformers were shielded from political attacks and regulatory shutdowns by the bipartisan desire to rescue children stuck in dysfunctional schools. Innovations such as charter schools, student vouchers, and the connection of teacher pay to performance enjoyed broad support from liberals such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Bill Gates, as well as conservatives such as Jeb Bush, John Boehner, and John Walton.

Now that has changed. Progressives have abandoned school transformation and circled their wagons around the public-school status quo. Yet while enemies of educational experimentation have suddenly gotten the upper hand, the school reforms of the past two decades are not going to be unraveled easily. Graduation rates, student safety, life success, child happiness, and parent satisfaction have all been elevated by school entrepreneurs. Thousands of incompetent teachers have been weeded out, and we are approaching the point where a quarter of all new teachers will come from alternative certification programs instead of the old teacher colleges.

There are now more than 10 million children enrolled in tens of thousands of schools of choice across the country. In numerous cities, half of all families now choose something other than their nearby district school. Entire states, including Florida, Arizona, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, and dozens of cities, including New York, Washington, Boston, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, have become wholly different ecosystems, educationally, than they were 20 years earlier.

If opponents of education reform try to drive children back into floundering district-school classrooms, they will face fury from parents like those janitors with kids in charters. Families who found escape hatches over the last generation will not easily surrender their new schooling options.

But a powerful education establishment is now pulling political levers to slow the pace of change, and school improvement is at a stalemate. Will the future belong to reformers, or to defenders of the public-school status quo?

Editor’s note: This article is excerpted  from the forthcoming fall issue of Philanthropy magazine.

  Karl Zinsmeister is the editor in chief of Philanthropy magazine. He formerly advised Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and President George W. Bush on domestic policy.

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