Teacher Union Blues

November 28, 2011

My colleague, Bob Costrell, and I each had a piece published last week about problems with teacher unions.  Bob’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal and focused on the fiscal dangers of public sector collective bargaining, especially over benefits and especially at the local level.  My piece appeared in Education Next as part of a forum with Richard Kahlenberg and focused mostly on the harms to students and their families posed by unchecked teacher collective bargaining over working conditions, hiring, and termination procedures.

I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in Ed Next and I don’t want to speak for Bob, so I would just urge you to read these pieces for yourself.  But just to anticipate objections, let me emphasize that I have no problem with unionization and collective bargaining in a competitive private market.  People should be free to associate and free to negotiate the terms of providing their labor.

The problem with teacher unions and public sector collective bargaining is that the checks and balances provided by market competition are absent.  So, public sector unions can get “management” to increase revenue for the industry and for union members without having to improve productivity.  They can just increase taxes or shift spending from other public purposes.  Private sector collective bargaining is constrained by the reality that they cannot just print their own money and must agree on productivity improvements so that there is more revenue to split.

In addition to the lack of incentives to improve productivity in public sector collective bargaining, we have the additional political distortions that unions, as a more concentrated and well-organized interest, have enormous political influence.  So, the unions are essentially sitting on both sides of the bargaining table.  This problem is more severe at the local level, since local political contests are less salient and more easily captured by well-organized interests.  At least in the private sector management usually tries to represent the interests of shareholders, but in the public sector the diffused interests of taxpayers are much less likely to be represented.

And in case any of you have idealized visions of teacher unions protecting the worker dancing in your head, a little snippet from the Education Intelligence Agency should awake you from your slumber:

In August, the American Federation of Teachers began an audit of the Broward Teachers Union’s (BTU) finances. Who at BTU asked for the audit is a matter of contention, but AFT uncovered several anomalies in the course of its two-month investigation.

Among them was the apparent reimbursement out of union dues for campaign contributions made by 26 ”employees, board members and their relatives.” This is, needless to say, illegal. The Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Elections Commission were notified, and both agencies opened an official investigation.

Members of BTU’s executive board accused union president Pat Santeramo of not only being complicit in the reimbursement, but also covering up a $3.8 million budget shortfall and accepting salary overpayments….

Whatever Santeramo has done, he is actually the least reprehensible recent BTU president. He took over the position in 2001 after his predecessor was charged and plead guilty to attempting to entice a minor into a sex act and sending child pornography over the Internet. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison. And Santeramo’s actions are small potatoes when placed aside those of Pat Tornillo.


Erin Dillon and Bill Tucker on Online Learning

February 3, 2011

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Dillon and Tucker weigh in on virtual learning at Education Next. The Ed Sector duo make a number of good points drawing from the experience of the charter school movement.

I am especially struck by the problem they point to in determining appropriate funding levels for virtual schools. An education savings account funding method for virtual schooling would create a market mechanism for determining cost per course, driving productivity gains. If given the wrong set of incentives, providers will have their profits determined by the success and failure of their lobbying efforts rather than by parental demand.

Of course, high-quality and free online learning tools have appeared on the scene.  Public funding schemes could limit development if compensation systems are not carefully considered.


Gloom and Gloomier

February 1, 2011

The editors at Education Next have two essays on the state of education reform that remind me of Woody Allen’s never-delivered university commencement speech:

More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.

In one essay, Paul Peterson, Marci Kanstoroom, and Chester Finn reject my rosy assessment of progress in the war of ideas about education reform, saying “It’s way, way too early to declare victory. Atop the cliffs and bastions that reformers are attacking, the opposition has plenty of weapons with which to hold its territory…. It’s dangerous to think a battle is over when it has just begun.”

In the other essay, Frederick Hess, Martin West, and Michael Petrilli go even further in their gloom, arguing not only that the war has hardly begun, but that the reform warriors are really the enemy:

First, reform “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public—one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

That’s funny.  I thought the enemy was a monopolistic, bureaucratized 19th century school system propped up by teacher unions and their allies who place the interests of adults over the needs of children.  I guess I was wrong in not understanding that it is really the opponents of that system who are the problem.

In truth, I don’t really disagree with much of what either essay has to say.  It is all just a matter of emphasis and framing. In my declaration of victory I was careful to acknowledge that the war over policy has barely begun and reformers have a long and difficult road ahead:

We won!  At least we’ve won the war of ideas.  Our ideas for school reform are now the ones that elites and politicians are considering and they have soundly rejected the old ideas of more money, more money, and more money.

Now that I’ve said that, I have to acknowledge that winning the war of ideas is nowhere close to winning the policy war.  As I’ve written before, the teacher unions are becoming like the tobacco industry.  No one accepts their primary claims anymore, but that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be powerful and that people don’t continue to smoke.  The battle is turning into a struggle over the correct design and implementation of the reform ideas that are now commonly accepted.  And the unions have shown that they are extremely good at blocking, diluting, or co-opting the correct design and implementation of reforms.

Rick Hess correctly demonstrated how important design and implementation are almost two decades ago in his books, Spinning Wheels and Revolution at the Margins.   And it is always useful for him and others to remind reformers of the dangers that lurk in those union-infested waters.  But for a moment can’t we just bask in the glow of our intellectual victory — even if our allies are a new crop of naive reformers?

Yes, there is a danger in thinking that the policy war is over when it has barely begun.  And yes, there is a danger in over-promising and over-simplifying reform ideas.  But there is also a danger in reform burn-out.  The struggle over school reform has been going on for decades and will almost certainly take several decades more.  Donors have grown frustrated and advocates have jumped to ill-conceived quick fixes that would set the cause of reform back significantly, like adopting national standards and assessments.  If we don’t periodically note our policy progress and intellectual victories, we will have great difficulty sustaining the reform movement.

My view does not really differ substantially from the two essays in Education Next except that they see a greater danger in over-confidence and I see a greater danger in burnout.  And I don’t mind being used as the straw man for their arguments.  The Straw Man had a brain.


The Education Reform Book is Dead

January 5, 2011

I have a new piece in 10th anniversary edition of Education Next reviewing education reform books of the last decade.  My somewhat over-stated thesis is that the education reform book is dead — that books don’t have nearly as much influence in shaping the education policy agenda as they used to.

Here is a taste:

Why is it so difficult to identify a book that embodies the incentive-based reforms of the decade and relatively easy to list books that argue against them? One reason is that books have lost their place as primary vehicles for shaping education policy. Just like in other realms, books are being displaced by other media.

A film like Waiting for “Superman” can have considerably more influence over education policy than any book. Articles and reports can be released on the Internet as soon as they are written. Even blogs are swaying education policy discussions to a greater extent than books. The power of blogs is especially clear when it comes to debating the merits of the research on various policy questions. There is little point in writing a book that reviews and adjudicates research findings when online articles and blog posts can do the same thing and be available within days or even hours.

The lack of policy influence that is attributable to recent education-reform books is not for lack of sales. Some have even become national best sellers. The problem is that policymakers and other elites are less likely to be among their readers. Instead, the buyers increasingly seem to be those actively participating in education reform debates; the people actually shaping policy appear to be paying relatively little attention.

For example, teachers and others hostile to incentive-based reforms consume works by Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Tony Wagner to affirm their worldview. These books are not setting the agenda for policymakers. They are feeding the resentment of practitioners to an education reform agenda that draws its inspiration from nonbook sources and is advancing despite the hostility stirred by such books. These best-selling volumes are, in the words of their intellectual nemesis, “standing athwart history, yelling stop.”


Peterson and West on the NAACP and Charters

August 3, 2010

Paul Peterson and Marty West have a great piece in today’s WSJ showing how increasingly popular charter schools are among African-Americans.  Despite that fact, the NAACP continues to oppose charters.

Given that 64% of African-Americans surveyed stated that they supported the formation of charter schools (up from 49% last year), Peterson and West remark that: “It’s time civil-rights groups listened to their communities.”

Unfortunately, Peterson and West tell us, the NAACP has picked their political allies in the teacher unions over their constituents:

By casting their lot firmly with teachers unions, the leadership of the NAACP and the Urban League hope to preserve their power and safeguard their traditional sources of financial support. Not only is this is a cynical strategy, it ignores where African-Americans and Hispanics are on the issue. Thankfully, the Obama administration is paying attention to the needs of low-income, minority communities and not to their purported leaders.

You can read more about the survey over at Education Next.


Charter Chatter

February 10, 2010

Readers of JPGB have already seen the working paper, but Education Next now has the peer-reviewed and published version of Booker, Sass, Gill, and Zimmer’s study of the effect of charter high school on graduation and college attendance.  Since you are way ahead of the curve you already knew that attending a charter high school increases the probability that a student will graduate high school and go to college.

The study is so clever because it focuses on students who attended charter middle schools.  Some went on to charter high school and some did not.  By comparing the two groups Booker, et al reduce the selection bias of choice, since all of the students chose charter schools at least for middle school.  But there may still be some selection bias in who chooses to continue in charter high school, so Booker, et al address that with a neato instrumental variable.  Some students don’t go on to charter high school because there isn’t one available nearby.  Their analysis predicts whether students continue to a charter high school based on the availability of nearby charter options.

Check out the highly readable Ed Next article for yourself.  Also watch the podcast interview with Brian Gill.


The Argument Clinic

January 5, 2010

Stuart Buck and I have a post over on the Education Next Blog addressing a letter that Sara Mead of the New America Foundation wrote in response to our article on special education vouchers.

Here’s a taste of our response:

Sara Mead’s letter almost feels like the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic.” She’s just contradicting us, not providing an actual argument with contrary evidence.

Of course, she could just say that she isn’t.


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