Special Report

Save What Should Be Lost

Saturday's "Save the Schools" rally in D.C. should be called the March to Save Teachers' Unions.

By 7.29.11

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The defenders of traditional public education participating in Saturday's Save Our Schools rally in D.C. want everyone to believe in a little narrative: that they're saving America's public schools from heedless reformers and cost-cutting Republican governors.

The march's organizers also want people to believe that the rally is a grassroots effort sustained by teachers and parents working together to preserve education. They proclaim that the No Child Left Behind Act and other school reform efforts, which have emphasized the use of student performance data culled from "high stakes" standardized tests, is leading to the shutdown of schools and to teachers losing their jobs. And, as they stand, chant and wave placards across the street from the White House at the Ellipse and demand that President Barack Obama put an end to his school reform efforts, they will also play upon the images of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, whose leaders rightfully and effectively used such protest rallies to end Jim Crow discrimination.

That organizers and headliners of the Save Our Schools rally include such big names as Oakland, Calif., teacher and Education Week blogger Anthony Cody and author and activist Jonathan Kozol weakens the claims that the rally is a grassroots affair. It gets even weaker when the biggest star for the event is Diane Ravitch, the once-respectable New York University historian and Bush Administration appointee who has become the darling of teachers’ union bosses and the talk show circuit for her screeds against charter schools. When you consider that half of the rally’s $100,000 budget comes from NEA and AFT -- who have also endorsed the event -- it becomes clear that this march isn't just some organic affair.

Granted, No Child has exposed the woeful quality of America's public schools, helped the school reform movement gain political and grassroots support, and helped weaken NEA and AFT influence. But, until now, the supposedly "high-stakes tests" emphasized under the law have been anything but. Just 11 percent of the nation's dropout factories and failure mills were shut down between the 2003-2004 and 2008-2009 school years, according to a report released earlier this year by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. If anything, the Obama administration has focused on turning around the nation's laggard schools -- including devoting $3.5 billion to the federal School Improvement Program -- even though such turnarounds work out just one percent of the time.

The Obama administration's Race to the Top initiative, along with efforts by states such as Florida and Ohio to require the use of student test data in evaluating teachers, are certainly beginning to subject teachers to the kind of performance management typically found in the performance sector. Moves by reform-minded mayors and school districts to restrict laggard teachers from gaining near-lifetime employment obtained through tenure is also starting to work; just 58 percent of recently-hired New York City teachers gained tenure this past school year, versus nearly all teachers five years earlier. Still, only 2.1 percent of teachers are ever dismissed for poor performance, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Certainly education spending is being cut, with 20 out of 37 states reducing education expenditures this year. This comes after five decades of constant increases in school spending (including a 16 percent increase between 2000 and 2007). Most states have avoided cutting school budgets and have gotten help from the Obama administration, which has provided $95 billion in federal stimulus spending and another $10 billion ladled to states and school districts as part of last year's Edujobs deal.

When you look closely, the Save Our Schools rally is really the March to Save Teachers' Unions. This is because four decades of dissatisfaction with American education -- along with the high cost of lackluster schools -- is finally coming home to roost.

States must wrangle with $137 billion in budget shortfalls in the coming two fiscal years, and deal with $1.4 trillion in long-term teachers' pension deficits and retired teacher healthcare benefits. The average state spent 34 cents on benefits for every dollar of teacher salary in 2008-2009 versus 28 cents six years ago. These burdens have led budget-cutting Republican and Democrat governors to take aim at the array of generous defined-benefit pensions, nearly-free healthcare plans, near-lifetime employment privileges and degree-and seniority-based pay scales that have long made teaching the most-lucrative profession (and most-insulated from hiring and firing) in the public sector -- and have long been the source of NEA and AFT influence. It has led them to team up with the nation's school reform movement, which has proven that traditional teacher compensation is both overly costly and ineffective at rewarding high-quality teachers and spurring student achievement, to move towards alternatives such as performance-based pay and make it tougher for laggard teachers to keep their jobs.

NEA and AFT affiliates have fought hard against the efforts -- and devoting even more of their $622 million in annual dues -- towards rallies and flexing their influence at the ballot box. But as proven by governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey, who successfully backed efforts to abolish collective bargaining and require teachers to contribute more to their fringe benefits, the unions are getting little sympathy either from politicians or from voters. The fact that the NEA moved earlier this month to endorse President Obama's re-election bid in spite of their enmity towards his reform efforts proves that neither it nor the AFT call the shots in Democratic Party politics.

Meanwhile the NEA, the AFT and Save Our Schools organizers are also losing sway over the very families they claim to represent. Just 18 percent of parents surveyed last year by the Gallup Organization and education group Phi Delta Kappa gave the nation's schools a rating of A or B, a nine-point decline over the past 25 years. Middle-class families -- including those black, Asian and Latino households who moved from failing urban districts to the suburbs in the hopes that their children would get a high-quality education -- are finding out the hard way that low-quality teaching, especially in reading and math, can be as pervasive in those schools as in the urban dropout factories they worked hard to avoid. For urban parents, along with big-city mayors and young Democrats, the continuing failure of traditional public schools secured their support for charters, vouchers and takeovers of faltering districts.

This isn't to say that school reformers have fully won the hearts and minds of the public. They still haven't done much to help parents get the data they need to choose better schools and haven't addressed the lifestyle concerns that are as much a part of education discussions as school quality. But the Save Our Schools gang has long ago lost support from most families and taxpayers for the costly failed vision of education they continue to offer.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.