Cheating America’s Schoolchildren

Sunday, January 30, 2000

America is what it is today—strong, rich, prosperous—because of the dream that drew wave after wave of immigrants to the United States with hopes and expectations. Succeeding generations came drawn by the belief that, if they worked hard, they or at least their children could climb the great ladder of upward mobility that education has historically provided in America. Indeed the immigrant charwoman, scrubbing floors to send her son to Harvard Medical School, has become an American cliché—a national truism and symbol of opportunity. And the fact is that education actually has provided that upward mobility for generations of Americans, naturalized and native-born.

illustrationIllustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest  

But beginning about thirty years ago, something happened to undermine the hope and expectation. The proud truism has been rendered invalid in schools all across the country. We’ve seen a marked decline in American public education not only in test scores but in most other measurements of educational performance. Something is seriously wrong when a delegation of Silicon Valley executives travels to Washington to plead with Congress to liberalize the quota for legal immigrants because they cannot find a sufficient number of American workers who possess the education and technical skills to manufacture the products of the twenty-first century. And it is not just high-technology employers who have reason to complain of our system of K–12 education.

When I came to the office of governor of California in 1991, I was shocked to discover a system of K–12 education that was producing a truly unacceptable workforce.

The experience of Pacific Bell in the early 1990s shows the depth of the problem. Pacific Bell gave entry-level examinations to job applicants who were high school graduates. The examination measured performance in basic reading, writing, spelling, and simple arithmetic at a seventh-grade level, yet it was flunked by two-thirds of those applicants. Those that came near enough to passing were retained by Pacific Bell, and the company conducted remedial education. Worst of all, the experience of Pacific Bell in 1991 was not an aberration. It was depressingly commonplace among California employers.

Yet thirty years before, California had perhaps the finest public schools in the nation. Its K–12 system was judged to be one of the very best. What happened to cause this truly appalling decline?

The Great Betrayal: How Teachers’ Unions Resist Accountability

It is not an oversimplification to say that much of the blame can be laid at the doors of teachers’ unions and a mentality that has transformed and degraded California’s once envied public schools, just as what was once an admired professional organization has been transformed into a trade union that has consistently put the interests of its members way ahead of the educational interest of California’s schoolchildren. The focus of the teachers’ unions is not on improving the quality of teaching; it is on protecting mediocre and worse-than-mediocre teachers from accountability. Witness the unions’ stout resistance to the needed upgrading of curricular standards. The more rigorous standards proposed by my administration require a high level of effort by both students and teachers. They were opposed as inappropriately difficult by a union that would excise standards requiring discipline, effort, and the acquisition of core knowledge. The abandonment of phonics and computational requirements is an egregious example of a union mentality that focuses on pedagogical process while ignoring content and disdaining the very concept of core knowledge.

Something is seriously wrong with our schools when Silicon Valley executives must lobby Congress to allow more foreign workers into the country simply because they cannot find enough qualified American workers to perform high-tech jobs.

In too many public school classrooms, teachers who professed contempt for "rote learning" or other disciplines alleged to constrain student creativity required little of their students—or themselves. Their students weren’t required to know multiplication tables or rules of grammar or the correct spelling of words or even the rudiments of their country’s history or system of government. They didn’t know when the Second World War was fought. They didn’t know whom the United States had fought against, much less who won. They simply had not been taught the most basic knowledge and skills that would permit them to continue their education. They were graduating from California high schools unequipped to be productive in the workforce and totally unprepared to do college work.

The focus of the teachers’ unions is not on improving the quality of teaching—it is on protecting mediocre and worse-than-mediocre teachers from accountability.

But why would an organization of teachers, those trusted with the precious education of our children, betray that trust and consistently oppose needed educational reforms? How did the California Teachers Association (CTA) become a trade union dedicated not to children or educational quality but to securing for its members’ money and minimal accountability?

It must be understood that there is a world of difference between teachers and teachers’ unions. California is blessed to enjoy the skill and dedication of tens of thousands of classroom teachers who are passionate about teaching. Many reject the goals and tactics of the union they are compelled by law to join (or to pay an agency fee equivalent to union dues).

The issue is accountability. The CTA has taken official and vociferous positions in opposition to merit pay, to more rigorous curricular standards, to standardized testing, to a requirement for passage of a subject-matter competency examination as a condition of receiving a teaching credential. The union has, of course, vehemently opposed the idea of an inspector of schools who ranks schools on educational quality and publishes the rankings.

Most especially, the union fears and loathes the idea of competition. The CTA has been vehement in its opposition to vouchers even in the most modest form. The CTA—like teachers’ unions all over America—has killed bills and ballot measures that offered hope of rescue to poor children trapped in bad schools. The fact that they are killing hope for those kids is a cost they are all too willing to ignore to protect monopoly and mediocrity. They have opposed with grim earnestness, if less publicly, the creation and spread of charter schools. God forbid that parents should have a choice.

They have killed the threat of competition just as they have tried desperately to kill the threat of mandated standardized testing because they feared that both would reveal their failure—as indeed testing has. California newspapers have rushed to print the test scores registered by their local public schools. Predictably, with few exceptions, the scores were well below the national average. But California parents—in the dark about their children’s inferior education until the truth was disclosed by testing—were shocked and outraged, just as the CTA had feared.

Whatever the other causes contributing to educational decline, they are aggravated and outweighed by the spectacular political success of massively financed teachers’ unions in resisting accountability and defeating needed educational reforms—in the California legislature by helping to elect majorities, in local school districts by helping to elect the majority of the school board, and on state and local ballots by heavily outspending their opposition on television.

In California, the largest and most powerful of the teachers’ unions—the CTA—is also consistently the largest contributor to political campaigns for the state legislature. The CTA’s generosity (provided almost exclusively to the long-standing Democratic majorities and a few Republicans in "safe" seats) has secured a sufficient number of allies—including most powerful Democratic legislative leaders—to give the union a high comfort level on most votes. The CTA has been able through the years to kill most reform measures at the committee level—quietly, without fanfare, and with little attention from the news media.

But the proven formula of the teachers’ union—building a war chest, funded by the compulsory dollars provided by union dues, and spending it generously to secure legislative allies hostile to reform—did not win every time.

It worked for years. But the union lost several significant battles during my second term when we were able to focus public attention upon the serious failure of schools and demanded accountability with a series of specific reform proposals. I was accused of bullying the legislature and generating public pressure to pass the reforms. I plead guilty.

In 1997, the tide turned. In literally the final hour of the legislative session, just enough Democrats crossed party lines to squeeze through my administration’s proposal for a single, standardized statewide test of educational achievement in grades 2–11. The legislature knew that the public—especially the parents of school kids—wanted testing to achieve accountability and improved teacher performance. It was a close vote, but even CTA money and intense pressure were not enough to prevail.

Why would an organization of teachers—those trusted with the precious education of our children—betray that trust and consistently oppose needed educational reforms?

We won other notable fights in the legislature against teacher-union opposition. In addition to standardized testing, we succeeded in gaining the more rigorous curricular standards California needed. We also won when we insisted (over the CTA’s strenuous objections) upon reducing class sizes to no more than twenty students in kindergarten through third grade—to afford more individualized instruction for children learning to read. Reading is the gateway skill that shapes all the rest of a child’s learning experience.

But notwithstanding these victories and their importance in restoring accountability and quality to public schools, the teachers’ unions and certainly the CTA have defeated far more reforms than they have had to swallow. Specifically, in California the CTA has succeeded to date in blocking

  • Merit pay to reward outstanding teaching

  • Any form of vouchers or "opportunity scholarships" to rescue poor kids from bad schools

  • Ranking of schools according to the quality of education they offer by an independent inspector and publication of the ratings

  • The requirement that applicants for a teaching credential pass a test of their knowledge of subject matter they are to teach

These reforms have had no chance of getting through the state legislature because of CTA opposition. The last three have also been defeated by the CTA on the ballot despite the fact that the last two were found by undisputed San Francisco Examiner–commissioned polls and by focus groups to enjoy more than 70 percent approval ratings among those Californians surveyed. How, then, did they come to be decisively defeated on election day?

Proposition 226 was the initiative on the June 1998 California ballot that sought to require employee consent for union political use of deductions from the employee’s paycheck. It too received enthusiastic 70 percent public support in the Examiner’s surveys and focus groups. How did it too suffer severe defeat on election day? The answer is that it was a victim of massive union money and its use to manipulate the voters.

How Teachers’ Unions Thwart Reform

Historically, the CTA and other teachers’ unions in other states have heavily outspent the proponents of reform and have outrageously misled the public by TV ads that distorted reform proposals or engaged in blatant falsehoods. Viewers were told in a massive union TV buy the final weekend before election day that Proposition 226 would prevent voluntary deductions for charitable contributions by employees from their paychecks and would compel disclosure of police officers’ home addresses, thereby jeopardizing them and their families.

This manipulation of television audiences (and most voters gain their information from thirty-second TV spots) is made possible by money, which is critical in helping elect and influence the legislative and school board majorities. The money—in massive, almost limitless amounts—is available to the leaders of teachers’ unions (and other labor unions) through "check-off," the device of union-dictated involuntary payroll deductions to the union. The proponents of school reform simply do not have access to anything like it. Union dues are a money machine—an ATM for the unions.

Unless we reform our schools, we risk creating a society of educational haves and have-nots. We simply cannot accept an America of such unequal access to opportunity.

If paycheck deductions for union political expenditures were voluntary—and if mandatory deductions were used only to compensate the union for the costs of engaging in collective bargaining or for employee contributions to union pension funds—there could be no valid objection to the device. But involuntary extractions for political purposes are an outrage—and the explanation for the ability of the teachers’ unions to kill educational reform. Their power is money.

What the Next President Should Do about It

It is a bitter irony of American democracy in an age of instantaneous mass communication that the ability to inform and arouse the public to its own clear self-interest is too often and too clearly dependent on money. The irony becomes still more bitter when—to finance electioneering—the money used to defeat needed educational reform is extracted without consent from the paychecks of skilled and dedicated teachers who do not approve of their union’s political goals or tactics.

Labor unions—and most prominently teachers’ unions—have shown themselves to be the most arrogant kind of scofflaws, using involuntary paycheck deductions for political purposes without employee consent in defiance of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Beck decision, which ruled that it is flatly unconstitutional to do so. The unions are able to continue this outrageous practice because the high court’s decision, although entirely clear, is not self-enforcing.

To impose the requirement of express consent by the union member (or agency-fee payer) would require the authority of statute or a presidential executive order of the kind issued by President Bush and promptly rescinded by President Clinton as one of his first orders of business upon assuming office. It is not at all clear why a Republican Congress with the numbers to pass a bill conforming the law to the Beck decision has failed to put it on Clinton’s desk, challenging him to right this flagrant wrong. To do so would at a minimum provoke a vitally needed public airing of the issue at the highest level.

What is painfully clear is that Vice President Gore and former senator Bill Bradley are hostages of their labor support and are as incapable as President Clinton of approving the Beck-prescribed reform of check-off, or of supporting any of the real reforms required to rescue poor children from public schools that are failing shamefully to provide them the education they deserve.

I am not an advocate of single-issue politics. But educational reform is an issue of such vital importance that it demands to be weighed very heavily by every thinking American as we choose a new president in the year 2000. It is also the ultimate "character issue"—the best test in 2000 by which to measure the commitment of the candidates to the public interest rather than special interests. The public official or candidate who bleeds rhetorically for educational opportunity for poor children—but dares not offend the teachers’ unions to provide it—is guilty of shameful hypocrisy and will never provide the leadership to meet what may well be our nation’s most critical domestic challenge. It is not only morally inexcusable if we fail to rescue poor children from bad schools but risks creating in the America of the information age an unhealthy society of educational haves and have-nots. We simply cannot accept an America of such unequal access to opportunity or a president who lacks the courage, capacity, or commitment to lead us to the real reforms that will avoid that danger.

America deserves and needs a president who will honor—and demand—good teaching and good teachers, and who will owe allegiance not to teachers’ unions but to America’s schoolchildren, their parents, employers, and taxpayers.

Then all Americans—rich and poor—can again believe in the immigrant dream of America as the land of opportunity . . . and education as the brightly lit ladder of upward mobility.