This column was originally published by Salon on February 17, 1997.
Everybody from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton agrees that the crisis in our schools demands national action. Many proposals — raised standards, smaller classrooms — are already part of a bipartisan agenda. But no one seems to have the political spine to name the parties responsible for this crisis. As a result, none of these solutions will work.
Let’s stop beating around the bush: The source of our national educational crisis is a massive failure of teachers to teach. Any educational reform program that does not include reductions in pay or wholesale firings for our failing teachers and school administrators — as well as raises and bonuses for those who succeed — will not work.
This is the simple (and unmentionable) fact: We produce functional illiterates and student dropouts because we employ large numbers of functional illiterates and irresponsible bureaucrats in our schools — adults who have no business overseeing our children’s education.
The first step in understanding the public education mess is to realize that IT’S NOT ABOUT MONEY. Teachers — despite the widespread myth — are overpaid and underworked. Innumerable studies show that parochial schools produce better test scores with half or sometimes even as little as a third of public-school budgets. California, to pick a bellwether state, spends more than twice as much money (inflation adjusted) per student now than it did 30 years ago, but its educational performance has plummeted from near the top of the nation to the bottom half of the school systems in the same time frame. Only 18 percent of California’s fourth-graders are able to read proficiently based on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test.
Here’s what the public doesn’t know, thanks to millions of dollars in misleading advertising campaigns conducted by the National Education Association: As a result of the contracts negotiated by their unions, teachers are not required to be at their job more than six hours and 20 minutes a day. When you add to that the fact that teachers only work nine months out of the year, and then calculate teachers’ pay on the basis of the eight-hour-day and 11-and-a-half-month year that the rest of us work, the pay for a seventh-grade science teacher in New York City is between $60 and $70 an hour. That amounts to an annual salary of well over $100,000.
And that’s only the beginning of the problem. Unlike the rest of us, teachers are tenured after two years and thus have lifetime job security, are guaranteed raises and are not accountable for their performance (or lack of it). As far as the union-dominated public school system is concerned, there are no bad teachers.
Our school systems are mini-versions of the socialist states that collapsed from the sheer weight of their economic backwardness in 1989 and 1990. Why do we think the same crackpot Marxist economics can work to educate our children? If teachers are not expected to work hard, if their incentives do not reward them for educating our children and punish them for failing at their jobs, how can we expect anything better than the mess we have?
No reform will work unless our leaders directly challenge the educational power structure. The teachers union is the primary special interest preventing constructive change in the system. It is a government union, active in providing the campaign funds and candidates for the very school boards that employ its members. (That’s how teachers got that six-hour, 20-minute work day.) All government unions are a walking conflict of interest and should be outlawed in a democracy.
Is Clinton serious about educational reform? Will he bite the hand that fed him? Don’t hold your breath.