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Which helps explain why teachers unions are spending so much money to preserve their jobs. The National Education Association—the largest teachers union in the country at 3.2 million members—spent $40 million in the 2010 election cycle, giving $2 million directly to Democrats. The American Federation of Teachers, with another 1.4 million members, gave $2.6 million directly to Democratic candidates (compared with a piddling $8,000 to Republicans). The unions expect a return on that money, mostly in the form of consideration when appropriations committees meet.
Is Choice Cheaper?
While the beneficiaries of the status quo panic about budget cuts, some reformers see opportunity. Without knowing it, many students and parents who opt for charter schools or similar options are already saving their school systems cash. Charters generally are expected to do more with less. A February study from Bellwether Education Partners found that California charters receive 36 percent less per-pupil funding than the average California public school. Nationwide, charters receive almost 20 percent less per kid, according to a 2010 Ball State University study. In D.C. the funding gap is an astonishing 41 percent. The difference in state or city per-pupil spending is usually explicit; charters simply get less. But some of the difference comes from the fact that charters have to get up and running on their own—finding, renovating, and renting or buying facilities out of limited budgets while traditional schools rely on publicly built and maintained buildings—meaning more of their expenses are borne by the state, over and above the traditional school spending.
Similarly, vouchers cost less money per pupil than the school would otherwise have spent. As New Jersey's Bradford puts it: "There are these longer-term benefits that you financially cannot ignore. I mean, if you can educate a kid for $11,000, you don't have to spend $25,000 on them. If you can send a kid to a school that's already got a facility, you don't have to build a new one and bond it out for 25 years in a state that's already bankrupt."
Most reformers don't like to explicitly make the argument that choice and innovation will cost states less. One reason is obvious: Saying you need less money is a great way to get your funding slashed. Furthermore, selling yourself as the bargain-basement option may turn off parents and legislators, who would rather be seen as willing to spare no expense in educating the next generation.
There are success stories for cheap education options, most of which rely on technology. Florida Virtual Schools, which have been operating for almost 15 years, provide classes to 100,000 kids statewide for less than the cost of the same credit hours in traditional classrooms. The program has yielded small but significant improvements in bringing kids up to grade level in math and reading at the bottom while yielding slightly greater advanced-placement scores at the top. A 2002 bill limiting class size in Florida took effect last summer. And since the state already has a successful virtual course catalog to draw from, it seems like a no-brainer to move some courses online. More than 7,000 students in Miami-Dade schools are now taking core classes online in labs. For younger kids, combining online learning with caring supervision in cheap, modular spaces allows nonprofit Rocketship Education to keep costs low while significantly improving outcomes for at-risk kids.
Charters often make up some of their funding gap with private money. Increasingly, traditional public school systems are doing the same, seeking private cash to cover shortfalls or finance improvements. Newark is still figuring out what to do with all that Facebook money. D.C.'s Rhee brought $65 million of donations into the system to cover the introduction of merit pay for teachers. Much of that cash was essentially bribe money; it funded bonuses and pay increases for everyone, even the teachers who chose not to forgo tenure protections in exchange for a chance at merit pay. Whether a public-private partnership model is sustainable for most school systems will depend largely on how much control the traditional stakeholders are willing to give. Many institutional donors are buying an opportunity to tinker, and unions and education bureaucrats don't much like that kind of interference.
Even if choice will be cheaper in the long run, the transition may still be expensive. In addition to such obvious costs as new computers, new facilities, and new curricula, there is the cost of buying off the biggest beneficiaries of the status quo, including dealing with the outstanding pensions and benefits of senior teachers who have spent decades expecting those rewards. But as state budgets tighten up further, reformers may want to rethink the powerful persuasive force of offering a better budgetary bottom line.
Looking for Workarounds
Even as reform vaults forward in popularity, a handful of the most successful reformers seem less than confident about the wisdom of trying to make substantive changes from within traditional educational and political institutions. The most prominent among them is Joel Klein.
Klein's eight-year tenure as chancellor of New York City schools saw some remarkable turnarounds in the city's troubled education bureaucracy. He pledged to abolish the notorious "rubber rooms" where inept but unfireable teachers accumulated pay, benefits, and seniority, for years without entering a classroom. (Klein has declared victory on this front, but the problems of seniority and long disciplinary processes remain in hiring and firing, and there are still teachers in the city who are paid for not working.) He pushed to release teacher performance data. He instituted reforms in hiring and firing that would have been unthinkable in previous administrations.
But at the end of 2010, Klein bailed. Instead of fixing schools from the inside, he will be looking to improve education as an executive vice president at Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. The empire that owns Fox News and The Wall Street Journal isn't the place you'd expect to find one of the nation's most prominent public educators, but Klein is creating a new education division within the company focusing on digital learning content and platforms to help parents work around the dysfunctional system—and eventually to help those systems function better.
Klein's departure may not have been entirely due to a philosophical preference for private vs. public sector. New York City's teachers union contract is up for renegotiation, and Klein had reportedly hit a wall. Labor negotiations took up most of Rhee's D.C. tenure, consumed much of her energy, and ultimately hastened her demise. But Klein says he sees promise outside of education politics, in "using technology, software, distance learning, platforms, individuation, so that we focus on each child, rather than think one teacher can figure out the sweet spot in a class of 26 kids.
"The status quo has enormous defenders," he adds. "People who do well under the existing status quo, whether it's the unions, whether it's the politicians, whether it's the bureaucrats, vendors—those are the groups that will protect a status quo that serves their needs, even if it doesn't serve the needs of the students. We have got to move to a customer-focused school system. When I say ‘customer,' I mean our students."
Klein isn't the only recently departed school executive talking about students as customers. Rhee has formed a new group called StudentsFirst, which she officially announced during that Oprah spot in December. The former D.C. schools chief aims to create the education-reform equivalent of the National Rifle Association or American Association of Retired Persons, in which "vested interests will take a back seat to children's achievement." One of StudentsFirst's functions will be to dole out cash directly to schools that demonstrate a willingness to make changes that bureaucracies and unions oppose, including data-driven hiring and firing.
There may be an emerging bipartisan consensus that education policy needs a massive and urgent overhaul. But if the reformers are becoming an irresistible force, the education establishment remains one of the great immovable objects in American politics. Superman may be visible overhead, but the landscape is littered with Kryptonite.
Katherine Mangu-Ward (email@example.com) is a senior editor at reason.