If We Give Them Apples Will They Give Back Our Wallets?


If Thomas L. Friedman is the worst successful columnist in America, his pagemate Gail Collins may be the worst New York Times columnist you've never heard of, because why would you intentionally subject yourself to the wince-icisms of an unfunny humorist?

Collins' main value-added lies in providing a window into a certain media mindset, given that she used to edit the NYT's editorial page. It's helpful (if painful) to know that the following view about public teachers and politics is widespread among our newspaper pals:

[T]eachers — good citizens who are always worried about what the government will do to them next — win the political participation prize. During the presidential race, the line in Barack Obama's speech about how standardized tests should not "come at the expense of music or art or physical education or science" often got more applause than getting out of Iraq. […]

They are exceedingly, intensely, grateful to [Florida Gov. Charlie Crist] for vetoing a bill that would have tied their pay, employment and even certification to the performance of their students on standardized tests. […]

Can I digress, people, and say that while it's important to make teachers accountable, telling them their jobs could hinge on their students' grades on one test is a terrible idea? The women and men who go into teaching tend, as a group, to be both extremely dedicated and extremely risk-averse. The stability of their profession is a very important part of its draw. You do not want to make this an anything-can-happen occupation, unless you are prepared to compensate them like hedge fund traders.

It's a terrible time for American teachers — almost every school district is facing monster budget cuts, and a number of politicians have tried to make them the villain in the story. […]

Meanwhile, all this anxiety cannot possibly be good for classroom performance. Keep an eye on Florida. And give the next teacher you see a smile, or an apple.

Yes, teachers "win the political participation prize," and not only because they have little propaganda/production units at their disposal every day (oh how I remember making anti-Proposition 13 agitprop in elementary school!). Over the past two decades, the heavily Democrat-leaning National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers have donated the 7th most political money and 14th most, respectively, in the nation. In California, teachers unions accounted for 20% of all political donations over the past decade, leading to such results as:

* General Fund K-12 spending increasing by 191.5 percent from FY 1990-91 to FY 2008-09, an average of 6.11 percent a year.
* A K-12 General Fund budget in the belt-tightening year of 2008-09 that was still "$7.4 billion higher than it was five years ago—and average daily attendance during that same period has declined by 74,000 students."
* Nearly $100 billion in new school construction bonds.
* Chronically underfunded pensions and benefits that no one believes are sustainable at current levels of taxation.

If by "prize" Collins means "a bigger share of our zero-sum taxpayer dollars," then her description is accurate. But doing less with more of our money while helping drive budgets nationwide into the ditch, blocking just about every attempt to tie teacher performance to job evaluation, creating systems in which even dangerous incompetents can't be fired, and digging their heels against charters, vouchers, and having education money follow students? No Gold Star from me.

Katherine Mangu-Ward profiled Washington, D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee in our May issue.