School Choice

Education Showdown

The irresistible force of school reform meets the immovable object of teachers unions.


"When Oprah starts talking about it, we're almost there," says Julio Fuentes, president of the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options. School choice is "definitely a mainstream topic right now," Fuentes crows at National School Choice Week festivities in Washington, D.C., in January. "Five or six years ago, when I got into this movement, we were viewed as the crazy voucher folks in Florida running around trying to pass legislation. Now Oprah is talking about it, so we're no longer crazy. We're making sense. We're making progress."

Oprah isn't alone in her late-breaking interest in education reform. Documentaries about school choice are popping up like pimples on a middle school boy, first among them the wildly successful, Sundance-winning Waiting for "Superman," by director David Guggenheim of An Inconvenient Truth fame. President Barack Obama spent 1,000 words of his 7,000-word State of the Union address this year on schools, referring to public education as "a system that's not working." Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off the new year by writing in The Washington Post that "few areas are more suited for bipartisan action than education reform." Old Democratic mayors are saying nice things about reform, and new Republican governors are saying mean things about the status quo. And then there's Oprah, who devoted one of her final episodes to school reform. Her guests included Guggenheim, education technology champion Bill Gates, and the controversial former chancellor of the District of Columbia's public schools, Michelle Rhee.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act—rechristened No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001—is overdue for congressional reauthorization. On the state level, tight budgets and partisan rivalries are driving a reevaluation of how education money is spent. Policy makers are taking a fresh look at the way teachers are compensated, considering drastic reductions in administrative overhead, and reconsidering the role of technology in schooling. Independent charter schools and publicly funded vouchers are on the rise.

None of these ideas are new, but implementing them has taken on a new urgency. Is 2011 finally the year for serious education reform?

Irresistible Force

There is no denying that U.S. schools are ripe for reform. Per-pupil education spending has doubled in the last three decades, while test scores have remained stubbornly flat. American kids squat solidly in the middle of the pack in international testing, with 15-year-olds ranking about average in math and reading, slightly below average in science. Dropout rates in major cities are approaching 50 percent.

But schools have been this bad for a long time. Why the sudden surge of interest?

While reform remains primarily a Republican hobbyhorse, the conversion of some prominent Democrats has brought energy and life to the pool of exhausted political players. Michelle Rhee, the best-known of the eponymous Supermen in Guggenheim's documentary, identifies as a Democrat and worked for Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty (who lost the 2010 Democratic primary to a candidate backed by the teachers union). The Obama education team, led by Duncan, has been more open to talking about education reform than any Democratic administration in recent memory. Recently departed New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein is a Democrat as well; he first made his name prosecuting Microsoft for antitrust violations in the Clinton Justice Department. Democratic campaign strategist Joe Trippi actively supports school choice. Even the rabble-rousing minister and lefty activist Al Sharpton has joined a new, Gates-funded lobbying group called Democrats for Education Reform.

Newark, New Jersey, boasts the reform dream team of zippy young Democratic Mayor Cory Booker plus fat and happy Republican Gov. Chris Christie. The two politicians are planning a massive education overhaul, which may include big cuts in the city's morbidly obese education bureaucracy, more support for charters and vouchers, and performance pay for teachers, all fueled by a $100 million donation from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The media have been friendly toward their bipartisan effort—Booker, Christie, and Zuckerberg appeared on Oprah together as well—making reformers giddy. "When the most liberal paper [the Newark Star-Ledger] in the state endorses a voucher bill," says Derrell Bradford, executive director of New Jersey's Excellent Education for Everyone, "the only thing stopping you is you." 

But if all obstacles had indeed been removed, parents would have widespread education choice, and public schools would be noticeably on the mend. Neither is yet close to being true. 

In urban school districts, where schools have been disaster zones for at least a generation, despair is breeding robust cooperation. But areas of bipartisan reform agreement are smaller on Capitol Hill and in statehouses around the country. More radical school choice proposals, such as vouchers for private school tuition, are mostly off the table. Usually when the two parties join hands it's not to change the status quo but to protect it. When Republicans talk about fixing schools, they often mean simply giving kids and parents ways to bail out of the worst of the worst. When Democrats talk about reform, they tend to prefer spending more to patch things up and build on top of the existing system. Both sides wind up voting for increased spending in the short and long run.

The 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which controls the flow of federal K–12 funds to the states, is typically revisited every five to seven years. Duncan and others are hopeful they can get some form of education reauthorization to the president's desk for a signature this year despite the Republican takeover of the House. As Teach for America vice president (and former husband of Michelle Rhee) Kevin Huffman points out in U.S. News and World Report, "the relevant committee chairs and ranking members (Tom Harkin and Michael Enzi in the Senate, John Kline and George Miller in the House) are experienced pros"—and known moderates, the sort of people more likely to keep the spigot open than push radical reform.

In this regard they are in step with the president, who despite a reformist reputation has a mostly status quo record. Obama's main boast about K–12 education reform in the State of the Union address was that "instead of just pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a competition called Race to the Top." It would have been more accurate to say, "In addition to pouring money into a system that's not working, we launched a relatively insignificant competition called Race to the Top." 

At $4.4 billion, Race to the Top spending accounted for just a small share of the $500 billion spent on education at the federal, state, and local level. That said, by refusing to give states the money until after they implemented reforms such as publicizing information on teacher quality and lifting caps on charter schools, the administration did manage to elicit a decent-sized bang for its buck. As Obama correctly noted, "For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning."

In education policy, Washington has tended to be the worst kind of backseat driver. The real power to set curriculum and allocate resources rests with the states, meaning the federal government can only bribe, cajole, and reprimand from a distance. But the bribes keep getting bigger and bigger, which means state policy is increasingly subject to the whims of the feds; many reformers would like to use that influence to advance school choice. In the case of Race to the Top, the piles of cash were big enough (a couple hundred million dollars per state in most cases) and the rules specific enough that they gave state legislators, governors, and education bureaucracies sufficient incentive to risk ticking off teachers unions a little.

But those same unions still play an influential role in determining how the other 99 percent of education money is spent. The money pouring in to preserve the status quo dwarfs the amount used to encourage reform. 

Immovable Object

Obama got one thing right in his State of the Union speech, at least on the federal level: "Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation." That's true: A program that doled out a measly $4 billion in chunks ranging from $75 million to $700 million probably is the biggest step the U.S. government has taken toward school reform in a couple of decades. Which is a sad commentary on recent history.

In 1983 there was "A Nation at Risk," a Reagan-era manifesto on the need to get the feds out of education. In 1994 President Bill Clinton signed the Goals 2000 Act, which focused on increasing graduation rates and test scores by adding tutors and tech to traditional classrooms. And in 2001 there was No Child Left Behind. That legislation incorporated extremely watered-down elements of the school choice agenda, including encouragement for charters, vouchers, and other ways students can escape seriously underperforming schools with a little government cash in their backpacks. That legislation was a solidly bipartisan endeavor—Republican President George W. Bush and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) announced the program in a lovey-dovey press conference—but within a few years NCLB had become widely unpopular. The law's national testing mandate undermined state autonomy, forcing teachers to focus on a high-stakes end-of-year test; meanwhile, state autonomy in selecting and calibrating the tests undermined their usefulness in evaluating academic success. And the law's provisions for school choice proved too easy to work around, eliminating the harshest consequences for failing schools.

The consensus about how Washington can repair America's schools has now shifted yet again, this time away from a test-based choice model and toward a fixation on teacher quality. At best, the teacher quality movement could result in better evaluation procedures, public transparency, merit pay, and a move away from seniority-based hiring and firing. At worst, it will exacerbate the focus on teaching credentials to the exclusion of competence and fund lots of continuing education junkets for senior teachers.

The strongest among the education powers that be, the great immovable object of American education, is teachers unions. In the Wisconsin, Idaho, and Indiana legislatures, bills to limit teachers' collective bargaining to wages and benefits are coming to the floor, with the goal of elbowing union leadership out of education policy decisions. Tennessee Republicans are looking to make the Volunteer State the sixth in the union to prohibit collective bargaining by teachers altogether. (At least some degree of collective bargaining is mandatory in 35 states, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality.)

Some high-profile Democrats have been going after teachers unions too. In December, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former field organizer with the locally dominant United Teachers Los Angeles, took the education world by surprise when he wrote this in The Huffington Post: "In the past five years, I've partnered with students, parents, non-profits, business groups, higher education, charter organizations, school district leadership, elected board members, and teachers to engage in meaningful change. Along the way, there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: teacher union leadership." 

In the face of this renewed attack of surprising force (and from surprising quarters), unions are scrambling to figure out ways to hold the line. The reformers' nemesis is Randi Weingarten, the small, fierce president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Bewildered to find herself the villain of Waiting for "Superman," Weingarten has been loudly telling anyone who will listen that she is, in fact, on the cutting edge of school reform. The AFT has a history of being slightly softer on charters than its competitors over at the National Education Association, and Weingarten proclaimed an interest in reaching out to reformers this fall, with "nothing off the table."

Yet when it comes to battles on the ground, unions are sticking with time-tested tactics. "When education reform is done without teachers' input, it is doomed to failure," Weingarten warned The American Prospect's Dana Goldstein in March 2009. After Weingarten helped kill a voucher program and then oust reformist darling Michelle Rhee from Washington, D.C., her words should be taken seriously. Like cartoon supervillains, teachers unions are extraordinarily powerful and likely to reappear in a sequel even after you think they've been defeated.

Money Matters

The Cornell labor historian Richard W. Hurd thinks the recent rise in anti-unionism can be directly attributed to the nationwide need to cut government spending. "It quite clearly is traced to the public-sector budgets and the deep recession—the fact that we still have depressed tax revenue for governments at all levels," Hurd told Education Week in February.

There's nothing like a shortage of cash to make politicians open to new ideas. While a significant $87 billion in education money flowed downhill from Washington last year, the rest of the cash to run public schools—four or five times that amount—comes out of state and local budgets. And after a fat decade, those budgets are suddenly tighter than a pair of Gov. Christie's pants. New Jersey plans to cut $820 million in state education aid—part of $11 billion in trims—to avoid raising taxes. In Texas a $15 billion shortfall, a balanced budget amendment, and an unwillingness to raise taxes have pushed the state legislature toward a proposed $5 billion cut for public schools. Faced with a $25 billion budget gap, California gubernatorial recidivist Jerry Brown is threatening deep cuts in K–12 education. In February another Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo of New York, proposed reductions in education funding and Medicaid to trim a $10 billion budget shortfall, saying the cuts were a necessity in his "fundamentally bankrupt" state.

In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is planning $1 billion in cuts to the school budget, including 21,000 teacher layoffs. New York has a "last hired, first fired" rule, which means, as the mayor put in bluntly in a February radio interview, "We'd have to part company with some of the best teachers." 

It's the same sob story in at least a dozen other states: We are out of money, and teachers are expensive. Such threats are not unprecedented. Firing teachers ranks just behind firing police and firefighters as a bogeyman tactic for politicians who want to continue extracting money from the bigger, richer levels of government above them. And emergency cash transfusions have been forthcoming in the last couple of years. A federal jobs bill in August dumped $10 billion on states around the nation to preserve 160,000 education jobs, and school bureaucracies were the biggest beneficiaries of stimulus spending as well, picking up about $100 billion nationwide to cover teacher salaries. But Republicans now dominate the House of Representatives, foreshadowing fewer federal giveaways and bailouts to a constituency that overwhelmingly supports Democrats.

That means education budgets may actually lose a pound of flesh this time around, something that hasn't happened in a long, long time in most places. There are exceptions. Louisiana has seen an astonishing flowering of choice and innovation after being forced to re-evaluate the way it does pretty much everything post-Katrina. But most schools and education bureaucracies have become accustomed to living larger and larger every year. Cuts are going to be a big deal.

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 ( is a senior editor at reason.

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  1. “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.”

    26 students per class? Try 40.

    1. 26 is about the average class size in S schools.

      1. If you believe that, I got a bridge to sell to you.

        1. If you believe it’s 40, then you already bought a bad bridge.

  2. fire them all and replace them with robots

  3. How about no government involvement in education at all? Sounds great to me.

    1. Find a country that has no involvement in education.

      1. Re: 4chan,

        Find a country that has [sic] no involvement in education.

        He didn’t say “how about a country with no involvement in education,” he said “how about no government involvement in education.”

        The fact that government involvement is ubiquitous is IRRELEVANT to the question.

      2. Find a country that has no involvement in education

        It’s hard to find a government without a dictator.

        1. I suggested this once to a statist. He asked “How will the schools be funded?” I replied “How does McDonalds get funded?” That momentarily stunned him.

          1. He was a sucky liberal then. Any liberal worth his or her salt would have made a quip about libertarianism putting the vaunted education of our children in the same category as McDonalds, then slipped into a diatribe about Koch industries.

            1. Yeah, he should have said “Whole Foods” or something.

      3. “Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” –Bastiat, The Law, 1850

        make slightly fresher arguments, please

        1. You mean the arguments of socialists haven’t gotten any more sophisticated in the last 160 years? Color me shocked.

          1. Bastiat was a Christ-fag.

    2. Me too. At the very least, no federal involvement.

  4. There are two fundamental problems with our schools

    1: Teacher pay is not connected to performance, and overall is too low

    2: Our schools are heavily segregated by race and class

    Unfortunately, each side of the political spectrum ignores one of these problems

    1. Both of those problems can be solved with one solution: link education dollars to the student.

      When parents shop with their feet, bad teachers won’t have any kids in their classrooms to teach. If a parent feels it is important for their child to attend a racially diverse school, they can choose a school that fits that need.

      1. Unworkable, unfair, stupid. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.

        1. Unworkable, unfair, stupid. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.

          All that does is institutionalize the best schools for the rich…precisely because the poor attentive parent cannot access those schools with what is essentially the purchasing power their kid’s taxbill.

          In other words, your definition of public education is where it fails the most accurately today. Look at Obama’s kids, or Obama himself for an example of what I’m talking about.

        2. Yes, providing parents the freedom to look out for the best interest of their child, is very stupid.

          “he whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.”

          Uh, no. The purpose of public ed is to provide an education, not access. The current system fails, time to move on.

          Your local high school has a 10% graduation rate? It’s only fair that your child fails with the rest of his/her class.

        3. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.

          No one here would argue that that’s the idea.

        4. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.


          The whole point of public education is to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination.

          The Prussian education system was a system of mandatory education dating to the early 19th century. Parts of the Prussian education system have served as models for the education systems in a number of other countries, including Japan and the United States.

          Seeking to replace the controlling functions of the local aristocracy, the Prussian court attempted to instill social obedience in the citizens through indoctrination. Every individual had to become convinced, in the core of his being, that the King was just, his decisions always right, and the need for obedience paramount.[citation needed]

          The schools imposed an official language, to the prejudice of ethnic groups living in Prussia. The purpose of the system was to instill loyalty to the Crown and to train young men for the military and the bureaucracy. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte, a key influence on the system, said, “If you want to influence [the student] at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.”

        5. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.

          During the Wisconsin union threads on this very site, the stout supporters of ye olde teachers unions admitted that without parental involvement, teacher efforts are pointless.

          That’s what’s called watching your premise get shot down in real time.

        6. He said link dollars to the student, not to the parent. You could provide an equal stipend to each student regardless of the parents income, and then allow the parents to choose a school.

          Yes, I know the typical response is that dollars would leave the public school system, yadda yadda. But if every child is still getting educated, what difference does it make. it’s not like only SOME of the students would get vouchers.

          But if it satisfies you, just restrict the vouchers so they have to be used to attend a public school. Just let them pick WHICH public school they want to attend.

          How do you feel about that?

        7. >Unworkable, unfair, stupid.

          You think so? Tell it to the Europeans, because that’s exactly how they ensure quality in their schools. Kids aren’t just assigned by geography, and funding follows the students. If a school in Germany ever let an illiterate graduate, it would be out of business immediately.


          1. Which Germany is that you’re talking about? It certainly isn’t mine and I would love to move there.

            Germany’s public sector schools do not work like that.

      2. Education funding is linked to the student. Its based on attendance figures.

        1. Not the same thing. You’re describing a school receiving funds based on the number of students who attend. I’m talking about a system in which funds are tied to the student, and are paid to the school that child attends.

          One system specifies where a child can go to school, the other allows parents to choose a school that best fits their needs.

    2. Chad|4.18.11 @ 5:17PM|#
      “There are two fundamental problems with our schools
      2: Our schools are heavily segregated by race and class”

      Except you have zero data to show this is a “problem” as regards education.

    3. Re: Chad,

      There are two fundamental problems with our schools

      1: Teacher pay is not connected to performance,


      […]and overall is too low


      2: Our schools are heavily segregated by race and class

      It this is true, it makes the case for government-controlled schools that more difficult, since this segregation exists either despite government control, which makes government totally incompetent to manage schools, or because of government, which makes government totally incompetent to manage schools.

    4. 2: Our schools are heavily segregated by race and class

      By virtue of the fact that the government assigns you to your school based on your neighborhood.

      1. And most neighborhoods are heavily segregated. Its a catch 22.

        1. Unless you allow students to attend other schools of their (and their parents’) choice. To argue that kids should be forced to attend failing schools out of some ideal of fairness is pretty weak shit.

          1. We could try busing them to different neighborhoods. You know, just for yucks…

            1. Great idea! I can’t believe no one has ever tried that before.

              We should consider spending more on education. Mor $$$$ = smrtr kids!

              1. I’m all about the new!

            2. Rockford IL tried this through much of my childhood, then lost a court case and had to stop. All of this at great cost to the community. Further, they misused money to pay for those court costs and lost a second case later.

        2. Diversity is a good thing, but big picture, doesn’t need to be a focus, or priority of education.

          Public schools are having a difficult enough time performing their core functions. If educators are focusing attention and resources on diversity programs, then that is less attention and resources spent on improving reading and math skills.

          It is a mistake to think that our education can walk and chew gum at the same time. Let’s keep them focused on walking.

          1. Oops. It is a mistake to think that our education establishment can walk and chew gum at the same time. Let’s keep them focused on walking.

          2. Free2Booze|4.18.11 @ 7:42PM|#
            “Diversity is a good thing,…”

            I tend to agree, but I can’t say why.

    5. 2: Our schools are heavily segregated by race and class

      Having taught in a Washington Heights Public School segregated by both race & class, I honestly believe that this has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a child can learn and excel. The biggest problem I ever encountered was low expectations from teachers, administrators, parents, and the students themselves.

      1. But… but… race and class!

    6. Segregation by race and class isn’t all that relevant.

      Actually, it’s counter productive. One problem is that many schools have banned “streaming”, which is segregating students according to test scores, and putting all the A students in one class, the B students in another, and everyone else in a third.

      Back in the 70s and 80s, there were lots of complaints that this was a covert form of racism, since the black students tended to end up in the “C” class and the whites and asians in the “A” class.

      Today it is sort of moot since there aren’t very many schools with integrated student bodies, but it should be reinstituted.

      I know from my childhood that private schools in the US and public schools in Canada do “stream” students into A, B, and C classrooms, amoung other mechanisms. In my area in Winnipeg, the “college prep” students were placed in a different high school entirely than the “arts and technical” (i.e. less bright) students.
      The former offered honors college level courses in the senior year to give students a head start at university. The latter offered shop and automotive classes, as well as extra music and arts.

  5. Education reform is dead. When the Dems in the Indiana legislature fled the state over the issue of expanding school vouchers, their was barely a peep in the media, because everything was about Wisconsin. School choice, at the very least, is as significant an issue as public employee unions. At least, I thought it was.

    1. Really, I must say that I like this trend of Democrats fleeing their jurisdictions. If only the GOP would follow suit, things might actually improve.

  6. Out of curiosity, who did KMW piss off that she now no longer writes for the Hit & Run blog?

    1. In a previous post, they mentioned that she just had a kid. She’s probably a little busy right now.

      She’s likely to stay interested in education reform, too…

      1. Libertarians don’t have kids…they’re too damn selfish! I bet KMW already has the rugrat stamping out Nikes on fifteen hour shifts.

  7. Without taking a look at all the reasons for a student’s performance, such as poverty, homelessness, lack of parental care, support or interest; to hold the teachers accountable for student performance is misguided. The student has to be held accountable as well.
    Additionally, test scores can’t be the only measurement of good teaching. There is also intense pressure to differentiate education to reach students of different levels, yet the tests are standardized, which produces inaccurate results.

    1. to hold the teachers accountable for student performance is misguided.

      I agree. That’s why we should stop paying them since the value they add to a student’s education is within epsilon of 0. That should solve most budget problems for the states.

    2. I am not sure where you are going with this. If an education system is designed to teach students a given set of skills and knowledge (e.g. reading, writing, arithmetic). How does testing kids on those skills with a standardized test yield inaccurate results?

    3. “Without taking a look at all the reasons for a student’s performance, such as poverty, homelessness, lack of parental care, support or interest; to hold the teachers accountable for student performance is misguided. ”

      If the performance standards are based purely on the grades obtained by students in a teachers class, I would agree. However, teacher performance can be measured to determine the progress a student makes while with a specific teacher, and compared to the same students progress in previous, and future years. If little Jimmie has always been a D student, then becomes a C student in Miss Johnson’s class, she would be considered a high performing teacher.

      Teacher performance is not based off of one student, one class, or even one year. After a number of years, and hundreds of students, a teachers performance can be measured fairly, and accurately.

      1. If little Jimmie has always been a D student, then becomes a C student in Miss Johnson’s class, she would be considered a high performing teacher.

        Or Miss Johnson has low standards for obtaining an C in her class.

        Hence the role of standardized tests.

    4. How about letting the principle run his school like a business, and make professional judgements about teacher skill?

      Oh wait, the principal has no incentive to do so, since the performance of his teacher isn’t tied to his paycheck either.

  8. My money is on the unions….this country is full of idiots.

  9. In the end the unions will lose, how long they can resist is another matter. Having a one size fits all school system cannot compete with a choice system, the politicians can pontificate all they want. Even the poorest parents will see how utter crap the government schools are versus the others.

    The American left wingers tend to raise Europe a lot, yet when it comes to education they are silent about the fact that other countries have different school types. Perhaps it is a taboo to mention it over there, but not every child is a future scientist, doctor or engineer.

    1. Not to mention that a lot of those school systems are located in countries that are, for the most part, culturally and ethnically homogenous.

      Scandanavian liberalism is not a system that tends to translate well outside of societies of Scandanavian liberals. Competing interest groups are going to cause a lot more strain on a system than one in which most people are relatively alike in background and temperament.

  10. Just saw on the local news that a teacher who robbed a bank to feed her heroin habit is now in jail, but is on paid suspension from the school district until they can have a termination hearing. Your tax dollars at work.

    1. In some school districts, the flowchart for firing a teacher takes up several pages. No matter what sort of offense…

      Criminal action should be an automatic firing offense. Plain and simple.

      Of course, I think a lot fewer things should be crimes. Bank robbing is not one of them.

  11. Public education can only fail, as it is pure socialism at work. Property owners are forced to pay for it, students are forced to attend. Anything based on force will fail. As Ghandi once said: Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end.
    One who uses coercion is guilty of deliberate violence. Coercion is inhuman.

    1. Yup!

      It’s all just more lipstick on public education…

    2. “As Ghandi once said: Coercion cannot but result in chaos in the end.”

      Tony Judt, of all people, concluded in “Post War” that centralized planning leads to centralized killing. You can’t get more coercive that that.

    3. Like when murderers or rapists are forced into prison?

    4. In that case everything a govt does will fail. Haven’t noticed govt going away. I think your theory needs revamping.

  12. Tony|4.18.11 @ 5:59PM|#
    “Unworkable, unfair, stupid. The whole point of public ed is to provide some level of equality of access to all children regardless of how diligent or negligent their parents may be.”

    So general failure is preferable to any success?
    I knew you were stupid, but I’m constantly amazed at how willing you are to prove it.

        1. Are you (constantly amazed at how willing you are to prove it)?

          1. Re-load browser before commenting, I guess.

        2. Possibly wondering that you were amazed how willing Tony is to prove his stupidity.

          Tony’s especially egregious today. It’s really strong. Rubbing alcohol in your coffee strong.

  13. Just to comment on last week’s school lunch issue.

    I was thinking that the unionization of the cafeteria staff mgiht have a lot to do with it.

    I think the hot lunch program probably contributes a lot to health problems, especially obesity. It teaches kids that it is “normal” to eat a full hot meal for lunch every day, which is historically abnormal. The idea of eating a big hot meal for lunch hasn’t been around for that long, and coincides with the rise in obesity.

    Just about every nutritionist will recommend eating a light meal, preferably a sandwich or a salad for lunch, as part of a diet regimen. Before the mid-20th century, “brown bagging” it, or taking a lunch box to the job was the norm. This change coincides with the introduction of the school lunch program.

    Now, before the liberals go all apeshit about the idea of killing school lunches, let me just suggest instead that we move to cold sandwich lines and salad bars.

    Not only would this make the lunches healthier, it would also save a lot of money, since it would no longer be necessary to hire a cook or employ a large kitchen staff. Sandwiches and salads require only the storage of pre-cook ingedients in a refridgerator, and someone to set them out, and then make the sandwiches.

    But that’s the kicker. Getting rid of the hot cooked food means firing the kitchen staff. And the ktichen staff are unionized public employees, just like the janitors and bus drivers. Those people are all going to close ranks against switching to a cold lunch paradigm.

    1. The rationale for expanding the hot school lunch offerings has been the contention that a significant number of parents cannot afford to feed their kids a big hot dinner. The government is justifying feeding as many kids as possible to satisfy a problem that affects only a small part of the general population, which, as you point out, is likely contributing to the obesity problem.

      1. Are there still any poor kids who don’t get “a hot meal” at home?

        It may have been the case in 1890 that poor kids went home without the necessary lump of coal to heat the slove and then went to sleep under a burlap sack, but I seriously doubt anyone today is unequipped with either a microwave or toaster oven necessary to heat up a frozen burrito.

        If we’re talking about kids who live in crack houses or are homeless, they probably aren’t attending school at all.

        We’ve got so many social workers whose job is to monitor child welfare, I have a hard time taking seriously the notion that there is ANY child who still has no access to hot food.

      2. How about this: students who are poor (I’m going to say meets the criteria for assistance in paying for lunch, for convenience sake) get hot lunches, everyone else gets cold ones.

        Sound good?

      3. The school lunch program was originally started as a way for the government to subsidize farmers. “Poor children” had nothing to do with it.

  14. One of my friends told me a couple weeks ago, in response to the “Public Schools Dictate Student Lunches” thread, that she was beginning to look into homeschooling her kid, and possibly setting up a small homeschooling study group with some other moms in the neighborhood.

    Honestly, the school system is fundamentally broken and there’s no way to fix it that would yield positive results. As Ancap pointed out above, we’re running a 19th century Prussian model in a 21st century world. Many schools, especially in the inner cities, are nothing more than glorified babysitting and daytime detention services, designed to keep the offspring of the lower rungs of society from running around all day with nothing to do but cause trouble. they can barely be called “educational institutions” in any sense of the term.

    The best way to break the power of the teacher’s union is to pull your kid out of school and teach him or her yourself.

  15. Vouchers (Education Stamps) for the poor. Let the rich pay for their own kids schooling. For special ed kids, they qualify for higher vouchers, depending on the disability. There you go, fixed.

    1. I could get behind that. Why are all of these “intractable problems” so easy to fix if you only fix the stated problem?

      The obvious answer implied by my phrasing is that the real agenda is always much larger than the stated issue. In this case, state control over the education system is the goal, so anything that would weaken the ability of one power group or the other to control the next generation is going to be a problem.

    2. You are simply renaming the system we already have. Not much of a solution.

  16. vouchersvouchrsvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchersvouchers…………for all. Let free market capitalism save education.

  17. Why not just put all the motivated, smart kids in one class and the burnouts and fucktards in another?

    Then the teachers can be organized based on apptitude since some are really good at teaching the smart ones (ie AP and IB teachers) while others are capable and patient enough to deal with the less qualified students. I really don’t give a shit if this would put all the whites and Asians together in one class and the Hispanics and blacks in another. Maybe we’ll finally stop coddling them and give them an incentive to have their kids learn and be successful.

    One can dream.

    1. When vouchers are posited the cry arises “but where will the dumb kids go???”. They’ll go where they are now, into public schools. Just because vouchers are instituted doesn’t necessarily mean the demise of public education, it simply means for those who deem education important there will be quality to choose from.

    2. They used to do this, but it was banned for that reason. The black kids tedned to end up in the bottom level class, which was assumed to be due to racism.

      Anyhow, I can see why if you’re a reasonably smart black kid you wouldn’t want to get streamed into the class with all the ‘tards.

      However, it would probably benefit kids in majority-black schools today a lot. Get the intelligent black students together in one class, and away from all the gang members and emotionally disturbed mental cases.

    3. I always hated being the most serious kid in the class. Everyone else is goofing off, then they get mad at me when I won’t tell them the answers.

      Moochers hate the idea of grade segregation, because that way they have to work for themselves.

  18. School reform is on my mind right now because my oldest child is about to start preschool. We’re zoned for a crappy elementary school, so we’re looking at private schools, among other things.

    I’m in Florida, where the cost per pupil of public education is on the order of 9 to 10 thousand dollars, depending on who you ask. Highly recommended private schools range in cost from under $5,000 to over $25,000 per year, depending on the grade. Based on an unscientific survey, I’d say that the average per year over the whole k-12 experience is close to the public figure, probably a grand or two less. There’s really only one school that truly skews that figure – the next highest school ranges from 7k to 17k, depending on the grade level.

    Seeing how much better the private (almost uniformly religious affiliated) schools seem to be doing with the money, I’m now 100% convinced that switching completely to a voucher system for education is the way to go. Immediately. The main advantage of this system to me is that I don’t have to send my kid to a horrific school if I want to stay put. The advantage to the rest of the world is that even crappy, uninvolved parents can choose not to send their kid to a crappy school. It only takes a couple of minutes to pick a different school from the list. No more effort than is currently required to register your child.

    Sure, you social engineers who want to ensure that every child gets exposed to the proper mix of diversity and ideological indoctrination will have to give up your power over future generations – so that will be a tough hurdle. But if my buddy in Palm Beach County can overcome freedom of religion issues to send his kids to a public charter school for Hebrew (a thinly veiled Jewish public school), we can overcome the progressive hurdles too. Let’s get moving folks, I’ve only got 1 year before kindergarten starts.

    1. Let’s get moving folks, I’ve only got 1 year before kindergarten starts.


    2. I’m sure you are aware that the recent Stanford study of this very issue found that the average charter school is WORSE than the average public school. It makes some sense– the profiteers running these schools are about making money- education comes in a distant second. It’s pretty easy to fool the public so they’ve got it made.

  19. Unmovable object indeed. The federal plan to reform failing schools is to “fire 1/2 the staff” and bring in new teachers. So what’ll happen? They’ll keep the senior teachers and fire all the new ones and then re-hire them. How is this a solution? It doesn’t reward teachers w/good performance. So frustrating.…..sance_Plan


  20. Reason why public schools are horrific and even Obama sends his kids to a mostly white private school:



  21. It isn’t only teachers unions that attack all reforms. It is also the army of oily administrators and apparatchiks that make up a large percentage of an even more greedy and pampered employment base.

    If you aren’t talking about getting rid of school districts, then you aren’t serious about reform.

    We need to replace the entire government education complex with an open source learning network where the money follows the child to a vast new array of educational resources and providers.

    You do this by dismantling the system one school (parent trigger) and one child (voucher/home school) at a time.

    Get to work.

  22. If we have poured an enormous amount of hard earned capital into education to get a flat result over the last 30 years we are doing a disservice to the customer i.e. the Student.
    Why do we continue to treat k-3 students as we do 4-12? K-3 class size should be small 15? students and the teacher should have a full time TA, let the K teacher follow the kids to 1st grade and the 2nd grade teacher follow to third. If the student does not read or do math at grade level by the end of third grade they must not be passed. We are not focusing on early development and our resources could be better spent on this age group in giving them a leg up.

  23. Get the federal government out of the education business. Education is a local issue and responsibility. Disband the Dept. of Education…among others.

  24. This article was great – but how could you have an ad by the teachers union trying to con Illinois Citizens into not supporting Pension Reform in Illinois right off to the side? Teachers, firemen, and policemen are now multi-millionaires from us taxpayers!

  25. When Oprah start to talk about something then the country takes notice. I think thats its something wrond with that. Maybe its just me.

  26. If we have poured an enormous amount of hard earned capital into education to get a flat result over the last 30 years we are doing a disservice to the customer i.e. the Student.
    Why do we continue to treat k-3 students as we do 4-12? K-3 class size should be small 15? students and the teacher should have a full time TA, let the K teacher follow the kids to 1st grade and the 2nd grade teacher follow to third. If the student does not read or do math at grade level by the end of third grade they must not be passed. We are not focusing on early development and our resources could be better spent on this age group in giving them a leg up.

  27. Get the federal government out of the education business. Education is a local issue and responsibility. Disband the Dept. of Education.among others.

  28. I believe 30 is the average for number of students in S class schools.

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