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 (kmw@reason.com) is a senior editor at reason.