Are Republicans willing to shed serious political blood in the battle over public school reform? Will they go to war over school funding? In education money has become everything, and as we heard from the Congressional Budget Office last week, extra money is not something we should count on for school funding or anything else. It took us a long time to grow a public school system that forces us to spend too much, in part because we collaborate with unions over public employees (see: Union Stance Ridicules Duncan’s Collaboration Efforts). If Republicans are serious about school reform they need to prepare for a war, not the skirmish we see in Mitt Romney’s plan for education.
Romney agrees that unions are a problem, but he is not clear on how to get them out of our schools. The word “pension” only appears once in his plan for reform, “A Chance for Every Child,” an acknowledgement of the absurdly generous retirement benefits paid out to public employees in California. His take it and go approach for disadvantaged students is reminiscent of Republican plans to let Americans shop for health insurance. This is a great idea, but what happens when we have too many students, not enough good schools, and too little school funding?
Republicans agree with Democrats that flexibility is key to school reform. What Democrats refuse to consider, and what Romney needs to put on the table, is how we take back control of taxpayers’ public employees and schools from organized labor. What flexibility should not mean is allowing unions greater influence over our public school system.
Arne Duncan’s newest effort to collaborate with unions, Collaborating to Transform the Teaching Profession, was a conference last week promoted as a “Shared Vision for the Next Generation of Teaching.”¹ The goals Duncan lays claim to are close to Romney’s. We all want students to do better. We want America to keep her competitive edge. The big difference is that unions are central to Duncan’s vision.
Charter schools are a facet of public school reform popular with conservatives, but nothing prevents union egress into charter school classrooms. Vouchers are a great idea, too, but they won’t do enough to rein in costs. Unions will always lurk in the background, introducing uncertainty and prepared to cut off services when their demands are refused.
Legislatures in states like Illinois and California worked with unions to approve unacceptably generous compensation and retirement packages. Taxpayers deserve to get what they pay for, and they pay for education with taxes that go to all three levels of government. We allowed public employee unions to become so powerful that collective bargaining is instrumental in determining the tax revenue necessary to pay for schools.
What are the ethics of Cabinet level bureaucrats like Arne Duncan encouraging union domination of our school system, with all the negative consequences it entails for taxpayers? If we have learned one thing from Barack Obama it is that government can do whatever it wants when conditions are ripe. If conditions for Republicans improve in November, how do we get unions out of our schools?
The Federal Government has always acknowledged that a unionized military is incompatible with national defense, but we are willing to cede control of teachers that both parties agree are responsible for defending our country’s competitive edge. Public school teachers should be required to contract directly with government for the terms of their employment. As underperforming teachers are weeded out, and tenure discarded per a plan like Romney’s, new teachers can be hired under completely different terms without collective bargaining privileges and union intervention. States are already being forced to negotiate new retirement benefits for newly-hired employees because of the lack of funding for pensions and benefits. If states want school funding from Uncle Sam, they can help cut unions out of the public school equation and change the conditions under which their teachers are employed.
The Tea Party talked about taking back our country before Republicans swept the 2010 midterms. Americans were offered real hope to get out from under the rule of Democrats in Congress, they embraced that hope, and Republicans took back the House. Now we have a chance to take back our schools, but first we need to convince Republicans that the fight for public school reform is a war with real consequences if we lose to unions.