The state of public education in America is not good. The Organization of Economic Cooperation reported in 2016 that students in our public schools scored below average in math, tied with five countries for 37th out of 70; average in science, tied with 12 nations for 19th out of 70; and average in reading, tied with 13 nations for 15th out of 70. For a country that is the unquestioned leader of the free world in wealth and technology, these are deplorable results.
California public schools are even worse. In a recent survey, WalletHub ranked California’s schools ninth worst among the fifty states, forty-seventh in reading scores, and third worst in safety for students.
Any business with these results would fire everyone at the top. But who can we fire? Who is in charge of our public schools anyway? Who should be accountable for the poor performance of our public schools?
Everyone associated with public schools knows the answer: the teacher unions run our public schools and have been in charge for a long time. This is thoroughly documented in the definitive book written by Stanford professor and Hoover Institute fellow, Dr. Terry Moe, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings Institution Press 2011). Professor Moe walks through the history of teacher unions, describing the changes that occurred when teachers were given the legal right to engage in collective bargaining during the 1970s and 1980s.
While wages were important to union leaders, Moe reports, equally important was union success in negotiating work rules that often went unnoticed by the public but became fixtures in union contracts. These work rules governed everything that took place in the workplace, from hiring and firing teachers to seniority, layoffs, and a uniform pay scale. While these work rules always increased union power and favored teachers, they often were harmful to student outcomes.
When work rules became comprehensive and detailed during the 1980s, all of the important discretion over teacher behavior had been acquired by the unions, and soon this included policy as well. For example, work rules often require that principals give notice before looking in on a classroom teacher, removing a supervisory tool that used to be effective; and work rules typically allow a teacher to bump another teacher and take her job based on seniority, removing the principal’s discretion to form a team whom they feel will work well together.
Work rules also required that important questions, usually decided by management, be referred to committees populated by teachers. Once the unions controlled who taught our kids and how they were taught, the unions had appointed themselves the bosses of public education.
Some of the areas most in need of school reform originated as work rules. Studies show that teacher quality is the most important ingredient to a quality education, yet work rules establish a single pay scale for all teachers regardless of quality, removing a tool, incentive pay, which is used in the private sector to hire the best employees. Work rules also require school districts to grant tenure within two years, which is too short a time for a thorough evaluation, especially when other work rules make it impossible to fire bad teachers who have tenure.
No matter which reforms have the most merit, no one can deny that someone else should be running our public schools. Teacher unions have had their chance, and it is time to make someone else the boss. Professor Moe tells us how:
“If reformers want to stand up for children—and win for children—there is only one way out of the current bind. The power of the teachers unions must . . . be drastically reduced, so that the interests of the children and effective schooling can take priority among the nation’s policymakers and real reform can go forward. This is the goal. Baby steps won’t get us there.” (Special Interest p. 344.)
Now is the time for change.
Bob Loewen is the chairman of the California Policy Center.