The Teachers Unions’ "Brown" Problem

The Teachers Unions’ "Brown" Problem

When it comes to education and civil rights, NEA and AFT are part of the problem; the solution is choice.

Last Saturday was the 60th anniversary of the Brown v Board of Education decision, which outlawed state-sponsored segregation in schools. Never missing an opportunity to grandstand, the teachers unions groused all last week about various obstacles still facing low-income students of color. Their whine included inadequate school funding, the usual dumping on charter schools and blaming ALEC for various social ills. Amazingly, the Koch Brothers got the week off. 

Kicking off the festivities on May 13th, a union front group calling itself the “Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools” organized a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court. The speakers trotted out the bogeymen du jour – high-stakes testing, school closures, corporate and private involvement in education, etc. National Education Association president Dennis Van Roekel complained that “there are several inequalities that still exist in both educational programs and in school facilities.” And American Federation of Teachers leader Randi Weingarten, going for the lachrymose, snatched a couple of human shields – I mean young children – from the crowd and proclaimed, “These kids, this is why we do what we do.”

Over on the NEA website, Van Roekel grumbled that not much has changed since Brown and retired educator Bruce Smith asserted that he knows where the blame lies. Smith claims that the problem revolves around state politicians… 

who have sold out their constituents and, instead, have pledged their support to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is known for pushing education policies that foster inequity in our public schools.

Many of the wealthiest corporations in the world are members of ALEC, which uses its vast resources to shower state politicians across the country with expensive gifts, high-priced dinners at fancy restaurants, and vacation junkets at exotic resorts.

Those politicians who fall for the “ALEC treatment” become puppets who push the conservative, right-wing group’s education policies and proposals back home–legislation designed to benefit ALEC’s wealthy benefactors and turn a profit on the backs of students without any regard for their educational wellbeing.

For example, ALEC is a big supporter of vouchers and tuition tax credit schemes which use public dollars to subsidize tuition at private or religious schools. In addition to being costly to taxpayers, studies show such programs do not result in a better education for students.

In other words, Smith thinks the most important blocks to kids getting a good education are politicians who are bought off by wealthy, right wing, corporate benefactors. Vouchers and tax credits (which are somehow costly to taxpayers) are of course the devil’s work. His evidence that privatization doesn’t work? The always intriguing “unnamed studies.”

Then there is the “Advancement Project,” a group heavily funded by billionaire globalist George Soros which has ties to various teachers unions. This bunch has decided that charter schools are racist and compared them to prisons. (Apparently, the only thing that is “advanced” about the “Advancement Project” is its advanced deranged thinking.)

Time for a reality check.

First off, if charters are so racist, why are so many parents of all colors flocking to them? Simply because they have been more successful than the traditional public schools – especially with minorities – and over a half-million children of all ethnicities sit on waitlists nationwide. But this inconvenient truth is ignored by the teachers unions because most charters are not unionized.

Regarding Van Roekel’s “inequities,” he’s right, but not in the way he thinks. In a recent in-depth study, University of Arkansas researcher Patrick Wolf found that the gap for charter school funding is widening.

We identified a funding gap of 28.4 percent, meaning that the average public charter school student in the U.S. is receiving $3,814 less in funding than the average traditional public school student. Since the average charter school enrolls 400 students, the average public charter school in the U.S. received $1,525,600 less in per-pupil funding in 2010-11 than it would have received if it had been a traditional public school. The gap is actually higher in focus areas within states where charter schools are more commonly found, such as major cities. (Emphasis added.)

And the privatization shibboleth really needs to be put to rest. Private schools generally do a better job than public schools (at lower cost, I might add), but it is rarely reported that privatization also leads to less racial segregation, not more, as the unions claim. Just a year ago, Greg Forster, of the Friedman Foundation, released the third in a series of reports on school choice which includes vouchers and, to a lesser extent, educational savings accounts and tax credit scholarships. The findings about segregation from “A Win-Win Solution: The Empirical Evidence on School Choice” are not ambiguous.

Eight empirical studies have examined school choice and racial segregation in schools. Of these, seven find that school choice moves students from more segregated schools into less segregated schools. One finds no net effect on segregation from school choice. No empirical study has found that choice increases racial segregation. (Emphasis added.)

Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, adds…

there have been some improvements toward equality for low-income students of color, particularly in the realm of school choice.

I am beginning to see some promising educational improvements that are ensuring that if a low-income child of color wants to remain in the neighborhood in which he or she lives, that if we create a really good school in that neighborhood, that child can get a very good education,” Lomax says.

Interestingly, last week saw a major victory for educational choice in North Carolina where the state Supreme Court lifted an injunction that had barred parents from accessing North Carolina’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

And ultimately, isn’t that the best way to assure that all kids receive the best education possible? By opening the system up to competition, parents get to choose the school that best fits their kids’ needs.

On another note, I think it’s condescending to insist that the only way that black kids can get a good education is if they go to schools with white kids. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom wrote recently,

It is demeaning, even racist, to assume that minority children can’t learn—or can’t learn as much—unless they are immersed in a student body in which whites are the majority. The most sophisticated research on the subject does not find that having white classmates notably improves the academic achievement of blacks and Hispanics.

In any event, all the bluster last week reminded me of an old joke.

A woman comes across a man on his knees under a street lamp. “I’ve lost my car keys,” he explains. The woman tries to help the man find his keys. After a few minutes of searching, she asks “Where exactly did you drop them?” 

“About a block away.” 

Puzzled, she asks “Then why aren’t you looking over there?” 

“The light is better here.” 

For the teachers unions and their cronies and acolytes, shining a light on all the old canards will do nothing to help children fulfill the “Promise of Brown.” Like the man in the joke, they are looking in the wrong place. The keys for those kids are great teachers who are accountable to parents. And the best way to get there is by doing away with the government-union duopoly and replacing it with a system of universal school choice.  

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!