My guest is Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research organization, writes about education, equal opportunity and civil rights. This appeared on the foundation’s blog.
By Richard D. Kahlenberg
Looking back on 2011, we saw in K-12 education some continuation of the misguided obsession with teachers unions, as Republican governors sought to cripple public employee unions in Wisconsin and Ohio. To add to the drumbeat, authors Terry Moe and Steven Brill published high-profile anti-teacher union books. But if some politicians and pundits got it wrong, there was good news from voters, as Ohio residents in November repealed the wrongheaded attack on teachers and other public employees, and North Carolina voters backed a return to school integration in Wake County public schools, the state’s largest district.
In 2011, Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin sought to severely curtail the ability of teachers and other public employees to bargain collectively. As I argued in an article in the Washington Post, the narrative about greedy teachers looking out only for themselves was a path unfortunately paved by Democrats, including Michelle Rhee and even members of the Obama administration.
Stanford University’s Terry Moe piled on, with publication of
Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools
, and reporter/entrepreneur Steven Brill joined the fray with “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools
.” These attacks made little sense, as “special interest,” historically, referred to entities like powerful tobacco companies that want to lure kids to smoke, not teachers making $54,000 a year trying to hook kids on reading. Brill was more on target when he recognized the class warfare going on in American education, but he oddly thought that the 1 percent hedge fund managers who have an interest in keeping taxes and education spending low are a better ally for low-income students than the educators who devote their lives to teaching students day in and day out.
Charter schools, 88 percent of which are non-union, topped 2 million students in 2011 in part thanks to the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative encouraging states to lift charter school caps. Some charter schools make terrific progress, but most are mediocre. And it’s hard to imagine how they will attract great teachers for the long haul when it was revealed by a Thomas B. Fordham Institute study in June that one of the “innovations” at some charter schools is to save money by offering teachers no pensions whatsoever.
Not all was lost in 2011, however, as average voters took a stand in Ohio, in support of teachers unions and other public employees. By a 61 percent to 39 percent margin, they voted to repeal a law to gut collective bargaining rights, making clear that educators and other public employees have a basic right in a democracy to band together and pursue their interests. On balance, the evidence suggests, students benefit when collective bargaining rights for teachers are stronger, not weaker.
Likewise, voters in Wake County, North Carolina, did the right thing in producing a Democratic school board sweep for candidates supportive of a nationally recognized school integration plan in the city of Raleigh and the surrounding suburbs. A powerful coalition of rights groups, business interests, teachers and magnet school parents prevailed over conservatives who would have allowed schools in Wake County to become resegregated.
The Obama administration, which has done relatively little to support integration, deserves some credit here. Education Secretary Arne Duncan came out in favor of Wake County’s integration plan in January. The same month, Stephen Colbert ridiculed Wake County tea party activists for suggesting we should “experiment” to see how kids do in high poverty schools, as if we didn’t have enough data from districts like Detroit. In February, the Chamber of Commerce proposed a plan that would continue integration through public school choice, an idea which has become a blueprint for the school district.
In November, Wake County’s school choice plan, which relies heavily on magnet schools, was recognized by the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings as one of the best in the country. Also in November, former Wake County superintendent Del Burns, who resigned on principle when conservatives began trying to re-segregate the public schools, released a significant new book,
Preserving the Public in Public Schools
, which details the importance of pursuing integrated education and drives home the larger message that the broader purpose of public education is to preserve our democratic republic.
On the national level, the Obama administration released legal guidance in late November which made clear that school segregation remains a major problem that needs to be addressed as a matter of education reform. Likewise, Sen. Tom Harkin deserves kudos for supporting integration and magnet schools as one of the federal options available for turning around failing schools. Rather than just urging struggling schools to fire teachers or bring in non-union charter school operators, Harkin suggested in October that a school could be turned around by adopting a magnet theme or approach in order to bring in a cross-section of students from all backgrounds together — an idea whose effectiveness is backed up by ample research.
Teachers unions were very supportive of school integration in Wake County, and the very positive role they can play on national policy was underlined in December, when the National Education Association announced an effort to establish 100 new peer assistance and review programs to better train and, if necessary, weed out ineffective teachers; and the American Federation of Teachers proposed an innovative approach to raise academic achievement in a low-income community in West Virginia by going after the effects of poverty directly.
All in all, in 2011, while there were the usual miscues from several quarters, the public and some political figures began recognizing that if we genuinely want to make progress on reducing the achievement gap in education, we need to stop demonizing teachers and their democratically elected representatives, and focus instead on what really matters: reducing poverty and school segregation.
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