August 22, 2011

The Parents: The Force That Can't Be Beat

Original article in Reuters by Joel Klein


Like Ronald Reagan, Steven Brill believes “facts are stubborn things.” That’s why he found his two-year immersion in the world of edu-politics enormously frustrating. There, ideology and spin often matter most.  As Brill puts it, the world of public education “give[s] new meaning to the notion that if you repeat something that is plainly untrue enough times it starts to seem true, or at least become part of the debate.” It’s maddening but, sadly, as Brill demonstrates, even the mainstream media often go along for the ride.

In Brill’s essay above, as well as his just-released book, “Class Warfare”, he doggedly chases down the facts and repeatedly punches holes in the current protagonists’ talking points, especially those of the “school reform deniers” — i.e., the unions and their academic supporters — though he takes a few shots at the reformers as well. When he says the facts show that “public education is failing our children,” and “[t]his is not a matter of money,” or “not about class size as much as it is about who is in front of the class,” he’s demonstrably correct but, rest assured, that won’t stop the deniers from attacking him with cherry-picked data and flawed analyses.

Because of his commitment to ferreting out the facts through tough and thorough reporting, Brill’s a brilliant diagnostician. No one has previously brought the education debate to life the way he has. And not a moment too soon. This is the most important issue our nation faces and, unfortunately, most Americans either don’t know or don’t care much about it. But if they read Brill they will see that the depressing picture he paints of the current state of public education is (unfortunately) accurate and that, in no small measure, this is because the unions effectively promote their own and their members’ self-interests, even when doing so hurts kids.

Having diagnosed the problem well, Brill spends much less time proposing a solution. He says that his “prescription for how we turn around public schools” is “not by abolishing the unions but by persuading or forcing them to engage in real reforms.”  As to just how we either “persuade” or “force” the unions to do this, Brill mentions a couple of ideas that I discuss below. His suggestion in his new book that Randi Weingarten be appointed to run the NYC school system is provocative but, as he has acknowledged, not going to happen. Back to the real world.

Let’s first look at his view that we should “persuad[e] [the unions] to engage in real reform.” Nice idea, but Brill’s own analysis shows that doing so would be entirely against the unions’ own self-interest. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that it’s “obvious that union leaders have a basic conflict of interest with their own members in [the reform] debate,” because treating teachers as professionals, rather than trade-unionists, makes the union far less important to them. And, as Brill also observes, all of the union’s sweet-sounding, reform-minded rhetoric “fades when you read the over-the-top lawsuits they have filed to block reforms, or when you cull through their financial records or their campaign finance filings and see how they continue to sponsor the politicians who take the most hard line anti-reform positions and punish those who stray and support even the mild reforms they claim to support.”

When it comes to persuading the unions, there’s another recent book, “Special Interests”, by Stanford professor Terry Moe, that’s well worth reading. Moe spends considerable time discussing what he views as the misguided notion of “reform unionism,” which is similar to Brill’s idea of persuading the unions to get on board for real reform. The simple truth, according to Moe, is that “beneath all the talk, important fundamentals are at work — and the fundamentals drive most of the action. Teachers fully expect that their leaders will protect their jobs, promote their economic well being, and win work rules that give them valuable rights and prerogatives.” Union leaders who fail to do those things, Moe adds, “do so at their own peril.” In fact, more than once, union leaders have told me that, even though a proposed reform made sense, they couldn’t support it and survive — and, they would always add, for good measure, that whoever replaced them would be worse for reform.

Let me be clear, reformers should always seek “to persuade” the unions to join them, and there are several encouraging examples to support this approach — some that I personally achieved together with NYC’s union president Randi Weingarten, and others that Brill recounts in “Class Warfare”. But so long as persuasion is the reformers’ only weapon, Moe concludes, “the reform movement will never get where it aims to go. It will never be able to build a school system that is organized for effective performance. It will never be able to simply do what’s best for children.”

Brill’s second theory of change — ” forcing [the unions] to engage in real reform” — appears to be more realistic. But how is that going to happen? Here, we must exit the world of policy debate and enter the less elegant world of political power. Educational policy decisions are made by elected officials who typically respond to those who support them and can help them remain in office. This is where the teachers unions have an enormous advantage. They have over four million members nationally, many of whom are politically active, and most of whom will get engaged when urged by their union to do so.  The teachers unions also spend more than any other special interest group on elections and ballot initiatives. And they’ve been effective in the political arena for decades, where they’ve built up lots of loyalty among elected officials as well as strong partnerships with other powerful groups, like the one that, remarkably, led the NAACP to join the union in New York in a lawsuit to block some 7,000 largely minority kids from going to charter schools of their families’ choosing.

In short, the unions are a formidable political force. Eloquent speeches by reformers or occasional political push back will not change that. What is required instead is sustained political work, at several levels.

To begin with, real change requires elected officials who are willing to risk political capital in order to do what’s right. We’ve had several recent examples: Mayor Bloomberg in NYC, Mayor Fenty in D.C. and President Obama.  Each of them tackled the unions — in Fenty’s case arguably costing him his reelection in 2010 — and each got results: Bloomberg and Fenty secured two ground-breaking contracts after bitter public fights, and Obama won major state-law changes through his Race-to-the-Top program.

But relying on strong leaders alone is folly. Their survival, as Fenty’s experience suggests, depends on building political constituencies that will support them, and push them to be even more aggressive. If that is to happen, we have to start with parents, who must stop tolerating a system that is failing their kids, and start insisting on great schools and teachers.

The unions know that parents are the only force they can’t beat and, as a result, they’ve done an incredible job over the past couple of decades cultivating them as allies. But, increasingly, parents — especially those in high-poverty communities — are coming to understand that it’s their kids who are bearing the brunt of the current union-driven, adults-first focus of public education.

Perhaps the best example of this is what’s been happening in NYC in the past several years. Under Mayor Bloomberg’s leadership, the city has opened more than 100 new charter schools in high-poverty communities, especially in Harlem, and in NYC for the upcoming school year some 64,000 kids applied for 13,000 charter seats. That’s an amazing statistic and a tribute to the notion that, when given the opportunity, parents will vote with their feet. The political significance of these developments is monumental.  In the past, the teachers unions in New York — which hate the competition from the mostly non-union charter schools — typically could limit the number that would be opened in the state or city.

Recently, in a remarkable shift, helped immeasurably by politically engaged parents, the legislature increased the cap on charters over the unions’ objection. Similarly, when the union sued the city a few months ago to block new charter schools, it lost the public-relations battle, even though the NAACP supported the unions, because thousands of parents came together in opposition.

In addition, several states, starting with California, have recently adopted legislation called “parent trigger,” which allows a majority of parents to shut down a failing school and replace it with a charter school of their choice. The fight in Compton, California, where a largely low-income Hispanic community voted to do just that, has garnered national headlines, as has the aggressive push-back by the unions. Recently, when similar legislation was introduced in Connecticut, the unions skillfully defeated it while pretending to be supporting the parents. When a blogger named RiShawn Biddle exposed the unions’ duplicity, all hell broke loose. These kinds of events help to build more awareness and further political involvement.

In short, parental insistence on quality choices has to be the leading edge of reform.  I suspect that almost everyone reading this post has demanded choice for his or her own kids — none would say, “my neighborhood school, good or bad.” Why should the poor accept less? And yet that’s what pretty much happens throughout the country. If, unlike the middle-class or wealthy, low-income families don’t like their neighborhood school, they usually can’t move, pull strings to get a transfer, or choose a private school. That’s beginning to change and, as choice becomes more prevalent, the politics of school reform will change as well.

The next political force for reform that needs to be unleashed, as Brill notes in “Class Warfare”, is teachers, especially those who are new to the field and haven’t yet bought into the union-driven long-term seniority- and pension-based system that has long served the veterans. Teachers need to be convinced that the model Brill advances — where salaries can increase significantly if we build a system based on performance, rather than longevity — is better for them financially, while also likely to enhance public respect and support for their profession. This is not so much a variation of reform unionism but, rather, the creation of a second — and different — teacher voice in the discussion. Right now, there’s pretty much only the union voice.  Soon, there will be others, like Educators For Excellence in NYC, which will put pressure on the unions to shift their position.

Finally, as Brill mentions and Terry Moe elaborates, technology can significantly impact this discussion as well.  In almost every other sector of the economy, we’ve experienced a technological revolution, where the use of human capital has been restructured based on the realization that many functions previously done by people can now be done better and more cheaply by machines. This hasn’t displaced the need for humans; to the contrary, it makes the role of human capital more essential. People with deeper skills who can take advantage of tools to help them be more thoughtful, analytical, and effective are now in greater demand than ever before.

This kind of technological revolution still hasn’t happened in education, making it the last holdout. Instead, the nation has made a bet on more — not higher-performing — teachers, increasing the number by considerably more than half over the past 40 years, without getting results. Things like interactive software, which can engage students and enable them to move at their own pace, as well as virtual schools, which can bring learning from a distance rather than only through classroom teachers, will revolutionize the way we educate our kids. These things will also undermine the unions’ current grip on the system as parents and others come to understand that quality instruction is not only the province of classroom teachers. (DISCLOSURE: Developing and marketing these kinds of new technologies is what I am doing now at News Corporation.)

These gathering forces are still relatively weak compared to the unions’ long and well-financed history of political success. But the tectonic plates are shifting. As Brill’s outstanding reporting shows, the reformers are gaining ground while the “school-reform deniers” are increasingly having to speak in the language of reform. That’s an encouraging indication that the politics are starting to catch up.

But time matters here, and, for the sake of our nation’s future, we need the politics to shift more quickly and dramatically. Brill’s work should help to make that happen.