Why unions fear school reform

(Denver Post, Jan. 23) The indignation was feverish. Teacher–union partisans trembled. Elaine Berman, a State Board of Education member from Denver, boycotted. Mary Johnson, an education consultant from Colorado Springs, raged. “A person known for nearly total lack of support for public education” was “bamboozling” Coloradans.

The miscreant was William Moloney, our state’s past Education Commissioner under both parties from 1997 to 2007. He had been invited back on Jan. 13 by State Board chairman Bob Schaffer to testify on school reform. His crime was not burning books or blowing up buses; it was pointing out the obvious.

He had come, Moloney began, to talk about “three incontestable realities concerning which America has been in denial for decades,” but which “the hammer blows of impending financial disaster” have now brought home to everyone. (Or almost everyone; financial disaster doesn’t faze the Johnsons of this world.)

Reality 1, said the former commissioner, is that America’s schools perform poorly in world rankings and when measured against their own past performance. U.S. seventeen–year–olds have made NO progress in math and reading scores over the past 40 years, even as per–pupil spending in real dollars has doubled.

Reality 2 is the unsustainable level of educational costs in this country. We’re near top dollar on international comparisons, reported Moloney. Worse, public schools in Colorado spend 60 percent more than in Utah and 80 percent more than parochial schools in Denver—while trailing both of them academically.

But Reality 3 is good news, the witness told his former employers: “There are abundant models of better educational performance coupled with lower cost, even some within walking distance” of the Berman–boycotted boardroom at 201 E. Colfax. The days of school spending as an unquestioned, unmonitored entitlement may be numbered.

Perhaps most promising in the magnitude of savings and the chance to do more with less, he added, is the evidence that America has begun to break “the national obsession with class–size reduction, an expensive and counterproductive policy that has never been shown to improve learning performance.” Examples exist in Florida, California, and locally in Aurora and Jefferson County.

Marcia Neal, the State Board of Education vice chairman, thanked Moloney for his “excellent work” on the policy research (available from the Centennial Institute, where I work, at Centennialccu.org). “There is very little we can argue with,” concluded Neal.

Impatient parents and weary taxpayers can expect fierce argument, however, from Beverly Ingle, Henry Roman, and Brenda Smith. You’ve never heard of this tough political triad; obscurity is to their advantage. But if Johnson and Berman want to know who is really bamboozling us into the insanity of doing the same thing in schools decade after decade, gold–plating it, and expecting different results, talk to them.

They head Colorado’s three largest teacher unions: the CEA, the AFT, and the Denver Classroom Teachers. The confession of the late Al Shanker, AFT national president, is their guilty secret: “When school children start paying union dues, I’ll start representing their interests.” Class–size reduction (read: ever more employees with ever less to do) is their cash cow. That’s why genuine school reform terrifies them.

So, will the Swalm bill for tuition tax credits and the Spence bill for outsourcing noninstructional costs, together worth $300 million in deficit reduction, succeed this year? Will reformer Laura Boggs survive on the Jeffco school board, and reformer Nate Easley on the Denver school board? Will national reform leader Michelle Rhee, featured in “Waiting for Superman,” be welcomed here by Hickenlooper as governors have welcomed her in Florida and New Jersey?

Or will the mindless labor mentality of Samuel Gompers, “More,” continue at our kids’ expense? It all depends on who gets traction: Moloney, Schaffer, and Neal, or Ingle, Roman, and Smith.

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