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No Union Left Behind

No Union Left Behind

Mitch Coffman
April 13, 2010

In the third presidential debate, Senator Obama said, “I support charter schools and pay for performance for teachers. Doesn’t make me popular with the teachers union.” School choice observers noticed the change in Democratic rhetoric and were intrigued, but once he was elected we were certain President Obama would pick some edu-flack to head his Department of Education.

Instead we got Arne Duncan, who gave the teachers union genuine heartburn when he headed Chicago’s public schools. Secretary Duncan promptly sent the Odd Couple of Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich out on a cross-country tour to tell us school reform is “the civil rights issue of the 21st century.” That sounded pretty good.

At the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ conference, Secretary Duncan was greeted like a rock star as he touted Race to the Top, a $5-billion pool of grant money the Department of Education has to play with. State policy-makers salivated over the “free” money even as they started to sweat over shrinking public school budgets. The catch? To be in serious contention you were supposed to have to rip the caps off the number of public charter schools allowed, institute teacher merit pay and close failing schools.

For pretty much the first time ever, it appeared as though official Democratic federal education policy was to increase choice and competition in the public schools with the objective of bettering student achievement. Pathological optimists everywhere thought maybe – just maybe – federal education policy for the next four years wouldn’t be an utter boondoggle.

Guess what?

As it turns out, to get your hands on the golden goose you need the approval of your state teachers union. The two first-round winners of $500-million and $100-million were Tennessee and Delaware respectively. Tennessee received a “D” for its charter school policy, so it seems public school choice isn’t as important as we were led to believe. Delaware got a “B”, but the secret to its success was union approval of its application. And although there’s a lot of blame for obstructing public education reform to spread around, it’s likely nobody deserves more than the unions.

Bottom line? If past is precedent, current federal “reforms” will, in the end, be watered down to a whole lot of nothing.

However . . . . I’m still intrigued by lawmakers like Georgia State Representative Alisha Thomas Morgan, a Democrat. Her constituents seem to have noticed the President can send his children to school wherever he wants and have asked themselves, why can’t we do the same?

If more people begin to ask themselves that question, perhaps public school policy will be driven by desire for the freedom to choose rather than making sure the unions aren't too unhappy.

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