The Big Education Sell Out

Armstrong Williams
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Posted: May 24, 2004 12:00 AM

The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing 2.7 million elementary and secondary teachers. Their professed goal is to make public schools great for every child. The real goal is to increase their own bargaining power by ripping to shreds any education reform that seeks to hold public schools accountable to their failures.

I don't think there is any doubt about this. For example, their most recent anti-voucher edict, it's called "Strategic Plan and Budget, Fiscal Years: 2002-2004,  starts out by saying, the NEA's goal is to "focus the energy and resources of our 2.7 million members toward the promotion of public confidence in public education." So, in other words, their top priority is not the oft professed goal of "making public schools great for every child," but rather massaging the perception of public education.  It goes on to say, "the success of students is inextricably tied to the success of teachers. . . who serve them. . . ." In other words, protecting the perception of public education is inextricably linked to keeping the teachers from being perceived as failing. This is important because it reminds us that the organization exists to advocate for the teachers who pay their dues, not the children. At least one way that the NEA has  accomplish this is by sparing public teachers any close scrutiny. They are fundamentally opposed to any education reform-like vouchers or the No Child Left Behind Act-that seeks to hold public schools accountable for their failures.

Of course there is no academic reason why this should necessarily be so. Private school students routinely test better than their public school counterparts. At least part of the success of private school students should be attributed to the fact that private school educators are held highly accountable for their job performance. They have no long--term job security, work only on year-to-year contracts and are held accountable by annual job evaluations. In public schools, by contrast, powerful teachers unions have secured long term tenure for the teachers, thus removing a powerful mechanism for immediate accountability.

Sparing public schools teachers the rigors of accountability only makes sense from a business perspective.  The two largest unions, the AFT and NEA, realize that vouchers would mean fewer teachers, fewer membership dues, the likely defections by public school personnel to privatized systems that have traditionally resisted centralized unionization, and the birth of competing collective bargaining entities. For the teacher's unions,  the idea of competition can only mean giving up leverage. Since the job of unions is to accumulate leverage and membership dues, the teacher's unions have declared war not just on vouchers,  but any meaningful education reform that seeks to hold public school teachers accountable for failing to properly educate our children.

For example, the unions have attacked President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)with the kind of ferocity that only a genuine threat (to the perception of public education) could pose. The NCLB initiative holds entire schools accountable when subsets of students - defined by income, race, etc. - lag behind in test scores. The act would withhold large amounts of federal funding to those educational institutions that are failing to properly educate their students. 

Not surprisingly, the NEA's 108th Congress Legislative Program formally announced that they "oppose federally mandated parental option or choice in education programs."  In case anyone missed the point, during the 2003 NEA convention delegates approved business item 11, which directs NEA officials not to use the title "No Child Left Behind" Act.  In other words the level of opposition is so great that union representatives are barred from even raising the words "No Child Left Behind" to consciousness for examination.

By deciding that the very words "No Child Left Behind" do not deserve to be heard, the NEA goes beyond regulating education reform, and seeks to regulate the dialogue itself.  Of course, genuine reform is never accomplished this way. More not less discussion facilitates learning. The best way to discredit bad ideas and combat distortions about education reform is to raise them to consciousness for public examination. By restricting the dialogue on this important issues, the NEA attacks a symptom, rather than the problem of underachieving public schools.

Of course this should not come as a surprise to anyone who has read their literature. Remember, their stated goal is to protect the "perception" of public education. The NEA's budget is constructed accordingly. Far and away, the majority of their money is funneled into improving government relations and corralling new members. According to their 2002-2004 budget summary, the NEA dedicated $13, 532 million to "governance and policy,"  $19, 582 million to "government relations," and $14, 114 million to "state affiliate relations." By contrast, they spent $2,699 million on "Student achievement." Get it? The NEA isn't using their money to help our kids, or to make our schools better. They're using it to increase their own collective bargaining strength-that's their real mission-by doing everything they can to prevent public schools from being held accountable. 

On a political front, the NEA is  engaged in a full court legislative press. Last year, they lined the Democrats coffers with $20 million in donations, second only to the American Federation of State/City/ municipal employees. Receiving  a large part of your campaign money directly from the teacher's unions means the Democrats are obliged to repay the debt in some form.  Maybe that's why the same Democratic representatives who send their own children to private school, are up in arms each session crying about how extending that same right to the poor would destroy the public education system.

Meanwhile our public schools are deteriorating, our children are being demoralized before they even have a chance, and our supposed leaders are refusing to even discuss the real problem.  This is a crime. This is a shame. This needs to change now.