Yes, this disaster has many authors. Schools are expected to fix larger social problems that are best dealt with by parents. Good teachers aren't paid nearly enough, and bad teachers are kept around, draining budgets. Education bureaucracies siphon off vast resources better spent on classrooms. For example, in 2007, the Washington, D.C., school district ranked third in overall spending among the 100 largest school districts in the nation (about $13,000 per student) but last in terms of money spent on teachers and instruction. More than half of every education dollar went to administrators.
President Obama might be a hypocritical liberal for sending his kids to private school, but he's a good parent for it.
But of all the myriad problems with public schools, the most identifiable and solvable is the ludicrous policy of tenure for teachers. University tenure is problematic enough, but at least there's a serious argument for giving professors the freedom to offer unpopular views. Tenure for kindergarten teachers is just crazy.
Tenure's defenders point to horror stories from half a century ago, as if getting rid of tenure would automatically subject teachers to political witch hunts and sexual discrimination. We now have civil rights laws and other employee protections.
Also, to listen to teachers unions, you'd think incompetent teachers are mythical creatures, less likely to be encountered than Bigfoot and unicorns. No wonder that from 1990 to 1999, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country with 30,000 tenured teachers, fired exactly one teacher.
The best argument for giving K-12 teachers tenure is that lifetime job security is a form of compensation for low pay. No doubt that's true, putting aside the fact that $100,000 a year with ample vacation is not exactly chattel slavery. And while most teachers don't make that much (the national average is about half that), the good ones could certainly make more if the dead weight were cleared away and rigid, seniority-based formulas were replaced with merit pay.
Oh, and kids would get better teachers.
Democratic politicians, mostly at the local level, are responsible for letting the unions protect their members at the expense of children and in exchange for campaign donations and other political support. And, to be fair, many Democrats (including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Klein in New York and D.C.'s Michelle Rhee) are aware of the problem. What remains to be seen is whether they can do what needs to be done.