Reform in America’s public schools occurs with seemingly glacial slowness. In the private sector, businesses (including schools) that provide a lousy product quickly lose customers. They either correct their deficiencies or they eventually close. Similarly, if the problem is poor performance by a private enterprise’s workers, then either the employees start doing a better job or management replaces them to save the company.
These market-based, pro-consumer forces are largely absent from taxpayer-supported schools, because public schools have captive “customers.” Young residents of a public-school district are legally required to attend school, and in areas where those schools lack meaningful, affordable competitors, the youngsters are trapped by a virtual monopoly. The school can do a poor job year after year, and teaching jobs can become sinecures for the mediocre, the burned out, and the indifferent, protected by powerful unions that exist to serve teachers and not the pupils with whose education they have been entrusted.
It is in that context that I was glad to hear the news out of Chicago that Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced plans to close 17 of the city’s worst-performing schools. This seems like one of those Nixon-in-China moments when only a politician from the party normally allied with unions would dare to implement a policy that is so hated by the teachers’ union. Indeed, the mayor’s courageous decision brought upon him the ire of Jesse Jackson and the Chicago Teachers Union, but I salute Mayor Emanuel for challenging a status quo that protects failed, dysfunctional schools.
I can attest from first-hand experience that some schools are so dysfunctional that they simply cannot be reformed. Early in my career, I did some substitute teaching in inner-city Phoenix. While there were several schools that were pathetic, one particular middle school sticks in my memory.
The windows in the classrooms had been smashed so often that the decision was made to brick them up, depriving the rooms of any natural light. A favorite pastime was to turn off the light switch when the teacher wasn’t looking. That was a signal for books to be thrown through the air. Everyone, including the teacher, would take cover, because in the total darkness, everyone was at risk of injury, while it was nearly impossible to know who had thrown the particular book that hit somebody.