The Education Costa Nostra

Posted: Mar 01, 2004 12:00 AM

Paige has had hell to pay this week for comparing the largest U.S. teachers' union to a "terrorist organization" during a private White House meeting. The New York Times called the remark "staggeringly stupid." And indeed, it wasn't the smartest thing to say, even if in jest, because it puts the unions on the defensive allowing them to create the sort of self-righteous noise that detracts the public from real education reform.

That said, the remark was right (even if it wasn't politically correct).

The two largest unions, the AFT and NEA, hold public education system hostage. 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. They attack such reforms because they know that these plans would mean the likely defections of public school personnel to privatized systems and the birth of competing collective bargaining entities. For the teacher's unions,  the idea of competition can only mean giving up leverage and money.

Since the job of unions is to accumulate leverage and money, they've fought President Bush and Rod Paige on every meaningful education reform they've proposed. On the grass roots front, the teachers unions have conducted a lengthy campaign to condition the public to think of vouchers as something that would destroy-rather than reform-public education. Vouchers siphon off valuable resources from the public school system and erode the cherished institutions that keep us huddled together as a union, they tell us.

The hyperbole is extreme, even by special interest standards.

In person, though, one finds representatives from the education terrorists to be warm and endearing. Are we experiencing a crisis in education?  Oh no, certainly not, they assure with near contagious ease. "We've had some problems in the past," admits Darrell Capwell, a spokesperson with AFT. "Some needs," clarifies Michael Pons, a policy analyst for the NEA.

Just what are these "needs" and  "problems," one asks? The response is uniform: Schools  getting older, need to reduce class size, entice more people to go into teaching, then make sure we keep qualified instructors. 

This is code for: more funds will carry the day. On the topic of vouchers, I am told that they are, well, quite simply a bad idea. Here, the conversation is studded with phrases like, "racial balkanization" and "religious division." 

"A voucher system, by definition, lets them set up schools that are religious and amongst different sects, schools that are focused on different racial groups," explains Pons.

"It could very well balkanize this country in a way that we've been working so hard against," cautions Capwell.

The gist of these warnings, near as I can figure, is that since private schools maintain their own private missions, they hold the potential to divide a diverse populace into rival clans, thus fraying America's common national identity. Public schools on the other hand, have no particular mission and therefore are well suited to uniting a diverse student body.

Needless to say,  the maintenance of our pluralistic society seem well worth accomplishing.

Just one thing: Separate studies by Dr. Jay Green, senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, as well as the evaluators of the private voucher programs in Dayton, New York and San Antonio all found that school vouchers actually enhance the level of racial and economic diversity in education. The reason is straightforward: Private schools are not hemmed in by geographic boundaries. Whereas public schools mirror the racial and economic composition of a single community, private schools draw their students from multiple districts and therefore transcend economically and racially segregated housing patterns.

Additionally, a two-year evaluation of the DC voucher program found that students educated in private schools actually display higher levels of  political tolerance. According to the report, "higher proportions of private school students than public school students would allow members of disliked groups to give a speech (34% vs. 18%) or run for president (37% vs. 20%) or permit a member of a group they dislike to live in their neighborhood (47% v. 26%)."

Far from fraying this country's multicultural tapestry, it seems that vouchers hold the potential to break apart those social conditions that have tended to brutally sort our children by race and income.

There is also ample evidence at this point that: 1) poor, inner city children-mostly of color-benefit from the use of vouchers; 2) vouchers force underachieving schools to get their act together.

It does not matter. The teachers unions aren't about to give up any of their power. So they continue to hold public education hostage?kind of like?you know?a terrorist organization.