Reactionary unions

Posted: Apr 29, 2003 12:00 AM

You have to hand it to the teachers unions -- not one of which, probably, the average American could call by name. (Hint: Start with the National Education Association and work down.)

The teachers unions stand proudly in the way of educational progress and get away with it. This they do by scaring the daylights out of politicians who might be persuaded under normal circumstances to allow the introduction of voucher programs into public schools.

The teachers unions fear vouchers as a burglar fears the cops. Vouchers give students lucky enough to receive them, here and there around America, the power to plunk down at private schools of their own choosing the money the state would otherwise spend on their supposed behalf at dear old Benedict Arnold Middle School. The idea is to subject public schools -- a taxpayer-supported monopoly -- to marketplace discipline of the sort found useful in the disciplining of companies like Enron and managements like that of Don Carty at American Airlines.

Clearest proof of union power is the failure of the Texas Legislature this spring to pass a painfully limited experiment in school choice.

Texas! Now what is our state, in legend at least, if not a bastion of individual freedom: irritable at government constraint, downright cantankerous when it comes to personal choice? In Texas, school vouchers should take off and fly. They don't. The politicians in Austin won't accede even to an experiment with them in big-city schools. The politicians won't accede because, were they to do so, the teachers unions would go after them with hammer and tongs. Hammer and tongs, applied to political flesh, can be deadly.

In rural Texas, it is maybe just a bit more complicated than that. The public school, the post office and the Dairy Queen are institutions that hold a community together. Vouchers, on account of seeming to threaten the schools, are a tough sell in the small towns. The irony is that the need for them in small towns is generally less than in the cities.

Perhaps the leading voucher proponent in the Texas Legislature (currently in session) is Rep. Ron Wilson of big-city Houston. Wilson is black, as are most of his constituents. Why, on vouchers, does their interest not coincide with that of the teachers unions?

Because, to Wilson, it is insufficient that the public schools should be public. More to the point is that they should teach. If they don't, he reasons, why should students have to stay in the public schools? Why not let them transfer at state expense -- the expense of the state that is failing to educate them -- to private schools, even to private religious schools?

The constitutional argument against vouchers was taken care of by the U.S. Supreme Court last June. A grant of public money to parents, as opposed to particular schools, overcomes supposed worries about state aid to religion.

What, then, is the argument against vouchers? The unions argue that allowing students to opt out of public schools, using public money, would threaten the viability of those schools. This is the silliest argument yet. Whatever is wrong with threatening the viability of schools that fail to serve the customers? So the marketplace customarily works.

The teachers unions argue, essentially, that marketplace discipline has no place in the public sphere, because public entities like the schools should go on operating -- and spending taxpayer money -- no matter how badly they perform. Somehow, in the teachers unions' eyes, it's unfair to hold public and private institutions to the same standards.

With this hollow argument, the unions have been able to squash an experiment that Texas might have conducted with vouchers. An experiment, nothing more. Don't confuse us with viewpoints we don't share, the unions say.

Oh, boy. No wonder the public schools are in the shape they are in -- and certain to stay that way until next time the Legislature meets. If not longer.