Time to teach

Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:05 AM

Several hundred people showed up at my door Wednesday to teach me a lesson by offering me a job. They were unionized public-school teachers, and they wanted me to go into a school and teach for a week. "Teach, John, teach!" they chanted.

 I wasn't expecting that.

 I did expect them to demand an apology for my TV special on education, "Stupid in America," which was critical of union work rules.

 I didn't expect one of the speakers to be so blunt as to complain that school choice, whose value I had shown in the broadcast, would "take money away from . . . our union leaders" and a special program they had built to pay college tuition for a special-interest group within their union.

 And I was especially surprised by one history lesson they taught me: "Public schools are what distinguish democracies from every other system in the world," and a country without strong public schools "lends itself to authoritarian thinking."

 Fascinating. I guess the Communists all went to private school. And I guess having a unionized government monopoly running most of our schools, and forcing students to attend those schools regardless of whether they or their parents approve of what's taught there, will make sure that the government can never indoctrinate our children -- and neither can labor unions.

 One speaker took issue with my statement that schools already get plenty of money because she had to get thousands of signatures to get science equipment for her child's school. But the money is going into the school system, more than $10,000 of it per student per year nationally; the problem isn't funding, it's that the public bureaucracy had to see thousands of signatures before it would buy equipment. If we gave the $10,000 to whichever school each student chose to attend, thousands of signatures wouldn't have been necessary -- just a willingness to transfer to a school with science equipment.

 Another speaker said the union's goal was to ensure that a quality education was "free and accessible to all of New York City's children, regardless of income . . . or geography." Ironically that's what school choice would provide. If the education dollars were attached to the student, then parents could pick a school for their kids regardless of geography or income. It would free parents and kids from the current education system's school-zone bureaucracy and give them real choice. Today, geography is often the only determining factor in a child's assignment to a public school. With school choice, you might be able to send your child to any school within commuting range, not just the one in your school zone.

 Other speakers insisted that there are good public schools. I'm sure there are. But if a public school is good, it has no reason to fear school choice: Parents and students will choose it.

 One theme the speakers repeated several times was a demand for respect for teachers and students. I'm filled with respect for teachers who do good jobs despite the public schools' restrictive rules. I even said on "Stupid in America" that "some teachers are heroes." I meant it. But I don't respect teachers who are lazy and incompetent. The union protects bad teachers at the expense of good ones, and of their students. 

 And I still don't see how it shows the students any disrespect to say that they should be free to attend schools of their choice in order to obtain a quality education that reflects their priorities. It seems to me that what fails to respect students is forcing them into a school system that has no incentive to concern itself with what they or their parents think, but just gives them whatever the bureaucrats deign to give them.

 But I do  respect students, and I do think good teachers are essential for kids to get the education they deserve. And I do think I have a lot to learn. So I would like to take the union up on its offer for me to teach in a public school for a week. I'm sure it will be difficult. I'm sure I'll learn a great deal. 

 But I'd like to give it a try.