The ground shook in California recently, and for once, it had nothing to do with shifting tectonic plates. Instead, a judge finally validated what many people have argued for years: that the union-mandated tenure rules for teachers keep poor and minority kids from getting a decent education.
This decision will not mean an overnight change in the pernicious defense of our dismal public schools by unions and their Democrat backers. However, if it survives the inevitable appeal, it could break through the logjam of job-protecting rules that doom so many of our youngsters to lifetimes of failure, crime and homelessness. That is not an exaggeration.
Judge Rolf Treu’s ruling in Vergara v. California declared that union protections of incompetent teachers were a violation of a student’s constitutional right to an education – a right affirmed in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that ordered the desegregation of U.S. schools. Ironically, the judge was swayed by testimony (backed up by many studies) that teaching is the most important variable in education.
Teachers should be proud. Instead, they are fighting tooth and nail to preserve what few other workers have: virtually guaranteed lifetime employment. Teachers in California receive tenure after less than two years on the job, a practice former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried, and failed, to change. As pointed out in The Economist recently, “A teacher in California has a one in 125,000 chance each year of being sacked for incompetence…. Teachers’ jobs are about 3,750 times more secure than those of private-sector workers.”
This should be a rallying cry for Republicans across the country. The GOP needs an every-man issue. Fairness in education could be a powerful campaign plank and policy goal. Who doesn’t want their kids to have opportunities – the kind only available to those who get a decent education?
In the past, Democrats have portrayed Republicans who fight for better public schools as anti-teacher. That has been effective; even as their kids fail to advance, many parents feel loyalty to the homeroom instructor – loyalty typically bolstered by union-fed campaigns.
As cities like New York become laboratories where charter schools distinctly outperform public schools, however – leading to huge waitlists for coveted spots in those high-achieving institutions – parents may be coming around. A recent Gallup survey of Americans’ attitudes towards various institutions noted that confidence in public schools was only 26 percent, down from 34 percent in 2011 and 50 percent in 1987.
That would be a shocking fall from grace if it were not so well deserved. Parents are not blind; they know their kids get passed along year after year, emerging at best with a high school degree, but few skills. They know that nothing so determines their path in life as the quality of their education.
The failures of our K-12 system contribute to the current student debt crisis. President Obama has encouraged every young person to seek advanced education – college or vocational training. In 2012 Obama argued, “We are talking about somebody going to a community college and getting trained for that manufacturing job that now is requiring someone walking through the door handling a million-dollar piece of equipment… And they can’t go in there unless they have some basic training beyond what they received in high school.”
The reality is that young people could apply for jobs in manufacturing – as they did for generations – with only a high school degree, except that our K-12 system now does so little to prepare them for such work. According to a study by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education on college preparedness, “About one-quarter of incoming students to [two-year colleges] are fully prepared for college-level studies. The remaining 75 percent need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both.”
Note that two-year colleges are most likely to attract low-income and minority students. We are not preparing these students for college courses because our K-12 system is broken – hence the need for post-high school education and the pile-up of student debt.
Yes, it would be nice if everyone could attend college, but the reality is that many young people would be better served by earning a robust high-school degree that would open doors to a middle class life. New York City’s schools chancellor Carmen Farina has signed onto re-emphasizing vocational studies in high school. She gets it: Not every kid is prepared to go to college, but every kid needs the tools to earn his or her way in the world.
This issue is tailor-made for Republicans. First, it is the right way forward. The divide between haves and have-nots that so many lament in this country starts in the home, for sure, but is exacerbated in the classroom. Next, the GOP preaches self-reliance and individualism; it’s pretty hard to stand on your own two feet when you can’t read. Also, Republicans seriously need to connect with minorities, and especially Hispanics.
For Hispanics, education has always been big. People might be surprised to learn that in the 2012 election, 55 percent of Hispanics cited education as their number-one concern, ahead of “jobs and the economy” (54 percent) and ahead of immigration (34 percent). In 2013, that interest resulted in a higher percentage of Hispanic high school graduates (49 percent) enrolling in college than whites (47 percent). This is a priority the GOP should jump on.
Republicans should not attack teachers. They should push loudly and insistently for reforms to tenure and other job protections – and for rewarding good teachers. Ask Americans: Why should bad teachers keep their jobs? It’s that simple.
With the financial crisis receding, the emphasis should not be costcutting but rather making public education better – for all our children. GOP candidates can quote President Obama, who in 2012 said, “We should allow schools to replace teachers, who, even with the right resources and support, just aren’t helping our kids to learn.” For once, he was right.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: