blank.gif (51 bytes) January/February 2000

Just What We Don’t
Need: A Fatter Dinosaur

Adding money to Nevada's dysfunctional school system only postpones the day when real reform can arrive

by Steven Miller

he effort that turned America’s teacher associations into leftwing labor unions was led by Albert Shanker, the late president of the AFL-CIO’s American Federation of Teachers. But Shanker nevertheless had conservative admirers. The reason was that, even in public, he could be surprisingly candid.
“It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve,” Shanker once wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”

It’s an insight highly relevant to the Silver State today, where the Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) is circulating petitions to impose an income tax on all Nevada business people. The union’s plan would take huge sums out of the Nevada economy and route them directly into the current failing education system—without addressing any of the system’s fundamental problems. Not coincidentally, most of those problems stem directly from the union death-grip on local school districts and state education policy.

This general topic—how the transformation of America’s professional teacher associations into hard-nosed, power-seeking labor unions has been ruinous for American K-12 education—is rarely discussed publicly in Nevada. But even former national teacher union activists acknowledge how destructive for education union tactics have been. Early founder Myron Lieberman, especially, recognized early on how the unions’ us-against-them attitudes, picayune grievance procedures and incessant politics were sabotaging public education.
Today, the National Education Association (NEA) and its state-level affiliates like the NSEA merely gaze contentedly on what they have wrought. Then they classify it as just another opening through to pursue even more political power and public funds.

The NEA has demonstrated this amoral attitude for over 20 years. In his 1980 book The National Education Association: The Power Base for Education, former NEA Executive Secretary Allan West acknowledged that the union preferred seeking growth through slogans like “good schools for children,” rather than directly pressing for higher teacher salaries.

Unfortunately for the NSEA, however, the days appear numbered for this old ruse. The reason is that truly superior “good schools for children” are already here.
Most charter schools, for example, are successful precisely because they can work outside of the typical union-dominated education bureaucracies. It is that freedom and flexibility that allows charter schools to create innovative programs tailored to the needs of their particular students. Such latitude, of course, scares the hell out of the NSEA—leading it—legislative session after session—to use the Nevada politicians it controls to block significant charter school relief for Nevada kids.

What the union wants is to keep Nevada’s schools firmly under the thumb of the NSEA’s old industrial-union model, even though that model produces a constricted environment for learning. It’s an environment where Nevada’s dropout rate is the highest in the nation and where alarming numbers of Silver State students fail basic standards tests. Union contracts impose a we-must-all-march-together mindset that produces rigid bureaucracies in the school districts and conformist mentalities among school officials. The union’s death grip increasingly drives the best teachers and administrators from the schools. It even restricts the access of parents to their children’s teachers.

The Wrong Direction
“It’s time to admit,” Shanker wrote, “that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are very few incentives for innovation and productivity.” This explains why the NSEA’s push for a dedicated statewide income tax goes in exactly the wrong direction.

Not merely would the union’s plan not solve Nevada’s education problem. It actually would, if passed, make the problem even worse—locking up and wasting more vital resources, while postponing the day Nevada parents finally see their kids receive quality schooling.

Actually, the evidence suggests that postponement is a major goal of the NSEA’s multi-million-dollar initiative campaign. If successful, its end result would be that, by law, Nevada must keep writing blank checks to its current failing system. Practically, the state would have to forego the highly promising education reforms the union fears. Right now, superior, customer-friendly and money-saving market-based educational services are available online—demonstrating each day the wasteful and dated nature of Nevada’s current system. Indeed, already some young Nevadans are getting superior high school educations online following expulsion from regular school!

Haunting the NSEA also is the prospect of vouchers. Now not only white middle class but most black Americans recognize the abuse in having to consign their kids to failing government schools. If teachers, parents and kids get to start choosing their own schools, the jig is up: In a competitive market for education, who will consent to continue stumbling along under the union-government yoke?

American education is entering a whole new world. Rather than try to fatten up an aging education dinosaur, Nevada should face the future and embrace the dynamic, market-oriented learning reforms sweeping the nation. NJ

Steven Miller is managing editor of Nevada Journal.


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