The Chicago teachers' strike settlement was a bust from a taxpayer or student perspective, but it did illustrate that any educational reforms -- no matter how inadequate -- must come over the strenuous opposition of the teachers' unions. In Los Angeles, as I write in this Bloomberg column from yesterday, the only real progress has come through charter schools, which at least provide an alternative competitive choice for parents stuck in these dismal, government-controlled urban schools. But unions and their allies are amazingly energetic when it comes to crushing the competition:
The city, which has the second-largest U.S. school system after New York, has the highest number of charter schools in the nation. United Teachers Los Angeles fights the movement in any way it can, from rallies ("Hell, no, we're not fools; we don't want no charter schools" was one chant) to regulation efforts. A proposal to expand restrictions on charters and halt new approvals of such schools in the interim is up for a vote in October. If the union can't beat them, it is trying to organize them.
As I noted in the article, California officials argue that the only problem facing schools is their supposed "defunding," yet school funding has soared until 2008 in California, although it has been modestly reduced since then in California in the face of a bad economy and deficits. Still, we all know -- except perhaps for union officials and their lackeys in the state Legislature -- that more money will not make for better schools. The unions pitch those low-sounding per-capita school funding numbers, but those numbers are vastly understated because they do not include capital spending and federal money. LAUSD spends as much as $30,000 a student per year, according to a Cato study.
We know that government bureaucracies don't promote efficiency. We know that unions are simply cartels that protect the worst performers. The Los Angeles Times series pointing to "rubber rooms" where accused teacher miscreants can spend years earning full pay and doing nothing while their case is adjudicated through a system that gives them every benefit of the doubt, showed how nefarious union influence can be. How can you run any organization if you can't even get rid of employees who commit grievous misbehavior? As the series noted, LAUSD doesn't even try to get rid of incompetents. We're only talking about accused miscreants.
Yet no one really challenges the fundamental problem with the system. We see efforts to take over school boards with reform-minded candidates, plans to limit union paycheck-deductions, which will limit their political spending. We see plans to increase teacher testing and include merit pay. In LA, there's been a long and somewhat successful battle to expand charter schools. This is all good, but these battles have been going on my entire life and the unions continue to have the upper hand. It's as if the Russians had decided to reform the Soviet economy through some modest tweaks.
A few years ago, I debated the Orange County superintendent of schools about educational choice. The mere existence of a county superintendent of schools is silly on its face, given that county boards of education in California don't really do anything beyond passing through dollars to the local, unified school districts. It's a large bureaucratic operation that does no actual educating.
Instead of arguing for vouchers or charters, I argued for the complete separation of school and state -- for shutting down the public schools and replacing them with ... nothing. Why should other people pay for my three kids' education? Why shouldn't I send them to a private school of my choosing rather than being forced to fund a school system that is wasteful, inefficient and mediocre? As I recall, the discussion didn't go that badly. I reminded the many teachers in attendance that we will still need schools and teachers. Good teachers will most likely be paid much better than they are paid now. And I was sure all the teachers in attendance were good ones!
Critics of this view asked, "What about the poor kids?" The poor kids now are the ones most abused by the current system, as the Chicago and Los Angeles examples make clear. In a truly free system, there will be an active market for inner-city schools, just as there is now an active market for most things in poorer areas. The same philanthropists who fund charter academies will do the same thing -- but they won't have to fight bureaucracy, and will instead be able to focus on funding charitable education endeavors. Currently, there are thriving private and Catholic schools in poor neighborhoods. More of this will happen.
Granted, we're not anywhere close to shutting down the schools and moving to a true market system. But I'm convinced that if we don't at least discuss this idea, which illustrates the value of markets vs. government monopolies, we will never get closer to achieving market solutions. What if the cars we bought were built the way our schools are created? We would be driving $150,000 Yugos, and we all know it. I like to use that example. The same economic principles apply to the educational system.
I always present this idea as a thought experiment. By the way, the unions are always bold when they issue their demands. We should be bold, too. We want a totally free educational system, period. Maybe we'll end up with a system dominated by vouchers, charters and tuition tax credits. I can live with that. It would be leaps and bounds above what we have now.