Blame pain-in-the-neck unions for education bow tie

May 20, 2003,

Chicago Sun-Times

By John O`Sullivan

Remember the bell curve? Well, here
comes its even more terrifying successor—the bow tie.

Some years ago a Forbes columnist
was compiling a chart for an article on education. The
statistical relationship he uncovered in his research
was so remarkable that it became an article in itself—or
what the columnist called "a charticle." That is a chart
that makes such a strong point that it requires very few
words of additional explanation. Charticles duly became
a

regular feature
in Forbes and later on

CBS Marketwatch.

In this case the charticle
consisted of two lines. One line, beginning at the lower
left hand corner of the chart and rising diagonally to
the upper right hand corner, represented national
spending on education.

The other line, beginning at the
upper left hand corner and descending diagonally to the
lower right hand corner, described falling standards of
educational performance as represented by SAT scores,
etc.

Together the two lines,
intersecting in the middle of the chart, formed an
elegant bow tie pattern. But the inelegant truth they
revealed was that America`s educational standards had
not risen in line with rising expenditure on
education—but had actually fallen.

Now, that was what the sociologists
call a "counterintuitive" finding. After all,
politicians constantly demand more spending on
education—more schools, higher salaries for teachers,
more books, special education programs, etc.—precisely
in order to lift educational standards. Here was
statistical evidence that higher spending was linked to
worse schools. 

Linked, yes. But was there a causal
connection? Did higher spending actually bring about
worse education? That was less clear. For in strict
logic, a third factor might conceivably have caused both
higher spending and worse schools. And the more the
columnist looked at the evidence, the more he was
convinced that there was such a Factor X.

The columnist in question was Peter
Brimelow (full disclosure here, he is an old friend and
a former colleague on National Review magazine.)
The fruit of his researches is the book

Worm in the Apple
(Harper Collins, $24.95). And
the Factor X is revealed in its subtitle: How the
Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education.

How so?

Teacher unions have the exclusive
right to represent teachers and to negotiate teacher
contracts with school boards in 90 percent of American
schools.

To put this in economic terms, they
enjoy a near-monopoly of teacher supply in the education
market. This gives them enormous power to raise the
price of teacher services—and in effect to divert
spending from better education to better pay and
conditions for their members.

In these circumstances even vastly
improved inputs (i.e., much more money) lead not to
higher outputs (i.e., better educated children) but to
higher producer incomes, over-manning and falling
productivity (i.e., more teachers doing less work for
more money).

Thus, when the publication of

A Nation At Risk
stimulated a national educational
panic, inflation-adjusted education spending rose 45
percent and pupil-teacher ratios fell from 22-1 to
16-1—but the pupils` test results remained flat.

If the teacher union monopoly (or
Teacher Trust, as Brimelow calls it) were the only worm
in the apple, however, parents might simply move their
children to other schools with higher standards. What
makes than nearly impossible for most people is that the
Teacher Trust is shored up by another monopoly—the
public school education system itself.

Public schools charge people for
educating their children even when they send them to
private or parochial schools.

And since very few parents can
afford to pay twice over for their children`s education
(however passionately they feel about it), they are
effectively compelled to use the public schools and to
pay, through various forms of taxation, for the inflated
salaries and low productivity negotiated by the Teacher
Trust. And that has one further consequence: Since these
parents cannot go elsewhere, they have no leverage to
compel the public schools to raise their performance.

Overall, therefore, the education
market, like all monopoly-dominated markets, is
inefficient, uncompetitive and marked by low innovation,
poor standards and high prices. Hence the bow tie.

Parents in the worst inner-city
"sink schools" struggle to save their children from this
mis-education by supporting various schemes for school
choice—in particular, school vouchers. Until now,
however, they have generally been defeated by a bizarre
but understandable electoral alliance between the
Teacher Trust and suburban parents.

Suburban parents—who have often
spent large sums on housing so that their children can
escape from a worse to a less worse education—are
nervous that vouchers will mean an inner-city invasion
of their treasured local schools.

Meanwhile, the teacher unions, in
order to shore up their public school monopoly, spend
vast sums on painting voucher advocates as dangerous
"extremists" out to destroy public schools. These
campaigns allow the suburban parents to vote on nearly
racist grounds with a clear conscience.

And as was demonstrated by the
congressional progress of the Bush education bill—which
gradually shed its "reform" and voucher provisions and
became simply more money for the Teacher Trust—this
looks unlikely to change any time soon. Republicans are
nervous that if they oppose the Teacher Trust or
advocate even moderate forms of school choice, they too
will morph into "extremists" come election time. What is
needed for reform is public awareness of the bow tie.

And unfortunately for that, but
fortunately for the teachers unions, one of Brimelow`s
wittier predictions came almost true. Asked if he knew
when the Iraq War would break out, he replied: "Sure.
The day my book is published."