The Rotting of America's Educational System

How Teacher Unions Have Ruined Our Public Schools

Human Events,  February 3, 2003, Vol. 59, Issue 5

The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education By Peter Brimelow Harper Collins, 2003, $24.95, 336pp.

A rotten apple squishes and oozes when picked up because there's nothing of substance left inside and it is certainly nothing that anyone now wants to eat. In his newly released book The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education, Peter Brimelow depicts the National Education Association (NEA) and its lesser counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), much the same.

The substance of a good education has become a mealy brown mass of government mandates and regulations riddled with holes of substandard results in basic subjects. Brimelow begins by pointing out the misnomer of public schools. "Public schools are not public in the sense of being something you can use without cost. You pay for them in taxes and they are very expensive. Nor are 'public schools' controlled by the public in any meaningful way. They are locked away in a tower of government regulations--heavily guarded by teacher union patrols."

The NEA is simply not a soft and fuzzy organization of teachers working together to make things better for the kids, but a brass knuckle labor union bent on controlling its own membership while being heavily involved in partisan politics. Teacher unions are, in essence, an arm of the Democratic Party.

Despite its verbiage in support of women breaking the glass ceiling, the overwhelming Democratic NEA with its a heavily female membership has a slew of male officers. Running a union is about the exercise of raw power. For example, attendees at a recent convention were lectured on the necessity of not only opposing school vouchers but also boycotting any company that supports them.

What kind of trouble are the schools in? A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner found that many teens could not identify the country from which we won our independence. And no, it was not Japan, Canada or China. Too many students in the top 55 colleges could not identify Valley Forge, words from the Gettysburg Address or basic principles of the U.S. Constitution. Only 30% of 17-year-olds can read well enough to digest Forbes. The vocabulary of the average 14-year-old has fallen from 25,000 words to 10,000 words in the last 50 years.

The dynamics of school enrollments have also changed in the last 40 years. The percentage of secondary students attending Roman Catholic schools has fallen from 12.6% in 1960 to 4.7% today. Non-Catholic private school enrollments are up from 1% to 6.5%. Home Schooling estimates are between 1.6 and 2 million children. Any of these alternative educational situations cost less than a public school education. Yet school boards and taxpayers are repeatedly lectured on the dire necessity of increasing education funding now.

Brimelow insight fully says, "Because people are so used to viewing the government school system as a sort of religion or charitable endeavor rather than as an industry; they really do assume mat education spending is good and that more is better--as if education spending were prayer or good works. Naturally, their political leaders follow suit... No consumer would boast about spending more on a purchase than was absolutely necessary. Why is education different?"

Why indeed? If education is a charitable endeavor, why does it have unions? If it is an industry, why are cost considerations viewed with such disdain?

Reducing class size is often cited as a panacea for educational reform. Brimelow disputes this. Teacher quality is equally significant. Yet in 1949-1950 there were 2.36 teachers per school administrative staff. Today, there are only 1.09. In six states--Michigan, Indiana, Florida. Oklahoma, New Mexico and Vermont--administrators outnumber teachers.

An industry that has not changed in 100 years will change only when competition compels it. Special education programs are largely controlled in Washington and states either comply with federal dictates or lose federal money for these costly programs. Tenure policies allow incompetent teachers to remain in their positions. In 1997 in Florida, .05 % of teachers were fired as compared with 7.9% of employees in the real world. Out of 72.000 teachers in New York City, three were fired for incompetence in a two-year period. In Saranac, Mich., a shoplifting teacher exchanged her resignation for a year's salary and benefits.

The NEA even uses liability insurance to keep its rank and file in line. If a teacher needs protection against litigious parents, coverage options are obviously limited.

Tax increases to pay for additional education funding benefit not only leviathan school systems but union pockets as well. Every teacher salary increase means an increase in union dues. Union members generally pay in the neighborhood of $500 per year ($130 to the national organization, $300 to a state affiliate and $70 to a local union). Union dues are deducted from paychecks. Contract disputes that may raise salaries and union income sometimes cause layoffs as localities struggle to pay the bills. In 2000, Sonoma Valley, Calif., cut 70 positions as salaries rose 7%.

Class size reduction is an expensive option supported by the unions. Additional teachers boost membership, which provides an increase in union funding. Reducing class size creates an instant labor shortage causing wages to rise and new teacher standards to fall to accommodate the labor shortage. Veteran teachers transfer to the suburbs leaving the hardest inner-city assignments to the newest teachers.

Teacher unions provide amazing benefits to their staffers, including virtually 100% medical coverage and incarceration pay. If jailed while conducting union business, employees in the California Teachers' Association can collect normal benefits and double salary. It was revealed in 1993 that the Indiana State Teachers' Association had 40 employees making in excess of $100,000 per year. Anyone driving more than 8,000 miles per year on union business was eligible for a union automobile.

The NEA is naturally opposed to school choice and vouchers because these options give more control to parents and decrease the union's influence. Any person or group who favors such options is labeled an extremist. Giving parents a choice, instead of merely taxing them into submission with no alternative educational outlet, siphons off students from the public system and possibly even teachers. This leaves the NEA with the new problem of recruiting members in the private sector.

Brimelow has 24 suggestions for disinfecting the apple and extracting the worm, not the least of which is the abolition of the Department of Education. Also included in the wish list: Bust the teacher trust, reform collective bargaining statutes, pass right-to-work laws, end teacher tenure, allow merit pay, institute alternative teacher certification, and privatize some school services (e.g., cafeterias).

He closes with the words of University of Minnesota President Mark Yudof: "If war is too important to be left to the generals, then education is too important to be left only to professional teachers." "Or," adds Brimelow, "above all, to their unions."