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Independent Institute Speech - Part 2
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April 30, 2003, 05:00 AM
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Peter Brimelow

Can I just add, I agree completely with that. You see, the unions are not the whole problem in education. It`s got lots of other problems. The problem is the system is not short of problems. [Laughter] Virginia is a government-run school system, and the ethos of the government school system pervades Virginia even though the school boards there have a lot more power than they do elsewhere. The national right to work people will say that. They`ve talked to employers about unionization.

And in heavily unionized states—well, for example, in Britain where I come from—you`ve got the phenomenon of employees who kind have become like pit ponies. They never see the light of day. They don`t know what it is to be free. And they`ll say things like, if we didn`t have unions how would we set wages? So the government school system itself is a pervasive problem, and would be a problem regardless of the existence of the union. There are other problems. The weakening of the union is not a panacea, but it is a prerequisite.

David Theroux

There are a number of writers like Ivan Illich and others who`ve raised the question of whether compulsory education laws are actually state-sponsored child labor. This lady right here?

John Merrifield

The unions aren`t the problem. They`re blocking change, that`s the problem. Politicians and the political process is the problem.

Audience Member #5

Well, every stakeholder in a big bureaucracy is going to block change, it`s just a bureaucracy.

Peter Brimelow

That`s the point.

Audience Member #5

What I have seen is that there has been a lot of power structure not so much with the teachers` union, they have a lot of power, but also the Superintendents` Association, the School Board Associations. These folks have a lot of power, because when you talk to the rank and file teachers, oftentimes they don`t agree with what`s going on at the upper end of the teachers` unions. And a lot of the money that`s in the educational system, which is over 55 percent of the state budget right now, does not get into the classroom. So I think our biggest thing that we can attack the public government schools with is that so much of the dollar goes to the bureaucracy, the overhead, and not the one-to-one teaching ratio. I think that`s where we have to attack this. So the teachers` union, the rank and file, is not that powerful. It`s the superintendents.

I have a friend that works for the California State Teachers` Retirement System. People are retiring with millions of dollars from teaching—from being a bean counter in the district office—and that`s got to change. And I think if those facts get out there, that will influence a lot of people. Thank you.

David Theroux

Could I sort of just slightly change one of the points that she was making and raise a question for both panelists? If you didn`t have compulsory funding of schools, what would happen to the collective bargaining nature of the union`s power? Any thought about that? In other words, if people were not compelled to fund public schools, what would happen to the nature of the union participation?

John Merrifield

Well, anything that interjected freedom into the system, where the teachers aren`t all treated the same, the union would be destroyed.

David Theroux

This gentleman right there.

Audience Member #7

Making the assumption that you people have your finger on the pulse of this thing, at least more than I do, can you gaze into your crystal ball and tell me what the legal climate of home-schooling might be? I mean they`re under assault from the teacher trust, or the whole institutional thing, but at the same time they seem to serve as a safety valve also for kids that just can`t fit in the one-size-fits-all education system. But will they survive? And what is the future of home-schooling from a legal perspective?

Peter Brimelow

Well, my impression is that home-schooling—there`s been battles for it in almost every state on this question, and essentially the home-schools have won. They have been able to compel the authorities to recognize that there are home-schools and it`s legitimate. And they`re doing it for a bunch of reasons. The best reason is that they`re organized. They`re highly organized and use the Internet a lot. They`re a very well organized minority. And the evidence is that more and more people are going into it.

Audience Member #8

The one thing you haven`t talked about is parent involvement. And I`m a perfect example of that, having lived in San Francisco and moved out because I thought the public schools were so terrible, and I couldn`t afford private schools. I went to Orinda, where the public schools are excellent and the children have done well. That`s because we`re very, very involved. So what do you think about the parent involvement forcing the changes that you want?

John Merrifield

Well, parent involvement is discouraged by our current system. I agree with you that parent involvement is an important ingredient, and if we involve parents in choosing schools and matching children to programs, that can`t help but create additional involvement. We definitely need that.

Audience Member #9

I`ve worked as a teacher, and I`ve worked in a juvenile hall system for a while, and I come across some 16 year-old kids who commit crimes and go to juvenile hall. We find out that they have disruptive, dysfunctional families, etc. They need counseling and all these other things. And yet I`ve also met 16 year-old kids who are bored and troublesome in high school, and they want to drop out, and they`d like to join the military where they might be able to come under the government wing and get all these services also. But our present system does not allow that. So what`s wrong with this picture and how can we fix it?

John Merrifield

Well, I think we described that, it`s to give them some choice in doing some of these things. I don`t think there`s any reason to force one size—I mean one size doesn`t fit all. You can`t expect to put children from across the spectrum in one school, much less one classroom.

For instance, these discipline problem children, they should have special services in a school specialized to handle that problem. They shouldn`t poison classrooms across the system by being in there, and disrupting, and occupying all of the teacher`s time. No one teacher is talented enough to be just that right person across this spectrum of children`s interests and needs—although a few miracle workers are out there.

Audience Member #10

Thank you. Have either of you taken on work at the ratio of dollars spent for special education versus the rest of the education population, and how that affects the outcome?

John Merrifield

I haven`t looked at that per se, but I know that the choiceless system, like we have, greatly magnifies the perception that there are special education problems. A system of diverse schools that are specialized, where parents would choose, would drastically reduce the number of children labeled by their parents in some way—or labeled by schools that thought to have to get some more money from them.

Peter Brimelow

I have some data on that in Worm, and it`s expensive, and it`s a major factor in the increase of costs—the decline of productivity of the system.

David Theroux

I mentioned the Oakland schools, originally. That`s a major problem.

Audience Member #10

What I really need to know is if it`s having an effect upon the outcome of the education of the rest of the children in the school?

John Merrifield

Mainstreaming is a disaster.

Audience Member #10

Because the ratio has gotten so far out of kilter.

Peter Brimelow

Well, we know that the results the rest of the children are producing are not great. So something`s doing it. So that`s not a bad candidate.

Audience Member #11

Some of the work that I do with a group of people is working with these special students. And the parents choose in our system to come to our services through the public schools. So my question is, are you familiar with, or do you know of any agencies out there, that are currently working with the public schools. Are there any other organizations out there that you`re familiar with, with special needs kids, that parents have financial ability to choose in a public school?

John Merrifield

Peter, I`m striking out on this one.

Peter Brimelow

I think there`s some provision in No Child Left behind for that, isn`t there?

Audience Member #11

Yes. There`s a supplemental service provider list that, but none of them are pretty much in the public schools. The service providers on that list have gone through, in the State of California, a series of exam questions, and then you`re allowed to come into the system and you`re given a certain amount of money. It runs between $400 and $1,200 per student, if the school allows you in. Most schools—Sylvan, Kaplan, other institutions, individuals who run counseling centers—these are some of them that are on the supplemental service provider list for California.

David Theroux

And that`s growing.

Audience Member #11

Oh, it`s huge. It`s growing.

John Merrifield

I remember an article a few years ago by Janet Beales, and she`s in an organization around here—I can`t remember which one it is.

David Theroux

She was with Reason for a while. She`s independent now.

John Merrifield

She wrote an article about all of the children sent by choice by the public school officials to private schools that specialized in particular special needs.

Audience Member #11

And the school system paid for it?

John Merrifield

The school system paid for it.

Audience Member #11

Where was this?

John Merrifield

It was a couple of years ago, in a newspaper, Wall Street Journal.

Audience Member #11

No pervasive programs that are currently taking some foothold for parent choice?

John Merrifield

Not that I know of. Try to get a hold of her though. She sounds like she really knows that area.

Audience Member #11

Well, I run a private school myself, and we have a teacher at our school who is French, and so I have a question for Peter in particular, namely, that the French Left is very different from the American Left, in the sense that they want higher standards. They say that they don`t want poor people to be exploited by the rich because the poor people are ignorant. Why do we see so much demand for lower standards on the part of the American Left? And is there any chance of reversing that so they`re going for higher standards for the poorest so that the poor don`t get exploited? And that competition might be a part of that?

Peter Brimelow

How long do we have? [Laughter]

John Merrifield

The short answer to that is we need to get the standards-setting out of the political process. That shouldn`t be a political issue.

Peter Brimelow

Well, the question you`re raising about American Left is an extremely interesting one, but it`s not easy to answer. It depends what you think their motives are. And the American Left is not rooted in the working class. It`s an elite left. Whereas I would say the French, and to some extent, the British Left traditionally came out of the labor movement, and so on, and actually had the interests of the working class at heart and cared about the working class. It`s not clear that that`s the case in the American Left. It`s an elite left.

That`s equally true in Britain, by the way, though. The education reforms that the socialist put through during the war in the coalition government were highly competitive, and highly examination-driven, and IQ-driven, and they developed a highly efficient system of socialism. But it was based on selectivity and around competition.

David Theroux

Yeah, also the position of the public school system on what was a common school system—it was a combination of common schools and other schools in the U.S.—was imposed by wealthier people on poor immigrants and so forth. Dick, did you have a question?

Audience Member #12

Yes, sir, thank you very much. How would you modify the current taxation system and the distribution of the taxation to the different schools, private as well as religious and public?

John Merrifield

Well, I haven`t thought about that as much. Currently what we need to do is voucherize the existing funding or tax-creditize it if you wish. But at some point, it would help to unify the funding and not have it be some mixture of federal, state, and local. Frankly, I think we need to get away from income taxes. So it probably ought to be some kind of a sales tax. And property taxes as well, get away from those.

Audience Member #12

I just want to comment on the special eds. This Saturday, Hayward Unified is having a board meeting, and they`re going to vote potentially to abandon class size reduction. And they have some 340 K-3 classes. That would increase class size from 20 to 32 in a difficult district, with a lot of multiethnic problems in terms of teaching reading and what have you.

And in this district there`s an encroachment over $2 million of the special ed into the regular fund. Other districts I`m told in Berkeley had nine million. In Oakland it`s even larger. But it seems to be almost an entitlement, writing IEPs, learning disabilities. We have lots of autistics, and they`re very expensive, and Hayward`s doing a good job attracting more autistics—I don`t know where they`re coming from—but there`s no limit to this. The district seems to be afraid of the lawsuits. And so, imagine giving up class size reduction in 144 classes for little first-graders, kindergartners, because of this thing is out of control that the district is not willing to take on. So it`s a real crisis with regard to special ed.

David Theroux

The lady right there.

Audience Member #13

Yeah, a couple of questions. And just in terms of historical perspective, it seems to me that the compulsory attendance laws were put in place because of demands of the labor market. So because the children were working in factories, and so to open the jobs for adult males, that was one of the things—and it seems to me that looking outside the box in a way, that if you were to change that for the demands of our economy today—that would be one question I would have for you.

And the other question is in terms of your political constituencies, it seems that you get interested in education when you have children, and you`re interested until they`re done, and then you`re not interested anymore. And so you have a fluctuating base, and yet, the institution remains and the teachers remain, and the bureaucrats remain. So they`re able to have a much more stable sort of lobbying effort.

And then the other question is that my mother taught in Louisiana for 38 years, and they didn`t have unions. And when she was in school, you couldn`t even chew gum, and they would tell you who to marry, because teachers had to uphold this certain calling—it was not just a job. But it seems to me that somehow, if you don`t have collective bargaining, what do the teachers do in their own economic interests, which would seem to be in line with this Institute`s mandate? I have cousins who teach in private schools. They have no retirement, they get lower wages. What do you put in place of that, because that`s their economic self-interest is at stake. They`re not going to go for that. And if you do want to enact this kind of change, you have to offer something else. So those are my three areas.

John Merrifield

Well, teachers would certainly see improved working conditions. Whether they would see improved salaries would depend on how many former teachers would come back into the system after teaching became a profession again, as opposed to more of a blue collar union occupation that it is now. So I don`t see any problem in setting wages for true professionals that work with clients that choose them, and that specialize in areas according to wage differentials, and sell themselves as productive team player teachers that somebody would want to hire.

And I know that principals want to be involved in hiring teachers, and that`s the way it needs to happen, not school cartels called districts hiring teachers. The teachers need to be in a labor market where they can choose the school that they work in, not the district that they work in, and where they can shop themselves directly among competing schools, public or private.

Peter Brimelow

I agree that it`s true that most people get into education when they have children, but one of the points I make in my book is that you have to look at the cost dimension. In other words, people should be interested in education because they`re taxpayers. That`s what`s really impacting most people. I mean education is not a trivial cost in this country, and it really does drive state and local spending, and anybody who`s concerned about taxes should look to that.

Your point about the interest of teachers— of course, wages do get set in the private sector through a variety of ways. And for teachers, they should have these options, too. As I say, in Texas, there is one organization, which is a profit-making entity, that bargains on behalf of teachers. It`s basically like having an agent, a literary agent or something. And another suggestion that I examine in this book is that we could move to a European model where you have competing unions, where you don`t have exclusive camps. You have several different unions.

More generally, though, I think the point you`re making about the interest of the teachers in the current system is a very good one. One of the lessons of the privatization movement in Britain, when they did substantially privatize the nationalized sect, which was very, very large, is that however much it may distress you, you basically have to bribe the people in the system to give up their current position. And they did it in the case of privatization of the Water Board, and the electricity, and so on, by giving the workers shares. And that worked very well. It brought the workers over the objection to it. And we have to find some similar equivalent to buy out the entrenched interests in the education system.

John Merrifield

We don`t want to judge a choice-based system on the basis of the private sector, the depravity of the private sector that we have now, because the private schools are now in a situation where it`s a miracle that there are any private schools. By the way, I appreciate you in the back that you`ve been able to perform this miracle. But try to think of another part of our economy where somebody can sell something for thousands of dollars that someone else is giving away. Pretty tough.

David Theroux

On the issue, by the way, of historical background of compulsory education, if you go back and look at the writings of the people who are proponents of it, you`ll find that it was very xenophobic, very racist, very ethnocentric. And you combine that with the fact that a lot of wanted to essentially reduce the labor market. They want to eliminate young people being in the labor market, which is part of what continued in other ways, too. That`s also how Apartheid started, too. How about this gentleman right here.

Audience Member #14

 

Thanks. I was a teacher for 20 years, and the prevailing outlook of my colleagues was, all we ask is less work to do and higher pay when we don`t get it done. It was a disgusting period of time. I was in the classroom for 20 years. In the district where I live, the teacher union orchestrated the school board election in 1990, and won an award from CTA for doing so. CTA gives the Joyce Fadem (award for excellence in manipulation of school board elections. [Laughter]

As far as democratization in the Oakland City schools is concerned, ebonics is the model of democratization in the Oakland City schools. Now I know I need to ask a question. [Laughter]

John Merrifield

Thank you for that comment. We appreciate that.

Audience Member #14

There are some who say that dumbing-down of American education is rather deliberate. That there are forces from Lou Gerstner of IBM, to Mark Tucker of the Carnegie Foundation, to Hilary Clinton, who have in view an American workforce that is pliant, that is a blank slate that can be pretty much manipulated into whatever position is needed. Have you had any experience, any dealings with that movement? Can you talk about that for a moment?

Peter Brimelow

This sounds like the kind of thing that would interest David. [Laughter] Well, I haven`t, but I know that it`s certainly easier to sustain a system like the one we have when there isn`t any understanding of economics, and certainly we`ve achieved that.

David Theroux

If the purpose of education is that every individual matures and is able to think for him or herself, and understand the world and function successfully, the model that you`re mentioning, which is the mainstream model, is the opposite. It`s to dumb-down the quality. It`s to make people think alike. It`s to make people subservient and basically submissive to the system. I`m not sure if you know about the story of the "Pledge of Allegiance," but one of the major advocates of compulsory education was a guy named Francis Bellamy, who wrote the "Pledge of Allegiance." And he was a Christian Socialist, and he believed very strongly that you had to mold the citizenry, the young people, into being essentially loyal subjects of a national government. And there`s a whole story about the practice of reciting the "Pledge of Allegiance," actually raising your arm up, and there`s a whole thing he wrote about this, which he got adopted throughout the country. And it`s part of this model that education is to essentially create sort of robot-type figures that will be subservient rather than create individual, independent, self-acting people.

Audience Member #15

This is kind of a general question, maybe some of the audience could answer it. In the Alameda County school system, my grandson has seen the movie Malcolm X three times, and he`s getting kind of bored with it. [Laughter] Does anyone have any idea of what the film budget is in Alameda County among the various school districts?

Audience Member #16

Our researcher has left.

John Merrifield

Well, it sounds like they`re pretty efficient to have one film and they just keep showing it. [Laughter] I guess they`re not spending a lot of money on films and they could show three versions that are like Malcolm X, but different, so they`d have to buy three films.

David Theroux

One more question.

Audience Member #17

Regarding the need of unions to protect the teachers` paychecks and so forth—I live out in Lafayette in what is reputed to be a pretty good school district, and it probably is. And some of the best teachers have gotten together and formed a private academy after school, during which time they go back and repeat the day`s lessons. And we send our kids there at roughly $25 per student per hour to get the lesson they didn`t get in school.

Now why they didn`t get it in school, I don`t know, but in order for them to be able to graduate at the top of their class, pass their SATs, and get into college, we add this on top of whatever the hell we`re paying in Lafayette for property taxes, which I don`t even want to talk about. So, yes, the unions do defend some of the teachers, the ones we probably would be better off without.

David Theroux

I want to thank our speakers, Peter Brimelow and John Merrifield. [Applause] I want to thank you for joining with us. For those of you who have not picked up copies of their books, I hope you will do so. They`re available upstairs. They`d be happy to autograph copies. And we hope to see you at our next Independent Policy Forum. Thank you. Good night.