Why the Teachers Can`t Be Trusted

, Mar/Apr 2003, Vol. 36, Issue 2

I attended an education conference
in Washington the other day, and something unusual
happened. It is not easy to notice when the watchdogs
bark, but this time they surely didn`t.

The occasion was a Hoover
Institution symposium on the lack of progress since a
report very critical of U.S. schooling came out twenty
years ago. Recently, Hoover assembled a task force, and
now its members were here to tell us their finding:
"U.S. Education Still Flunks"
There has been no
progress, apparently. Maybe even further decline. The
leadoff speaker was

Rod Paige
, the secretary of education.

Cabinet members sometimes give the
impression that they regard their boss as Stalin: the
man who can end their careers at any moment. Given the
war fever in Washington, President Bush is unlikely to
be paying much attention to education these days; we can
feel confident that, whatever his place in history,
"education president"
won`t be it. Still, when Paige
started to talk about the No Child Left Behind Act, he
gave the impression that Bush was looking over his
shoulder: "Historic in its sweep, historic in its
findings, historic in its commitment to children…
Never before has this nation, any nation, or any
society…regardless of race or family.."

It`s never easy to notice
when the watchdogs don`t bark

Some of us were beginning to doze
off when Paige abruptly woke everyone up. He was talking
about his own department:

had nineteen people arrested, several convicted. Five
arrested for stealing, using funds to buy a red
Corvette, and billing us. Two million dollars stolen
from Impact Aid, $450 million missing! We recovered 95
percent of those problems. We found credit cards all
across the organization, with spending limits of up to
$300,000. We shut them down completely. We`ve cut it
down to $2,500, for a few people only. And Ernst & Young
for the first time said, "This
organization deserves a clean audit."
We`ve still
got work to do. But we are building a coherent,
functioning organization.

Good thing I had the tape recorder
running! I checked the department Web site the next day,
and there was the secretary`s speech. But his backhanded
progress report somehow wasn`t included. I queried the
secretary`s personal assistant. How new was this? He
forwarded a department press release, dated two weeks
earlier. It

: "One million dollars in false overtime
had been charged to the department"
Also: "A
theft ring inside the department used hundreds of
thousands of the taxpayers` dollars to buy and then
steal all manner of electronic equipment:`
intended for South Dakota schools was "diverted to
buy real estate, a Lincoln Navigator, and a Cadillac
As to those arrested, "the former
department employee and acknowledged ring leader of this
group of nineteen people is scheduled to be sentenced on
March 28, along with her husband–an employee of the
EPA–son, and two others." I
t went on for

If you read Education Week
you may have heard about this. Otherwise I doubt it.
Hardly anyone in the general press wrote about it,
according to the press secretary. Private sector
delinquency gets frontpage coverage. But when thousands
of bureaucrats dispose of tens of billions of taxpayers`
money each year, some of it into their own pockets, the
media watchdogs

sleep on.
These massive government agencies operate
essentially without media scrutiny, and the people who
work there know it. Months pass between desultory
reports about the department in the

Washington Post,
for example.

A friend at the Department of
Education told me that the problem Paige described arose
in the first Clinton administration. Some internal
auditing had been terminated because senior officials
naively believed that people who work in education can
be trusted to "do the right thing" By Clinton`s
second term the diversion of funds was rampant and the
truth was beginning to dawn. Secretary Paige was
delivering a progress report on an investigation that
has been going on for a few years.

As newsworthiness is currently
assessed in Washington, moral turpitude in government
agencies is considered a minor thing. The reigning idea
is that those who work at the taxpayers` expense are
idealistic (unless they work for the Pentagon). In
contrast, workers in profit-seeking enterprises are
inspired by greed. Press scrutiny of government workers
is far more essential, of course, because their revenues
are obtained coercively. And failing agencies are
rewarded with budget increases. They never, never go out
of business. In contrast, the shares of mismanaged
private companies decline in value. Eventually they will
go out of business. So the problem is self-correcting.

The amount of money spent on
education at all levels has now risen to unbelievable
heights. It is now a $750-billion industry in the United
States. When the U.S. Department of Education was
created, in 1980, its budget was $14 billion; today it
has grown by a factor of four. In 1980, conservatives
called for the department to be shut down. Recently, it
was favored with a Ted-Kennedy-sized budget increase.
Ronald Reagan called for the

department to be abolished
when he first ran for
president. But when he was elected, his secretary of
education, Terrel Bell, did not agree. (More recently it
has been reported that Rod Paige did not agree with
President Bush`s No Child Left Behind proposal and was
"out of the loop" when it went through Congress. He had
hoped that Bush would take a harder line.)

Eventually Terrel Bell appointed an
independent commission to study the problems of U.S.
education. It included high-ranking academics, and its

A Nation at Risk,
was well received. This in
turn "ended the debate about abolishing the department
and guaranteed its political survival" according to

Diane Ravitch
, a professor at New York University,
and a member of the Hoover panel assembled in
Washington. In its most quoted comment, A Nation at
said that the U.S. education system was

"being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that
threatens our very future as a nation and a people."

That was in 1983. What has happened
since? According to Paul E. Peterson, the Henry Lee
Shattuck Professor of Government at

and another member of the Hoover group, the
overall picture is "unmistakably grim." We have
long trailed many other countries in math instruction,
he said, and there are no signs of that gap closing. As
for reading and writing, there are "multiple signs of
a downward trend."
Moreover, the declining
performance among high schoolers has been accompanied by
"a decline in the percentage of students finishing
high school. Students are walking away from public
schools, choosing other ways of getting an apparent

I talked to

Terry Moe
, a professor of political science at
Stanford. He is the author of several books on education

school vouchers
and an expert on the key role of the
teacher unions. The ongoing decline, or at best
stagnation in government schooling, has occurred

even though
"we are spending three times more per
child than we spent in 1960"
he told me. And that is
corrected for inflation.

This is what the education
establishment doesn`t want to hear: More money yields no
improvement in the classroom.

Chester Finn,
a walking encyclopedia of

all things educational
, and chairman of Hoover`s
Koret Task Force, said that more money "hasn`t
worked, isn`t working, and after twenty years how much
more experiment with failure do we need?"

An argument one heard was that the
Soccer Moms are content with their schools. They rate
them B plus, everyone else`s C minus. In the same way
people think their own congressman is good and all the
others are bad. So the parents fear many reforms, lest
their own schools lose out in a perceived zero-sum

"Well, the suburban schools are
not working as well as people tend to think"
Finn said. "The great American middle class is under
a bit of an illusion that its schools are just fine.
Compare them with student achievement in Germany or
Japan or Korea or a wide range of other countries, and
we can show that it just isn`t true."

Here are some of the main
task-force findings: The United States is falling behind
many other countries. SAT scores remain well below their
1970 levels. The school year is about seven days shorter
than it was. The share of teachers with a master`s
degree in a subject area (rather than the dismal subject
of education) has fallen from 17 percent in 1982 to 5
percent now. Teachers have smaller classes, and their
salaries rose from $19,000 a year to $35,000 in 2000.
Their fringe benefits have increased rapidly.

This is where the teacher unions
come in. In his excellent new book

The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are
Destroying American Education
Peter Brimelow points out that the great change in these
unions didn`t occur until the early 1960s, when they
were transformed from professional associations to labor
unions with monopoly power. The problem that they pose
is still novel enough that "many of today`s politicians
and pundits reached adulthood before the new reality of
the teacher unions had reared its ugly bifocals." The
venerable economist Milton Friedman says that Brimelow`s
book "demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt that
the teacher unions, through their control of the
government education monopoly, are the major source of
the gross deficiencies in our government school system."

The unions and their incentives
provide the analytical key to understanding both
educational decline and the prospects for reform. They
explain what has happened (smaller classes mean more
teachers), and allow us to predict what will happen (or
won`t). The unions` interests are straightforward: They
want increased wages and fringe benefits for their
members and no threats to their jobs. They are not
interested in education, although they pretend to be. I
see that a recent issue of Education Week has an
article by the president of the United Federation of
Teachers in New York with the headline:

"Writing a Curriculum–It`s Union Work."

The political power of the unions
allows them to block "almost everything that they
don`t want,"
Terry Moe told the conference. "And
that`s going to be the reality for the foreseeable
future." The main reforms the Hoover panel likes are
accountability and school choice, but the unions will
bitterly oppose both. Accountability puts a spotlight on
the performance of both schools and teachers. Bad ones
can be fired, good ones rewarded. School choice will
allow parents to remove their kids from lousy schools.
"When they leave, kids and money flow out of
unionized schools,"
Moe said. "They will have
fewer members, fewer resources, and less political

For these reasons, the interests of
teacher unions are for the most part directly opposed to
good schooling. Working with the Democrats, they will be
able to block needed reforms, probably for years. If so,
however, the gap between the suburban schools and those
in the inner cities will continue to widen. Eventually,
it will become plain for all to see that government
education is a civil rights issue–as several people at
the conference pointed out. At the moment, liberals
don`t care about this because they value the political
support of the teacher unions more than they care about

literacy of minorities.
But one day the great middle
class will figure it out and at that point the Teacher
Trust will be in trouble.