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The Challenge for Secretary Betsy DeVos


The Challenge for Secretary Betsy DeVos

February 9, 2017

Betsy DeVos has successfully won confirmation over the objections of the teachers’ unions.  Now she has to change the focus of American education so it is run in the interests of students rather than in the interests of teachers.

Education is one of the few entitlements where people have to use their neighborhood point of service.  Imagine if food stamp recipients had to go to their neighborhood grocery store, or those on Medicaid had to go to their neighborhood doctor.  There would be a revolution.  People would say that their neighborhood stores and doctors were inferior, and demand a wider choice.

But when states tell people that they have to go to their neighborhood schools, even if they have a low graduation rate, they do not complain.  They should.  Nothing is more important than education for a child’s future progress.  Skills acquired in school help children throughout their lives.  Schools are the necessary path to future training in colleges, junior colleges, or vocational schools.

These days in America many students are not acquiring the skills they need.  Only 82% of high school students (73% of African Americans) graduate in four years. Even when they graduate, some are not learning. Americans score below the average on international science and math tests, with most of Europe coming out ahead.

The fundamental problem is that our education system systematically favors unqualified teachers over the interests of the young.  In most fields, if you cannot do your job, you are replaced with someone who can. But not in education.

Teachers’ unions successfully protect the jobs of their worst-performing members at the expense of the students. In many cities with abysmal school systems, teacher firings are exceedingly rare.

In New York City and Chicago, barely 1 in 1,000 teachers lose their jobs for poor performance. The worst teachers are sent to “rubber rooms” while their firings go through litigation. In these rubber rooms, teachers receive full pay and benefits, while the school system hires substitutes to teach.

Unions are able to get away with protecting inferior teachers because many parents cannot move their children out of their neighborhood schools. In addition, teachers’ unions are one of the most politically powerful interest groups in the nation. Since 1990, the two largest teachers’ unions have spent over $149 million on campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Education Association is the fourth largest single donor in American politics.

President Franklin Roosevelt wrote in 1937, in a letter to Luther Steward, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, that “all Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with Government employee organizations.”  The union is essentially bargaining against the taxpayer.  

Teachers’ unions have gained new hires and pay raises as student achievement has stagnated and even declined. In the 40 years since 1970, the public school workforce almost doubled to 6.2 million, while student enrollment has gone up by less than 10 percent.

Teachers’ unions often fight charter schools on the basis that they are less accountable to students and families. Not true: if a charter school is not meeting the students’ needs, they can—and do—leave. The real reason for union opposition is that charter school teachers are not unionized.

Secretary DeVos should expand the reach of charter schools by allowing school districts to have more flexibility with federal funds.  This will permit parents more choice over their kids’ schools, and the lower-performing schools will gradually disappear.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow and director of Economics21 at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter here.

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