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Issue Analysis

Education Reform or Business as Usual?

Randi Weingarten’s interview in the Wall Street Journal was disappointing but not surprising.  As the leader of the American Teachers’ Federation, the second most powerful teacher’s union in America, Weingarten revealed herself to be a staunch  defender of the status quo.  She doesn’t argue that kids are getting a sufficient education (that is becoming increasingly difficult), but she stood firmly against anything that might reverse the trend.

Her defense of teacher seniority—or, the practice of securing teachers’ jobs based on how long they have been employed rather than how well they have performed—is a perfect example of how the union leader defends business as usual:

[Seniority is] not the perfect mechanism but it's the best mechanism we have. You have cronyism and corruption and discrimination issues. We're saying let's do things the right way. We don't want to see people getting laid off based on who they know instead of what they know. We don't want to see people get laid off based on how much they cost.

This defense misses the main points of the reform debate entirely.  Few, if any, reformers have argued that teachers should “get laid off based on how much they cost,” but they have argued that a senior teacher who is demonstrably less effective than his or her younger counterpart should probably be laid off first. This has nothing to do with how much the ineffective teacher costs, just as it has nothing to do with how long that teacher has been employed. The determining factor is whether or not the teacher is effective.

In all fairness, Weingarten would probably prefer to see no teachers laid off; but when this predisposition meets economic reality, the policies which she recommends are often myopic and imprudent. In 2010, for instance, she was one of one of the primary voices lobbying for a school bailout. Just a year before, the stimulus package had included more than four times that amount in education spending, much of it devoted to supplementing education budgets at the state level.

The stimulus package was a significant spending increase, but increases in education spending are normal.  As Professor James Guthrie has pointed out, when education spending is adjusted for inflation it still works out to be nearly three times what it was fifty years ago, before there was even talk of a broken education system. The American education system does not need more money; it needs policy entrepreneurs who will devise innovative initiatives such as Pennsylvania's Senate Bill 1, a bill which would provide parents with vouchers to send their children to successful schools.

Individuals like the leader of the American Federation of Teachers don’t defend the status quo because it is broken, but they will defend it so long as it sustains their monopoly.  But monopolies are only good for the people who are sustained by them. For consumers and, in the case of public education, taxpayers, they stunt innovation and reform. When they fail to provide results, all that monopolistic agencies can do is ask for more to pay for the same thing, only on a larger scale the second time around.