Opening Doors in Education

By Doug Magill

Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open oneMalcolm Forbes

Amidst a great deal of wailing and screeching, one can begin to discern the opening of minds to what the real problems in education are.  Despite obfuscation and dissembling by Democrats and their supporters in the teachers’ unions, most people are beginning to realize that union practices are the biggest problem.

In various states reform has already begun and in most cases in a more aggressive fashion than what has been proposed by Mayor Jackson.   Make no mistake, Mayor Jackson’s plan took courage and certainly caused him to play against type in the political world.  Still, having close-minded ideologues of his own party ask silly questions about whether he is a Republican in disguise shows how much remains to be done.

Mayor Jackson is probably the only person who could push a reform as groundbreaking as his in a city like Cleveland.  His stratospheric approval ratings give him a cushion for ambitious reform.  And he has been willing to take the risk.

What is sad is how long it took to get legislative sponsorship for his program, showing how scarce courage is in Columbus.   Republicans are wasting time complaining about the Transformation Alliance, a panel to be appointed by the mayor that would have final approval on new charter schools.  Perhaps that is not the best model, but one could hardly blame the mayor for wanting control of the academic criteria for charter schools.  Perhaps they don’t know that Jackson’s desire for alternative forms of education is based on his surprise at the progress his grandchildren are making in that environment.

It has also been sad to see how lukewarm and timid the Plain Dealer has been in endorsing his plan and running for cover concerning some of the critical issues relative to the teachers unions.  One doesn’t expect anything different from a liberal news organization without real competition, but one could certainly hope for more.

And what has been absent is a real understanding of what other states have been doing and why Cleveland’s plan is really quite modest.  But the plan is nonetheless a beginning.

Colorado has implemented a far-reaching plan that is now being studied by a number of other states.  Colorado Senate Bill 191 required teacher evaluations to be based on student academic achievement and changed tenure to make it easier to fire teachers.

Indiana dramatically changed its K–12 education system to empower teachers and principals.  Collective bargaining was modified to allow only negotiations on wages and benefits.  Schools were put on notice that if they don’t improve after five years they can be subject to turnaround efforts, which may mean the hiring of a private firm to manage the recovery.

The Hoosier State expanded online schools and vouchers that apply to private schools.  And for those of those who have resented double-paying for education tax deductions for tuition payments to private schools were implemented.  Modest – but a step in the right direction.

Within all the noise about the union-sponsored mayhem relative to Wisconsin’s dramatic reshaping of public employee union collective bargaining was a startling fact.  Once passed, many school districts–freed from union demanded providers–were able to negotiate lower-cost contracts for many services and insurance, and have been able to hire more teachers and in some cases reduce property taxes.

After passing an open-enrollment bill earlier this year, the state legislature has now passed a law requiring ratings of schools, teacher evaluations based upon student performance, and testing of kindergartners.

Louisiana, long the subject of jokes about corruption and Democrat-machine control (consider Illinois, Cook County and Ohio, Cuyahoga County), has passed one of the most sweeping education reform measures in the country.  Every parent will essentially be given a voucher to use for his or her child’s education as seen fit (an option that is desperately needed in Ohio).  Low-income students will be eligible for vouchers to attend private schools.  Superintendents and principals will now have real authority and tools to use against school boards, long a stronghold of union intransigence.

Teacher tenure will now be dramatically changed and more difficult to acquire (it now has to be actually earned).  Layoffs will no longer take out younger and more enthusiastic teachers.

Many of these changes were required after Hurricane Katrina, and the schools in New Orleans have now become almost exclusively charters.  Not surprisingly, there has been a dramatic improvement in academic performance.

Despite heavy pressure and the usual attempts at histrionics, the unions were unable to influence the vote in the Louisiana legislature, where many Democrats voted for reform.

There is no doubt that these are the measures that will be finding homes in most states in the next few years.  Most, if not all legislators know that the education in the country is abysmal.  Despite having one of the highest per-capita education spending rates in the world, the academic performance of the United States is very poor compared with other countries.

The problems are legion, and not all of them have to do with unions.  They are the biggest mountain to move, but not the only one.  One is the quality of teachers.  In no other country are education schools utilized, let alone required for certification of teachers.  In most cases today’s teachers come from the bottom third of their classes.

In 1964 to 1971 38% of the women in teaching came from the top 10% of their classes.  Today, only around 10% do so.  The availability of more options is one reason, but the lack of control and the inability to be effective are likely concerns as well.

And, class size is generally not the issue.  In highly effective educational systems class sizes are much larger than what exist in the United States with much better results.  Between 1970 and 2009, the number of pupils has grown by 8 percent, while the number of teachers has grown 61 percent.

There are many areas of concern that need to be addressed in Ohio.  Mayor Jackson’s reforms are a small beginning.  Now we need leaders at the state level to push deeper and better reforms across the entire state.  But, keep the federal government out of it.  The closer financing, standard-setting, and control remains to the parents and local schools the better off we will be.

President Eisenhower signed the National Defense Education Act in 1958, which allocated $1 billion over four years.  He was responding to the concern that the Russians were overtaking us in science and math.  But he believed that the federal government should stay out of the education business, writing that “the process of taking money away from citizens to return it to localities for special (educational) purposes implies a centralization of wisdom in Washington that certainly does not necessarily exist.”

Doug Magill has done volunteer work with the Cleveland Public Schools and is a consultant, freelance writer and voice-over talent.  He can be reached at doug@magillmedia.net

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