Responding to Diane Ravitch, Randi Weingarten, & others on education, democracy, and unions
Here's Petrilli's follow-up:
Diane got right to the heart of the matter when she wrote, "Gosh, Mike, it sounds as though you have identified the real problem that 'reformers' face: democracy."
My knee-jerk reaction, which I zapped to her instantly over email, was that union-dominated school boards represent a perversion of democracy. Just as liberals complain about the "one percent" corrupting our politics through unlimited campaign financing, so too do public sector unions thwart the public will by buying off officeholders with their own lavish spending and political muscle. And this problem is multiplied in education, what with its separate boards, which are often elected in off-cycle, low-turnout contests, making them even more accessible to "capture" by employee interest groups.
That's all true, I believe—at least in large school districts.
…The solution is not to abandon democracy, but to consider whether different iterations of it might work better than others. Most policy domains don't have their own special boards like education, but they are still overseen by democratic institutions. Is it less "democratic" for a city council to be responsible for schools than a board of education? For a state legislature to be in charge? Virtually no other nation around the world has school boards as we do, yet most of their school systems aren't run in tyrannical ways.
…Beyond economics, reformers are trying to deal with the fact of counter-productive—no, criminal—collective bargaining agreements that protect the rights of senior teachers at the expense of everything else. (See this report—with your favorite cover, Randi—for more on that.) There's no defense for LIFO, for "bumping rights," for rubber rooms, and all of the rest.
…And yes, in some districts, such as New York, those provisions have been taken out. And that brings me to my last point. The reason they've been eliminated is because "management" in those locales finally got a backbone. In Gotham it was because of mayoral control; in other places, reformers have successfully taken over school boards. Randi says we should learn from leading business and work collaboratively with labor; that's fine, but only works if management is labor's equal. Because of our governance problems, that's rarely been the case, at least in urban America. If reformers gain a foothold on local boards, perhaps labor-management negotiations will finally result in good outcomes for kids.
Posted by Mike Petrilli on November 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm
Monday's post, "Dealing with disingenuous teachers unions: There are no shortcuts," sparked a wave of discussion and criticism—which, let's face it, is every writer's hope. But I wasn't just trying to be provocative; we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute strongly believe that issues of governance and politics have been too often ignored in the education reform debate. We're happy to help put these issues at the top of the policy agenda. In fact, we've teamed up with the Center for American Progress on a three-year project to do exactly that. (Join us on December 1st in Washington, D.C.—or online—for a groundbreaking conference on the topic.)