Give kids a chance

C. Scott Litch Contributor
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Liberals often argue that conservatives don’t care about children, especially those from low-income families. To the contrary, conservatives are committed to one reform that can actually help such children and requires only a loosening of government control.

We know what it takes to avoid poverty and join the middle class in America: graduating from high school, working full-time, and not having children out of wedlock (per Brookings Institution scholars Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill in their book Creating an Opportunity Society). Unfortunately, government has proven woefully inadequate at influencing families’ child-bearing decisions and educational expectations.

However, the low-hanging fruit crying out for reform is public elementary and secondary education. That is, the public school system. How many times do we have to see disappointing American test scores and drop-out rates — especially among poor children — before we realize something is dramatically wrong? And no, the solution is not more money. The public schools that do better are largely in more affluent areas with better educated parents, but such schools succeed in spite of the socialized public system, not because of it. Yet so many children from low-income families, especially in inner cities, are consigned to poor schools that cannot fire incompetent teachers, accept innovation, manage resources efficiently, or create a safe and disciplined learning environment. The situation is so bad that it inspired several documentaries last year, including Waiting for Superman (by Davis Guggenheim), which told the sad story of the Washington, D.C. system and the uphill efforts to revive it:

It’s a tragedy of such proportions that some Democrats are willing to join conservatives and demand education reform. For example, New York Democrat Eva Moskowitz was recently cited in a National Review article by editor Richard Lowry, because:

. . . Moskowitz is hated by one of the most important bastions of the liberal establishment in New York — the teachers’ union. As a member of the New York City Council, she subjected the union and its absurd work rules to searing public hearings. Defeated for higher office — the union nuked her bid for Manhattan borough president — she took her revenge by starting a chain of charter schools in Harlem that have put the public-school system to shame.

If Ms. Moskowitz can see the light, surely there is hope for Democrats and Republicans working together to solve this problem by giving options to students and their families and infusing some much-needed competition into public school systems. The leaders are right in front of our eyes. New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, just approved applications for 23 new charter schools (including the state’s first independent school for children with autism), adding about one-third more charter schools to the 73 currently operating in the state. Christie has quite appropriately made charter schools and school choice centerpieces of his education plans.

But to join the righteous cause, Democrats must bite the hand that feeds them (via political campaign contributions) and face the hard reality that teachers’ unions are not just a mild distraction from this effort at change — they are at the heart of the problem, consistently opposing changes that any quality-based organization needs: the ability to reward high performers with merit-based pay and get rid of low performers, while cutting unnecessary administrative fat. When is the last time you heard of an organization going through tough times and in need of a dramatic turnaround say: “Hey, what we were doing wasn’t working, so we decided to throw even more money at it”? Think about that when you hear the classic liberal retort that “if we just gave them more money, all would be fine.” This ignores the fact that many failing systems, like Washington, D.C.’s, spend far more per pupil than other systems. Sadly, the teachers’ unions and other apologists for failure oppose any type of competition.

There is no denying that teachers’ unions have secured some pretty nice benefits for their members at taxpayers’ expense. But have they fostered teaching excellence? As noted by educational innovator Chris Whittle in his 2005 book Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future for Public Education:

Just as in law, medicine, business, and virtually every other profession, compensation must be keyed to performance and responsibility, not seniority. The concept that everyone should be paid the same regardless of results and, basically, on an hourly basis is the single greatest indication of the backwardness of the field.


. . . union leaders have made uniformity a top collective-bargaining priority, judging that differentiation is too risky for their members — and their own leadership positions.

We hear a lot every January, as we should, about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream for American’s future. To honor that dream, the public school status quo must be challenged. Sadly, many Democrats refuse to buck the teachers’ unions, even when they wouldn’t dare send their own children to terrible public schools, as both Presidents Clinton and Obama have shown. Conservatives want to bring competition and innovation to a status quo that isn’t working. For the sake of our children’s future, whose side are you on?

C. Scott Litch is the chief operating officer and general counsel for a non-profit association. Scott is a licensed attorney, Certified Association Executive, and also holds a masters degree in public policy. He is the author of The Principled Conservative in 21st Century America, released in the fall of 2010 just prior to the GOP midterm election tsunami.