Why Teacher's Unions Hurt Education

Over the last few years, a bizarre situation has been going on here in Michigan. In 2003, a philanthropist named Robert Thompson offered to spend $200 million to build 15 charter schools in the city of Detroit, each serving 500 students, with a guarantee that each one would graduate at least 90% of its students. That plan required approval of the state legislature and in late 2003 they had reached a deal to pass a bill that allowed this to happen, but the Detroit teacher's union called a one-day strike and marched on the state capitol to protest this plan. As a result, the Detroit mayor and Governor Granholm both pulled their support of the bill and it collapsed.

Detroit public schools are among the worst imaginable. Jack McHugh of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy gives some of the shocking facts, quoting the Standard and Poor's School Evaluation Service report on Detroit schools:

"Detroit Public Schools generates well below-average student results with well above-average spending per student. Statewide, only 2.3 percent of Michigan's school districts report a smaller proportion of MEAP test scores that meet or exceed state standards. Statewide, only 3.4 percent of Michigan's school districts graduate a smaller proportion of students. Statewide, only 2.5 percent of Michigan's school districts report a greater dropout rate. Statewide, only 9 percent of Michigan's school districts spend more per student. Statewide, only 2.5 percent of Michigan's school districts spend more per student on administration. When costs are adjusted for student circumstances ... only 5.3 percent of Michigan's school districts have less favorable ... average amount[s] of money spent per unit of measured achievement."

One would think that a school district with this poor a record would welcome a $200 million gift that would dramatically affect the educational opportunities for thousands of Detroit schoolchildren, but there's one problem with that: it would compete with the public schools and if successful at reaching its goal of graduating 90% of its students, it would show that it's possible to do much better than the public schools are currently doing. And that would put egg on the face of the educational establishment.

Now the Thompson Foundation has put its offer back on the table, along with the Skillman Foundation. And Grand Valley State University is offering to sponsor the schools (state law allows universities in the state to sponsor a certain number of charter schools). The Skillman Foundation has already donated millions to Detroit public schools that show success, including giving $1.5 million to keep the Communication & Media Arts High School, a quasi-magnet school in the city that has had great success with its educational model, open for the next 3 years.

This is not the first time the Thompson Foundation has given huge sums of money to give opportunities to students in Detroit. Their mission is to help lower income people rise out of poverty and to that end they have funded 1000 private school scholarships for Detroit city students, 500 junior college scholarships and 70 undergraduate and graduate scholarships at Michigan Tech and Michigan State. In a city with a dropout rate near 50%, you would think that they would be thrilled that someone is offering to do so much for at-risk students in that city.

But the Detroit Federation of Teachers doesn't want the competition from charter schools. Successful charter schools, you see, would make their schools look very, very bad. And apparently covering up their lack of success is more important than providing opportunities for poor students to achieve academically. Now that Thompson's offer is back on the table, the teacher's union must be pressured to end their protests and stop trying to prevent the very thing they should be cheering for.


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With all due respect, I teach biology at a public school and have no problem with charter schools. My district is well maintained and well regarded in the community. Not all communities are as lucky.

That being said we do not have a teachers union and I, and most of my fellow educators, wish we did. As an example the legislature in my state simply cannot find a way to compensate teachers, but can find a way to raise our retirement age by nearly a decade and penalize anyone for retiring early. They also nail us on insurance.

Teaches unions, like many things, are not perfect. But they certainly don't hurt education. In this case I find their actions misquided but as a general rule I support them. And this is a change for me as I had not previously done so. After being in the trenches for 13 years my perspective has changed. I got into education to allow me time for my business and found I loved it to much to leave. So now I juggle both.

Charter schools often draw from a different type of family. If one spends much time in the public school, as I think you did as a debate coach, you see the gamut of families. The schools sometimes shoulder the blame but more often than not it is the family the children comes from which determines the success of the student. We can catch as many hardcases as possible but in the end mom and dad are the real determining factor.

I personally would not strike over such an issue but would strike over retirement, wages, and health care. Unfortunately I don't have this oppurtunity.

Ed... while I agree with you in general that teachers unions are more of a problem than a solution, there may be another side to this story. In fact, I'm a tad disappointed that you haven't considered this, or provided more detail about the DFT's stand.

The issue is: The public schools must accept all students in their geographic area. Except for cases of violence, etc., they have few options for dealing with learning disabilities, social problems, etc. If the proposed system in Detroit is like many others, the charter schools would have the ability to send a "problem" child back to their original school.

The sad thing is that not all students are the same -- given the same environment, good or bad, two students won't turn out the same. I think that all students could do better with better environments, but some have limits that others don't.

My point is that a system of specially funded schools that can attract the "best and brightest" sets the remaining schools up for failure. Given the added burden of NCLB mandating that all students, even learning disabled ones, be counted in a school's score, I can't blame teachers for being lukewarm to the idea at best.

The true problem is that the existing schools are underfunded and poorly managed. Demonstrating that improving that makes for better schools isn't going to help those left behind.

How will that $200m help the student whose school is falling apart, with insufficient heat in the winter, out-of-date books, no librarian, no arts or music? Do you believe that seeing these charter schools succeed will make the Michigan legislature (or whomever funds the schools in MI) squeeze one more dollar out to address issues in the non-charter schools?

Back to the unions for a moment: Yes, they can be horrible obstructions, protecting incompetents and serving their own interests at least as much as the students' and communities'. But they can also protect teachers from the vagaries of even more incompetent administrators and give the teachers a voice that can be heard.

"Competition" in a market sense, has no place in a public educational system. In any market governed by competition, there are always those who remove themselves from the market - in this case, it would be those who remain essentially uneducated. More importantly, the creation of charter schools, even those that "guarantee" graduation, means experimenting with children's education - here in DC we have seen the failure of several charter schools, with the children from those failed establishments ending up back in the traditional public school system, AND needing remedial education for the time lost in the failed charter schools.

The biggest problem with setting up this kind of program is that the traditional public schools become the schools of last resort - they have to take everyone. So a charter school that has guaranteed its education rate has a HUGE incentive to get rid of problem students and dump them back into the public school system - as a result the comparison between public and charter looks bad, but it is not an "apples to apples" assessment. This is exactly how many Catholic schools have maintained their illusion of quality - I saw it happen myself while in Catholic high school 20 years ago. The discipline problems, the pregnant students, etc., were simply gotten rid of.

The teachers' union has a real issue here, and they continue to take all the blame for the poor performance of inner city schools. Yet if one looks at the actual $$ amount spent on educational resources (as opposed to social resources) and teachers, I would be willing to bet you would barely account for 1/2 the school spending. So much of our inner city school spending in used in non-academic means - administrators' salaries, social workers, etc. and not on direct education of children.

We need help for our inner city schools, but setting up a parallel system that may very well only help those who need it least is not the answer.

Maybe poor public school performance has something to do with the lack of funding for public schools, not to mention the perverse policy of linking said funding to local property tax revenues.

Just sayin'.

How does the money per child spent at private charter schools compare to the money spent per child at public schools serving the same area? I'm willing to eat my words if it's similar, but I am curious.

By Andrew Wyatt (not verified) on 29 Aug 2005 #permalink

Ed, I do believe that you are being a bit naive here.

Many points. Only a couple.

One: There is a bit of a history here, which many wish to ignore. I was a high school student in the 1960s, when the National Education Association (NEA) was being transformed from a professional association to largely a union. The reason was obvious: the K-12 teachers were horribly underpaid, particularly at the high school level. When I was a kid in my mid teens, in the mid-1960s, I visited the home of a friend, whose father was a science teacher at another school. He was working on lesson plans and grading papers. At home, on a weekend. Teachers did not just work when they are in the classroom, which apparently has been forgotten by many people. More than a few of them worked very hard, with very little remuneration. And that is why the professional organizations transformed themselves into basically trade unions. There is a history, that many young people wish to ignore.

Moreover, my father--who was an engineering manager at General Electric north of Cincinnati--said that the teachers were only working 9 months (or so) a year. That was kinda/sorta true. But if the schools wanted to extend the school year into the summer, the parents would be up in arms, since that would be bad for flexibility in regards their summer vacations. That is why the Americans wanted extended summer vacations for schools.

In other words, most adults wanted the 9 month (or so) school year (otherwise stated, the 3 month summer vacation) so that they could have maximum flexibility for their vacations. But they didn't want the teachers to be paid to recognize their desire. Just to let you know, in Germany, each of the "Laender" (German states) has a 6 week "Schulferien" (6 week summer school vacation), and the Schulferien are staggered as among the various states. The Schulferien define when the people in the various states take their summer vacations.

Two, graduation rates are notoriously unreliable. Paige, the former Bush administration SecEducation, was head of the board of education in Houston. They claimed that the Houston public schools had fairly high test scores on standard tests, but it has been reported that students who were considered to be likely to have low test scores were encouraged to leave the schools. That's something of a charade. Don't believe everything that comes out of this Bush administration.

"Teacher's(sic) Unions Hurt Education"
"But the Detroit Federation of Teachers doesn't want the competition from charter schools. Successful charter schools, you see, would make their schools look very, very bad."

I have always thought very highly of your posts; they have represented quality thinking, carefully crafted engagement in discourse, thoroughly referenced sources and responses, and so forth. The above however is not so.

To assassinate the character of all teachers' unions, to fail to articulate the grievances of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, to suggest that because some corporate wealth is being dispensed towards a problem it will automatically produce success and greater good--is so unlike you. What gives??

Substituting the nouns and adjectives in your post, i could develop a similar line of reasoning that "Libertarian Philanthropists Hurt the Planet" and i am sure that isn't categorically true in all cases.

Mr. Brayton,

Do I understand the proposals correctly?

The Skillman support of the magnet school is contingent on breaking the union's protection of work hours rules -- is that right?

This $200 million is intended for 15 schools -- which gives about $12 million each for physical plant, and zero operating funds -- is that right?

The rules allow the charters to skim the cream of the students from the public schools, and then take money away from the public schools the kids leave?

So far that's an image of Mississippi's famous "seg academies."

Apart from the guarantee that the public school system will be decimated and teacher jobs will be unsecured, are there any benefits to this proposal?

Consider the alternative -- can one imagine the good that could be done in public schools with an extra $200 million? And that good could be accomplished without building new plants that profit building contractors, chiefly.

Why not give money to improve the schools that exist? What does this guy have against neighborhood schools?

By Ed Darrell (not verified) on 29 Aug 2005 #permalink