Friday, February 03, 2006

The Teachers' Unions - is there a more destructive force?

The article below appeared in the Wall Street Journal on the Editorial Page. The Wall Street Journal has been doing a great job as of late discussing the problems with teachers' unions and the American Public Education system.

The Education Borg
In Florida and Wisconsin, teachers unions crush
educational opportunities.

Sunday, January 29, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

Teachers unions keep telling us they care deeply, profoundly, about poor children. But what they do, as opposed to what they say, is behave like the Borg, those destructive aliens in the "Star Trek" TV series who keep coming and coming until everyone is "assimilated."

We saw it in Florida this month when the state supreme court struck down a six-year-old voucher program after a union-led lawsuit. And now we're witnessing it in Milwaukee, where the nation's largest school choice program is under assault because Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle refuses to lift the cap on the number of students who can participate.

Milwaukee's Parental Choice Program, enacted with bipartisan support in 1990, provides private school vouchers to students from families at or below 175% of the poverty line. Its constitutionality has been supported by rulings from both the Wisconsin and U.S. Supreme Courts. Yet Mr. Doyle, a union-financed Democrat, has vetoed three attempts to loosen the state law that limits enrollment in the program to 15% of Milwaukee's public school enrollment. This cap, put in place in 1995 as part of a compromise with anti-choice lawmakers backed by the unions, wasn't an issue when only a handful of schools were participating. But the program has grown steadily to include 127 schools and more than 14,000 students today. Wisconsin officials expect the voucher program to exceed the 15% threshold next year, which means Mr. Doyle's schoolhouse-door act is about to have real consequences.

"Had the cap been in effect this year," says Susan Mitchell of School Choice Wisconsin, "as many as 4,000 students already in the program would have lost seats. No new students could come in, and there would be dozens of schools that have been built because of school choice in Milwaukee that would close. They're in poor neighborhoods and would never have enough support from tuition-paying parents or donors to keep going."

There's no question the program has been a boon to the city's underprivileged. A 2004 study of high school graduation rates by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute found that students using vouchers to attend Milwaukee's private schools had a graduation rate of 64%, versus 36% for their public school counterparts. Harvard's Caroline Hoxby has shown that Milwaukee public schools have raised their standards in the wake of voucher competition.

Mr. Doyle says he will agree to lift the cap to 18%, but only if it's tied to a change in the school-aid formula that he knows would never pass the Republican legislature--particularly in an election year. So instead of building on this education success, Mr. Doyle and his union allies are poised to close the book.

The unions scored a separate "victory" in Florida three weeks ago when the state supreme court there struck down the Opportunity Scholarship Program. Passed in 1999, the program currently enrolls 700 children from chronically failing state schools, letting them transfer to another public school or use state money to attend a private school. Barring some legislative damage control, the 5-2 ruling means these kids face the horrible prospect of returning to the state's education hellholes next year. The decision is a textbook case of results-oriented jurisprudence. The majority claimed the program
violates a provision of Florida's constitution that requires the state to provide for "a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools." Because "private schools that are not 'uniform' when compared with each other or the public system" could receive state funds under the program, the majority deemed it unconstitutional.

This is beyond a legal stretch. Not only have courts in such states as Wisconsin and Ohio rejected similar bogus "uniformity" challenges to school voucher programs, but so have other Florida courts. The logic of the ruling could also apply to charter schools, which are public schools that are able to live by non-uniform rules. That's the entire point of school choice--to break out of the stifling monopoly that traps so many poor children in "uniformly" awful schools.

What the Milwaukee and Florida examples show is that unions and their allies are unwilling to let even successful voucher experiments continue to exist. If they lose one court case, they will sue again--and then again, as long as it takes. And they'll shop their campaign cash around for years until they find a politician like Jim Doyle willing to sell out Wisconsin's poorest kids in return for their endorsement. Is there a more destructive force in American public life?

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