Growing School Competition
The abysmal state of public-school education controlled by teachers’ unions has given birth to private and charter schools as competitive alternatives for ambitious and industrious parents and students. That is all for the good. Monopoly is a narcotic and competition is a stimulant to learning. School voucher programs enabling parents to enroll their children in private schools and escape from public school captivity with no additional expense are wildly popular but are predictably fiercely opposed by teachers’ unions.
In Washington, D.C., approximately 1,600 students receive vouchers of $8,000 for grades K-8 and $12,000 for high school. They graduate at higher rates than do their public-school counterparts, although per pupil expenditures for them per school year is substantially higher, soaring past $20,000. The mere existence of voucher programs is positive. Public schools are incentivized to improve performance to retain students.
The growth of voucher programs is stunted, however, because of political opposition ignited by teachers’ unions and their campaign and voting clout. They are available to only a small percent of the 50 million public school students nationwide.
Publicly funded, privately operated charter schools also compete with the teachers’ union-dominated public school system. Charter schools with various restrictions are authorized in forty-five states and the District of Columbia. They enroll 3.4 million students nationwide in more than 7,500 charter schools, compared with 100,000 public schools attended by 50 million students nationally. Teachers’ unions implacably oppose charter schools to kill educational competition in the bud, which explains the substantial financial handicap under which the latter operates. Charter schools receive fewer dollars per pupil than district public schools.
Though there are year-to-year fluctuations, the average charter school receives 75 cents for every dollar the average district school receives.
Notwithstanding the limited availability of unsubsidized private schools, vouchers, and charter schools, the NEA and AFT through political clout guarantee public schools a more than 90 percent share of student enrollment—an educational monopoly by any measure that fosters indolence and stagnation.
There is a better way. State or local laws should authorize learners’ unions to bargain with teachers’ unions and elected officials over the school budget, curriculum, and terms and conditions of learning and teaching. In cases of impasse, an impartial arbitrator should be empowered to decide between competing alternatives proposed by the three parties. Learners’ unions should receive public funds to retain necessary experts and legal advice. This concept of learner representation in education is no novelty. At least twenty-five states have students who sit on local school boards. But a student member is readily outnumbered. Learners’ unions are necessary to rectify that imbalance.
Despite my disparagement of teachers’ unions, it would be wrong to conclude that they are the serpent in an educational garden of Eden. Education is a complex undertaking and is influenced by multiple causes. If teachers’ unions were outlawed, students would not turn instantly into Isaac Newtons or William Shakespeares and scale the intellectual heights. As H. L. Mencken observed, “Every complex problem has a solution which is simple, direct, plausible—and wrong.”
What we are seeing in school districts across the country is a shift in priorities from student to administrator—not even to the educator. This shift in priorities is destroying neighborhoods and creating a generation of leaders that will be less educated and more corruptible. Our school systems and unions should not be working to profit in the short term, but they should view education as a long-term endeavor and give students access to as many educational opportunities as possible even if it comes at the expense of their bottom lines.
Without an educated and engaged public, the United States will not long endure. Education must be our number one priority. It creates the human capital more valuable than all the gadgets or creature comforts in the world. If we do not all hang together in the educational enterprise—teachers, administrators, parents, students, and public officials alike— then assuredly we will all hang separately. As Thomas Jefferson elaborated, “If a nation expects to be free and ignorant in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”
This article was first published as a chapter entitled “The Crisis of Exploitation” in the book Crisis in the Classroom: Crisis in Education by Benjamin Carson, Benjamin Crump, and Armstrong Williams (Skyhorse Publishing, 2023). Subheadings and hyperlinks were added.