“Waiting for Superman” won best documentary at the recent Sundance Film Festival but did not even get nominated at the Oscars. Surprised? Not me. The left leaning members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science were never going to vote for a documentary that exposed the failures of public education and implicated the teacher’s unions. Forget that! Better just to ignore it. Maybe it will go away.
I recently found “Waiting for Superman” listed on our PPV schedule here in Canada, so you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it in the US. I watched it a couple times and I urge everyone to check it out. In it you will become familiar with terms like “academic sinkholes”, “drop out factories”, “rubber rooms” and “dance of the lemons”.
The movie from director Davis Guggenheim, chronicles the heartbreaking stories of three poor families as they tilt against the long odds of securing a chance for their kids of getting a decent education by entering the lotteries for a handful of slots in charter schools. Many hundreds of families crowded auditoriums hoping their kids will be selected to attend charter schools like Harlem Success Academy. The kids and the parents are well aware that winning one of the coveted spots is their ticket out of poverty. If you can watch this process and not be moved, you have no heart. And, if you are not convinced that something radical needs to be done to the public education system, you have no brain.
Money is NOT the solution. Over $2 trillion has been “invested” in education over the last half century…. 57% of that in the last decade. $77.4 billion has been allocated for the Department of Education (the 3rd largest Federal agency) for 2012. And, let’s not forget the $100 billion bonus in the “stimulus” package. OK, that’s a union payback by Obama.
So what kind of return are we getting for this “investment”? Not great. While spending has exploded, achievement has been flat and comparisons with other OECD countries slipping. The US now ranks 25th out of 34 OECD counties in math and 26th in science. The 2009 Program for Independent Student Assessment placed the US 14th in reading.
What about graduation rates for public schools when compared to per pupil spending? No correlation. Washington DC has the highest per pupil spending at $17,600 and the lowest graduation rate at 55%. The DC Opportunity Scholarship Program (de-funded by the prior Democrat Congress and recently re-instated by the new GOP House) spends $7500 per student and graduates 91%. WI, on the other hand, spends $10,791 and graduates 89.6% while New Jersey spends $17,600 to graduate slightly less at 84.6. New York spends $16,794 to push 70.8% through. A bunch of mid-western states all spend around $10,000 per and graduate around 80-85%. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that these “graduates” actually learned anything useful.
Clearly the problem is not that insufficient money is being spent, it’s that so much of it is being wasted in bureaucratic bullshit. According to the GAO, there are 151 K thru 12 child education programs in 20 Federal agencies spending over $55 .6 billion annually.
No Child Left Behind is the 8th reorganization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 passed as part of LBJ’s “War on Poverty” and was the first Federal meddling in state education. As an example of how DOE laws can cost the states big bucks, NCLB caused state education bureaucracies to double in five years and requires 7 million hours of paperwork. Federal spending on education has tripled since 1970 and the ROI on that investment is zero. Academic achievement nationally continues to be flat.
Of course, the teachers unions come in for a good bit of criticism in “Waiting for Superman” and deservedly so. Like any monopoly, the teachers will go to the barricades and fight to the death to protect theirs. They battle against charter schools, school choice and merit pay relentlessly and pour millions of dollars and boots on the ground support for Democrat candidates in exchange for political support. That’s been a great investment!
Union teachers generally receive tenure after two years and thereafter it is nearly impossible to get rid of, not only a poor or indifferent teacher, but also even criminal ones. New York City famously has their “rubber room”… actually a whole building…. where 550 teachers deemed too ineffective or dangerous to be turned loose on students are housed. They show up each day at the rubber room to read, do cross words or sleep at full pay and benefits. Union rules make it impossible to fire them. It costs the city of NY $30,000,000 per year to carry on this comedy.
Another sadly humorous abuse of this tenure policy is what school administrators call the “dance of the lemons”. Since firing ineffective and problem teachers cannot be reasonably accomplished, at the end of each school year administrators ship off their lemons to another school. In return they receive the dolts from some other school. It’s like the game of Hearts where you pass some crappy cards out of your hand to the guy next to you. Unfortunately, the player on your other side gives you his junk to replace it.
Just to see how determined and powerful the teachers unions actually are, consider this. As mentioned above Washington DC public schools are easily the most expensive and worst in the country. In 2007 Adrian Fenty took over as mayor, promising to reform the school system. He assumed responsibility for the public schools and appointed Michelle Rhee, a Harvard grad and reformer, to run them.
She wasted no time. She closed 23 schools, cut half the admin staff from head quarters and got rid of 75 ineffective teachers while negotiating a new contract with the teachers union. Needless-to-say, the teachers were not happy despite the fact that under Fenty and Rhee reading test scores went up 14% and math scores 17%. The unions wanted revenge.
When the mayoral election came around again the national American Federation of Teachers as well as the local unions poured millions into the campaign backing a primary opponent friendly to the union against Fenty. Fenty had been an early and enthusiastic backer of Obama but when he needed some help in his campaign, Obama remained mute. Under the bus with you, Adrian! Fenty lost and Rhee got canned. Last I heard, all 75 teachers had been rehired and given back pay.
If you have been watching the Democrats bend over and grab their ankles for the teachers unions these last couple of years and watched their behavior in the Wisconsin mess recently, you get an idea how difficult changing anything is going to be. Geoffrey Canada, the CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone and the guy who coined the term “Waiting for Superman”, grew up and realized that Superman was not coming to save him after all. Superman’s not going to save public education either. Nothing will…. at least nothing anyone is willing to do.
What? You want my suggestion? Simple. Disband the Department of Education saving some $100 billion. Let the states manage their own education bureaucracies and toss all that Federal paperwork. The states should give each student $7500 per year to attend the private school of her choice, saving the state $2500 on each student that opts out of the public schools. Break the monopoly by bringing in competition. It’s the only way.
Note: Next up: The war in Madison.