It was disturbing to watch U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan share a Florida stage recently with National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.
They were getting all misty over a new teachers contract in Tampa, Fla., where the union agreed to a few concessions, such as teacher evaluations based partially on student performance. They also announced plans for an "education summit" early next year, where they plan to sit down and presumably negotiate the type of tepid, halfhearted reforms that Mr. Van Roekel and Ms. Weingarten prefer.
It was sad to hear Mr. Duncan suggest that school employee unions are suddenly on board with the reform movement. Doesn't he remember Ms. Weingarten running to court when then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee bravely removed subpar teachers in Washington? Doesn't he remember Mr. Van Roekel and friends killing the very promising D.C. voucher program? Mr. Duncan flatly rejected the idea of unilaterally imposing necessary changes to public education because nobody likes having "anything imposed on them." After a promising start with Race to the Top, this administration seems to be waving the white flag on education reform. You don't seek compromise when you're on the verge of victory. You complete the victory and impose your terms, particularly when the future of our nation's children is at stake.
It has become increasingly clear in recent months that the school reform movement has the education unions on the ropes. Many Democrats have become pro-reform. The documentary "Waiting for Superman" has brought the popular media and public on board.
And now, most important, the midterm elections have put a new breed of lawmaker, friendly to our cause, in office. Now is the time to use this power to impose everything on our checklist. The unions would be wise to smile and cooperate, but it really shouldn't matter if they don't.
We need to uncap the number of charter schools throughout the nation. We need to distribute salaries based on teacher effectiveness. We need to allow schools to hire teachers from other industries, whether they have standard certificates or not.
We need to make it illegal in every state for teachers to strike. We need to stop public employee unions like the NEA and AFT from making political contributions and controlling education policy. We need more tools like the "Parent Trigger" law in California, which allows a majority of parents at failing schools to organize and impose structural changes.
More than anything, we need to dismantle the concept of tenure, the sooner the better.
No more rubber rooms. No more passing bad teachers from one school to another because it's too expensive to fire them. No more using seniority to determine who stays or goes at layoff time.
Tenure is bad for public education in kindergarten through 12th grade and must be destroyed at that level. Not fixed. Not reformed. Destroyed.
We also have to empower local school boards to use more of their shrinking revenue for instructional purposes.
That means making it easier for schools to get out from under the expensive provisions of collective-bargaining agreements. It means allowing them to seek private bids for support services such as cooking and bus driving. It means forcing school employees to pay more toward their health care and pension plans.
It's amazing that Mr. Duncan doesn't recognize the union strategy of coming to the table and agreeing to a few half-baked reforms. Ms. Weingarten and Mr. Van Roekel hope their lukewarm cooperation will give them the leverage they need to stave off more meaningful reforms. Left up to Mr. Duncan, their strategy probably would work. Fortunately, most education policy is determined in statehouses around the nation, and 19 statehouses will come under complete Republican control in January.
Very few GOP governors or legislators have accepted campaign cash from the school employee unions, so they owe no loyalty to them. They are free to move aggressively to enact an agenda that holds school employees more accountable in performance and financial matters.
We've had enough of squeamish public officials who quake at the feet of organized labor and other special interests. These are our schools, and we demand that they be operated with maximum efficiency to secure maximum results.
Steve Gunn is communications director for Education Action Group, a Michigan-based nonprofit that advocates for financial and structural reform in public schools.
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