- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2011

After a major loss in their battle with Wisconsin taxpayers over collective bargaining powers, teachers unions are reeling. States are caught in a vicious cycle in which the private sector is shrinking while public liabilities grow and politicians have finally realized they must rein in spending and restore economic sanity to their budgets - even if that means pushing back against union influence.

The momentum stemming from the Wisconsin victory gives union bosses little time to lick their wounds. In Ohio, for example, Republican Gov. John Kasich is supporting legislation similar to the bill passed in Wisconsin. The Ohio bill would reform the pay structures and collective bargaining powers of state and local employees. Even in California, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat who received $30 million from public-sector unions during his campaign, at least made an attempt to compromise with Republicans seeking concessions from the unions.

For unions - especially teachers unions, it would seem - when it rains, it pours. They not only face off against a budget reform sentiment among the taxpayers, who view public employee union contracts as bloated and wasteful. Now they also face off against growing education reform sentiment among the public, who see the educational and economic benefits of another movement unions have opposed: school choice.

While there is yet to be a high-profile standoff between education reformers and union bosses like there have been between budget reformers and union bosses, momentum nonetheless continues to build in favor of school choice. In Pennsylvania, legislators are pursuing a school choice bill. In the U.S. Congress, efforts are under way to revive the District of Columbia’s voucher program. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program has enjoyed tremendous popularity and a graduation rate 18 percent higher than Milwaukee public schools.

The D.C. scholarship program is a perfect example of a political battle over what should be a settled issue. The program was created under President Bush and thrived. Students using vouchers had a 91 percent graduation rate and parents reported higher satisfaction with the schools their kids were attending. By contrast, students who were denied vouchers had a 70 percent graduation rate, and D.C. public schools are among the most dangerous in the nation. President Obama and Democrats controlling Congress moved to phase out the program early in his administration. With Republicans now in control of the House, the successful program has a chance of being revived.

In addition to the educational benefits, school choice is fiscally responsible, spending $7,500 per child, compared to nearly double that in the public schools. A $7,500 scholarship won’t necessarily cover tuition to a private school, so the program also encourages parents to be invested - literally - in their child’s education. When I participated in private scholarships during my time in D.C., before the voucher program was implemented, I saw countless mothers take second jobs to cover the difference between the scholarship and tuition so their kids could attend better schools.

School choice is good for kids, families and taxpayers. So why isn’t it enacted in every school district in the country? For many years, entrenched politicians have been influenced by teachers unions, who see school choice as a threat to “teachers’ rights.”

To be clear, union opposition to school choice has nothing to do with quality of education. Bob Chanin, who at one time was the top lawyer for the National Education Association, said last year that goals like closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates and improving teacher quality “need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights and collective bargaining.” The unions’ primary focus is the creation and extension of “members’ rights,” with kids’ learning a secondary goal.

The American people are wakening to this and have started insisting that our political leaders start putting fiscal responsibility first. The two largest teachers’ unions - NEA and the American Federation of Teachers - spend nearly $70 million a year on politics, with another $92 million going toward other contributions, gifts and grants to educators. In spite of these vast resources, recent events prove that passionate dedication to reform can achieve results. It’s time to apply that same level of dedication to putting our kids first by insisting on school choice.

Dick Armey, former majority leader of the House of Representatives, is chairman of FreedomWorks and author of “Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto” (William Morrow, 2010).