- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

Few interest groups oppose making school choice available to low-income families more vigorously than the public-school teachers unions. Captive markets appeal even to labor unions. Indeed, as the 2.7 million-member National Education Association (NEA) reiterated in its “NEA Resolutions, Legislative Program and New Business 2001-2002,” the nation’s largest labor union opposes “tuition tax credits for elementary and secondary schools; the use of vouchers or certificates in education; [and] federally mandated parental option or ‘choice’ in education programs.” On the other hand, public-school teachers in many of the nation’s largest school districts exercise their own school-choice option by sending their children to private schools. In fact, they choose private schools for their own children at much higher rates than the public at large.

This, of course, has not been a recent trend. In 1983, for example, a national commission issued its famous “rising tide of mediocrity” report (“A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform”). That same year the Chicago Reporter revealed that 46 percent of public-school teachers in Chicago, whose school system William Bennett (Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1989) would describe as the worst in the nation, sent their children to private schools, compared to 22 percent of all Chicagoans.

As more data became available, analysts began comparing this phenomenon to the notion of connoisseurship. In a report titled “Where Do Public School Teachers Send Their Kids to School?,” the Thomas B. Fordman Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on elementary and secondary education reform, recently released the latest comprehensive analysis of this trend. The study explains the issue of connoisseurship thusly: “Stock analysts, for example, watch carefully when corporate directors buy or sell the stock of companies on whose boards they serve. Similarly, we can assume that no one knows the condition and quality of public schools better than teachers who work in them every day.” If teachers are far less likely than the general public to send their own children to public schools, the analysis continues, “then we might reasonably conclude that those in the best position to know” — the connoisseurs — “are signaling a strong ‘sell’ about public education in their communities.”

Based on an extensive review of 2000 census data, here are the primary conclusions of the study:

• Compared to 12.2 percent of the general public, urban public-school teachers send their children to private schools at a rate of 21.2 percent. That’s nearly 75 percent higher than the national average. It is also significantly higher than the 17.5 percent rate for all urban families.

• Specifically, the analysis found that a stunning 44 percent of public-school teachers in Philadelphia sent their children to private schools. Analogous figures for other major urban school districts included: Chicago, 39 percent; Baltimore, 35 percent; San Francisco/Oakland, 34 percent; New York/Northeastern New Jersey, 33 percent; Boston, 28 percent; and 27 percent in the District.

• Taking into account family income, the study found that 19.9 percent of all quintessentially middle-class urban families (whose family income was between $42,000 and $84,000) sent their children to private schools. True, that rate is just a bit lower than the 20.1 percent rate that applies to the urban public-school teachers’ families within that income bracket. However, in a rather striking result, the study found that urban public-school teachers with family income below $42,000 sent their children to private schools at a rate (14.9 percent) that was significantly higher than all urban families earning less than $42,000 (10.3 percent). As further evidence of connoisseurship in action, the study notes that, “even when the financial sacrifice required for private education is greater, urban public-school teachers still choose private schools for their children at higher rates than urban families with similar incomes.”

Interestingly, among public-school teachers earning less than $42,000 in Milwaukee — whose 14-year-old private-school choice program has made it “a hotbed of school reform,” according to the study’s authors — only 10 percent send their children to private schools. That is much lower than the 16 percent of all Milwaukee families earning less than $42,000. The authors surmise that Milwaukee’s public-school reforms, which were precipitated by the private-school choice program, have made public schools much more attractive to teachers earning less than $42,000. This, they say, could be “evidence that choice is having the intended effect of spurring improvements in public education” in Milwaukee, the very result that choice advocates have always argued would be likely.

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