- - Monday, December 12, 2016

Last week, the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores were released. American students’ grade? Not so good.

American 15-year-olds ranked 39th internationally in math. Our kids are scoring lower than peers in countries our students couldn’t find on a map. This score marks a drop from our 2012 performance, which in turn was a drop from the test in 2009. (The test is administered every three years.) U.S. performance in reading and science also declined since 2009. “We’re losing ground,” said Education Secretary John B. King Jr. “A troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world.” Clearly, a new approach is needed.

Teacher unions are the largest influence in the running of too many American schools. Predictably, those unions have tried to pass the buck by attributing poor grades to a lack of government funding. American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and her team are ground zero for these failures and lame excuses. She claims the low scores “were predictable given the impact of the last 15 years of U.S. education policies combined with continuing state disinvestment .” Translation: We need more money.

But this whining from Ms. Weingarten doesn’t pass the smell test. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data, the United States spends roughly one-third more per student ($11,700) than the 35-nation OECD average.

And this average masks even starker disparities. American students scored worse than those from Slovakia and Hungary, which spend far less than half what the United States does per student. U.S. students also scored far worse than those from the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland — countries that spend about half what the U.S. does per student.

How to explain this funding versus results paradox? Partially, it is a result of teacher unions contributing part of union dues to bolster their political power that generates unparalleled and unwarranted job security and pension benefits. According to new Labor Department funding disclosures, the two main teachers unions, the AFT and National Education Association (NEA), collected more than $500 million in required dues payments from millions of teachers last year.

These dues are translated into campaign support for left-leaning politicians. That union political power is paid off through maintenance of paralyzing teacher tenure laws that make it almost impossible to fire the bad teachers responsible for low test scores. Some teachers burn out like in any other profession but replacing them with professionals who are still committed to teaching becomes nearly impossible under the teacher tenure status quo. And this is especially true in the inner cities where teacher unions do the most damage.

According to education economist Erik Hanushek, replacing the bottom 5 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the United States near the top of international education rankings. A 2013 study by a different group of researchers found that replacing the bottom 5 percent of teachers with average teachers would increase students’ lifetime income by approximately $250,000.

Lousy teachers are complicit in more than ruining kids’ chances for a better life. They also depress the morale of those good teachers who need to deal with students who have been moved into their classrooms through social promotion without a prior foundation to help them learn in the next higher grade. It’s no wonder over 1,500 kids drop out of high school every day when so many find themselves unable to learn or keep pace.

Union leaders also use these dues to benefit themselves. AFT President Randi Weingarten received $497,000 in compensation last year. Her compensation evidently isn’t performance-based. The AFT has also spent tens of thousands of dollars on limousine services and perks that generally are provided to business executives delivering a product or service in demand. It’s doubtful many taxpaying parents are demanding the current quality of education for which they are paying.

Help may finally be on the horizon. President-elect Donald Trump has nominated school reform champion Betsy DeVos to the post of education secretary. Mrs. DeVos will champion charter schools, the one bright spot of American education. (In New York City, black and Latino charter students score 73 percent higher than their district-run counterparts.)

But teachers unions will not give up their jobs and dues monopoly to fund politicians without a fight. Despite Republican control of the presidency, both houses of congress, and the majority of statehouses, Democrats still control 27 out of the 32 poorest American cities most in need of education reform. And these legislators are often all too happy to sell out the students in their districts for teacher union campaign contributions.

Only when the teacher union status quo becomes synonymous with the latest bad education headline will reform become a reality. And only then will U.S. schools and U.S. students become excellent again.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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