It’s code red for American education. In recent years, U.S. educational outcomes have taken a nosedive while illiteracy has skyrocketed, in large part due to a pandemic that was needlessly prolonged by the nation’s teachers unions.
The numbers don’t lie, and they are embarrassing. Even before COVID-19, more than half (54%) of Americans read at below a sixth grade level. Then came the pandemic and its seemingly endless slew of mandates, with union bosses such as Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stubbornly resisting in-person schooling and then lying about it.
Half of America’s students fell a whole year behind due to pandemic-related restrictions and school closures. While U.S. students have been testing low in comparison with other countries, new scores predictably plummeted even more. Reading comprehension dropped to 1992 levels, and math results fell to record lows. Nearly 4 in 10 eighth graders now fail to grasp basic math concepts. To quote the National Center for Education Statistics’ Rachel Hansen: “We’ve got a long road ahead of us to get kids back to grade level.” And the situation isn’t improving, with just as many students behind grade level in 2023 as last year.
It’s surely not for lack of investment. Federal, state and local governments spend about $800 billion annually on K-12 education — more than the entire U.S. defense budget. America’s total education expenditure is roughly equivalent to the entire economic output of oil-rich Saudi Arabia, or of Switzerland, the world’s banking haven. Yet the United States can’t even crack the top 10 in global education rankings. Countries that most American students couldn’t find on a map are beating our test scores.
Our road is long indeed, prolonged by unaccountable teachers unions that are appeased and coddled by even more unaccountable politicians. Union officers such as Ms. Weingarten militantly demand increases in teacher pay that are unrelated to performance while spending decades fighting for a tenure system that makes it nearly impossible to fire teachers who couldn’t get hired at McDonald’s. Labor unions that protect underperforming teachers lie at the core of America’s weakened educational system, especially when non-union classrooms produce better outcomes. And despite her record, Ms. Weingarten pockets nearly $600,000 a year in compensation.
But labor unions are only part of the problem. The other is the Democratic Party, which relies heavily on union funding to promote its left-wing agenda — and, of course, peddles pro-union policies to return the favor. Last year, Ms. Weingarten and other union operatives sent tens of millions of dollars to Democrats, who in turn opposed school choice and other education reforms that threaten Ms. Weingarten’s education monopoly. The year before that, the National Education Association — the country’s largest teachers union — donated $66 million to liberal political activities and $117 million in “contributions, gifts and grants” that primarily served as left-wing political donations. Today’s teachers unions function as massive political machines.
To solve the education problem, parents and students need buy-in from both political parties. Before that, however, they need to identify the culprits. While Republicans demand change and propose education reforms such as school voucher programs, Democrats are all too content with a status quo that swells their campaign bank accounts. When Republican reformers like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis propose solutions, they face swift rebukes from the allies of Ms. Weingarten and President Biden — the same crowd hypocritically sending their own children to private schools.
Republicans have also failed too often to execute education reform, but the alternative is hopeless. Democrats and their union allies are simply unfit to address America’s education woes.
If education reformers have any spine, they can start by teaching Americans who is to blame for the current failing grades in schools and a future of unavailable good-paying jobs for many of our youth.
• Rick Berman serves as president of RBB Strategies.