The quality of an American public education has been steadily eroding for years. Today, many school districts are graduating children without basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. These kids enter the job market and real world unprepared and unarmed. Meanwhile, spending on K-12 public education has skyrocketed.
Taxpayers pour money into an education system that produces increasingly disappointing results. Amazingly, the embarrassing failures in public education are used as justification to throw more taxpayer dollars at special interests creating the problems.
In a world where everyone marches to the drumbeat of sustainability, our public education system has sunk into a quagmire of unsustainability.
What are this crisis’ problems, root causes, and solutions? Although the situation is complex, the major drivers are quite simple. Covid and the self-induced shutdown of our schools exacerbated and exposed these drivers for all to see, making them more obvious. Ignoring them surrenders our kids’ futures.
Stakeholders and Their Interests
To properly understand the problems and root causes, and to identify solutions, understanding the stakeholders is key. They are:
- Students, parents, and taxpayers. These are, in theory, the public education system’s customers. Kids need to be taught basic skills, parents desire good outcomes for their children’s education, and taxpayers pay for all of it. If our public education system fails, all three lose.
- Good educators. Motivated teachers are one of the most powerful assets in a free market economy, providing a multiplier effect on value creation as they develop productive doers. Great instructors deserve and want recognized through merit pay and professional advancement.
- Bad educators. Like any professional occupation, there are both good- and poor-performing teachers. A poor performer not interested in improving seeks to continue collecting a paycheck and wants to avoid accountability.
- Teachers’ unions. Public unions, unlike private sector unions, should be viewed with skepticism since collective bargaining and strikes harm the citizenry that the government worker pledged to protect. The public union is most interested in preserving and growing its power, in the form of increasing dues and membership. Rewarding great educators, classroom meritocracy, and academic proficiency are secondary considerations. That’s why studies struggle to find a correlation between teacher unionization and improved student outcomes.
- School administrators. Administrators, conceptually, sit in between the teachers’ union, teachers, and customers (students, parents, and taxpayers) to create balance and a quality education. Instead, administrators often focus on using bureaucracy to justify more influence, grow staffing, and increase budgets.
- Politicians. Public officials are elected by the customers of the public education system: parents and taxpayers. But politicians often fail to serve those who they supposedly answer to. Instead, politicians are increasingly influenced by what their true bosses, public unions, demand from them: a system that shrouds transparency, shirks accountability, is fed more money, and limits customer choice.
You can’t identify root causes until you recognize the problems. Unfortunately, the problems are obvious and serious.
- Increasing and alarming numbers of kids are matriculating through public schools despite lack of basic proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science. Schools are failing in their most fundamental duty: to teach students.
- Urban and rural school districts are especially susceptible to not fulfilling their duty to students. That means the poorest and most economically disadvantaged communities suffer the most severe consequences.
- Teachers’ unions secure work rules where teachers are all treated the same, as if they were a commodity instead of a profession.
- The best educators are not recognized nor compensated fairly.
- It is far too easy for poor performing teachers to skirt accountability, with the system allowing them to remain entrenched for decades.
- School choice options for parents and students are too limited, particularly in poor performing school districts.
- Teachers’ unions willingly use threat of strike to disrupt learning and students’ educational paths, if it helps secure more money for pensions, adding of non-teaching staff, and more favorable work rules.
- Too small of a fraction of each dollar poured into public school districts ends up in the pockets of active teachers or to hire more teachers.
The Root Causes
What are the root causes of these major problems?
- Community-wide problems, such as lack of economic inclusion, often adversely influence public education outcomes and student proficiency. Solving such problems is beyond the scope of this discussion, and we touched upon some of them in a prior commentary [Teens and Avoiding Poverty: Three Simple Yet Challenging Rules]. Yet addressing the other root causes below will place families and school districts in our more challenged urban and rural communities in better position to succeed.
- Public unions, including teachers’ unions, pose a massive, cyclical conflict of interest. Teachers’ unions collect dues from member teachers, the unions use dues to fund the political campaigns of politicians (legislators and elected judges) in their districts, the elected politicians then appoint administrators to manage school districts, and collective bargaining agreements are negotiated by the trio of teachers’ union-administrators-politicians that favor the teachers’ union priorities over those of students, parents, and taxpayers. Repeat for the next contract and election cycles.
- Teachers’ unions exist without any current teacher ever having voted to form the union in the first place. Only one percent of teachers in Florida’s ten largest school districts were on the job when those districts voted to unionize. The New York City public school system teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, was created in 1960, meaning no one out of the over 100,000 current teachers in the union ever voted to create it. Most public school teachers had a union forced on them from day one of their careers. This is institutionalized conscription of public schoolteachers, districts, and the students they serve in the form of a perpetual public union.
- Most collective bargaining agreements impose a system whereby marginal teachers can continue teaching without improvement for decades and excellent teachers enjoy little upside in the form of professional advancement and pay. Frustrated parents and exceptional teachers may feel as if the system was designed to protect the poor teacher.
- The teachers’ union top priority is securing more dues and higher membership. Student proficiency, school choice, and teacher accountability are distant, secondary concerns. When there is conflict between the top priority and lesser priorities, the teachers’ union will choose the former at the expense of the latter. That’s a big reason why students who matriculate the full twelve years through a school district with mandatory collective bargaining end up on average earning less, having jobs requiring lower skills, and being more likely to be unemployed than fellow students in school districts who did not have statutorily mandated collective bargaining.
- A growing share of “investment” in education is allocated under collective bargaining agreements to fund underwater and out-of-market pensions for retirees and to grow staffing of non-teaching personnel. The rate of increase is alarming: over 14% of education spending in 2018 was to cover pension costs, compared to only 7.5% in 2001. The Los Angeles Unified School District has seen pension costs more than double since 2014. In West Virginia, student enrollment fell 12% from 1992 to 2014 as non-teaching staff increased 10%, and in Kentucky over the same period non-teaching staff grew over six times as fast as student enrollment.
Solutions to Make the Unsustainable Sustainable
The K-12 public education system is unsustainable and in terminal decline. Yet a few simple reforms would drastically improve the situation for students, parents, taxpayers, and great educators.
- States should enact statutes that require teachers’ unions to stand periodically for recertification, allowing active teachers to make their own decisions as to whether they desire union representation.
- Politicians and administrators should prioritize within school district budgets active teacher salaries and student-teacher ratios (meaning new teacher hires) over pensions, retiree healthcare, and hiring of non-teaching staff.
- Collective bargaining agreements and administrators must clearly define measurable performance criteria for student proficiency levels in reading, writing, math, and science. If those proficiency levels are not met, it should trigger preestablished corrective actions to ensure accountability and to protect students.
- A true meritocracy should be instituted when setting teacher merit increases, promotions, and advancement opportunities. The best teacher in a school should earn substantially more than the poorest performer. The best should advance to more responsibility and opportunity while the worst should be considered for removal in lieu of improvement.
- School choice should be encouraged via policy and be an option for students and parents, particularly in school districts that post poor student proficiency levels. If public education is not serving the customers with the quality product that the customer paid for, the customers should be free to take their business elsewhere.
Although these simple reforms would drastically improve the lives of countless children, accomplishing the reforms will require long, brutal campaigns on a state-by-state and school district-by-school district basis.
Yet we would be hard-pressed to find a more worthy fight.