Inconvenient educational truths

First: National Review reports:

Over the past several decades, American teachers’ salaries and benefits have increased steadily, while the academic performance of the nation’s students has stagnated. In a new paper released on Wednesday, Sally Lovejoy and Chad Miller of the American Action Forum argue that teachers unions’ and their collective-bargaining policies are at least partly to blame for both issues.

The authors cite an array of studies examining the impact of teachers’ unions and their negotiating strategies. The majority of these studies have found that collective-bargaining agreements typically focus on higher teacher pay and benefits and greater job security, with little consideration given to student performance. In fact, teachers’ unions have historically resisted most efforts to hold teachers accountable for the academic performance of their students, and have succeeded consistently. Tenure policies, for instance, make it virtually impossible to fire unqualified or ineffective teachers. Most states award tenure automatically after about three years, and do not test a new teacher’s mastery of even the most basic reading and math skills. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has had a largely negative impact on the students themselves, especially those in large urban school districts with a high percentage of black and Hispanic students.

The paper compares student-performance data from two such districts, New York City and Chicago (both of which require collective bargaining), with data from Charlotte, N.C., and Austin, Texas, urban districts in states where collective bargaining is banned for public employees. The two different situations reveal how collective bargaining is inflating salaries, compensation, and job security while it’s strangling policies that could help student achievement. …

Research indicates that high-quality teachers have a significant impact on student achievement both in school and beyond, making the teachers’ unions’ resistance to performance-based evaluation all the more frustrating. One study by professors at Harvard and Columbia found that students assigned to teachers classified as “high-value added” instructors attend better colleges, earn higher salaries, and are less likely to have children as teenagers. Furthermore, simply replacing a “low-value added” teacher with an average one can increase students’ lifetime earning by as much as $1.4 million.

According to teacher unions, every teacher is a great teacher. According to reality, that is not the case. In addition to inflating the cost of schools, teacher unions protect bad teachers and inhibit the ability of good teachers to do better. Too bad Gov. Scott Walker tried merely to make government employees pay more for their (taxpayer-funded) benefits, instead of destroying teacher unions.

Speaking of the cost of schools, George Mitchell points out something you haven’t heard in the ongoing complaints that every single taxpayer dollar is not going to schools:

Of the many fallacies perpetuated by lazy journalists, one of the most consequential involves public school finance.  = Coverage of current budget deliberations in Madison illustrates this.

Consider a recent Green Bay Press-Gazette story on the possible expansion of the Milwaukee and Racine school choice program.

Oconto Falls district Superintendent Dave Polashek was reported as one of many local school officials  “frustrated” by the prospect.  He said, “At a time when we’re cutting things like drivers education and home ec, they want to divert funding from public schools to create a dual school system.” Polashek said legislators are “somewhat oblivious to the needs of schools. Does it make sense to support private education with public dollars at a time when we’re hurting?”

In a similar vein, the Journal Sentinel editorial board accused legislators of “[c]ontinuing their attack on the public school system” by approving a tax deduction for parents of private school students.  The paper opined,”The losers [will] be public schools, which are already under significant financial pressure. Wisconsin has great public schools; why not give them more support instead of undermining them?” …

In fact, however, only by ignoring recent history can one believe that Wisconsin public schools are financially shortchanged.  That history flatly refutes the claim that legislators are “oblivious to the needs of schools.”

In 1987, per pupil public school revenues were $4,302.  If schools had been held harmless from inflation in the next twenty-four years, revenues would need to have grown 88 per cent, to $8,108.

What actually happened during that period?  Financial support for public schools ballooned 198 per cent, more than twice as fast as inflation. By 2010 this meant that public school revenue equaled $12,822/pupil, a whopping 58 per cent increase over the level that would have held schools harmless from inflation. The accompanying chart compares how spending actually has grown with what would have occurred to insulate schools from inflation.

The new money added to the K-12 system by 2010 equaled $4,714/pupil. Given public school enrollment of 872,000 students that year, Wisconsin taxpayers had provided public schools with a spending windfall of more than $4.1 billion a year by the time Governor Walker took office.  So much for being “oblivious.”

Wisconsin journalists have failed to report this history. Further, they have failed to explain adequately that much of the new spending has not reached the classroom.  Instead, it has gone to pension, health care, and other fringe benefits.  Where such costs once equaled about a quarter of teacher salaries, in many school districts that share now exceeds fifty per cent.  In the Milwaukee Public Schools, the meteoric rise in fringe benefits is the principal reason for reductions in education programming that have been part of recent budgets. …

The overall journalistic failure has predictable consequences when it comes to public opinion.  In scientific polling, scholars at Harvard University have found that the public is clueless when it comes to public school spending and levels of teacher compensation.

These scholars have reported their findings in the respected journal Education Next. They find that the average citizen has a “wildly inaccurate” understanding of school finance.  For example, “…[w]e asked respondents to estimate average per-pupil expenditures within their local school district and the average teacher salaries in their states…[W]e discovered that those surveyed, on average, underestimated per-pupil expenditures by more than half and teacher salaries by roughly 30 percent…”

How do citizens react when they “learn the truth”?

  • “For the nation as a whole, overall support for higher spending levels dropped by 8 percentage points (from 46 to 38 percent) when respondents were informed of actual per-pupil expenditures in their own district.”
  • The impacts of this information varied widely across subgroups. Told the truth about per-pupil expenditures, the share of African Americans willing to support additional spending plummeted from 82 to 48 percent.”
  • “When informed about actual average teacher salaries in their state, respondents’ support for higher salaries dropped by 16 percentage points (from 56 to 40 percent).”

You won’t learn this from the Department of Propaganda and Inaccuracies — I mean, the Department of Public Instruction, which appears to spend at least half of its employee time sending out news releases that scream for more money for schools, as Collin Roth reports:

State Superintendent Tony Evers makes no secret about his opposition to the school choice program and its expansion. “Our children are caught in the crossfire of an ideologically driven expansion of school vouchers that is financially reckless and academically unproven,” said Evers in a recent statement.

But RightWisconsin has uncovered that beyond just vocally opposing the expansion of school choice, Tony Evers and the Department of Public Instruction staff used taxpayer resources to actively encourage superintendents around the state to enlist their faculty and parents to lobby against the expansion of school choice.

On May 30, Deputy State Superintendent Michael Thompson sent out the following message from Tony Evers to school administrators around the state …

With these marching orders in hand (received on their taxpayer-financed computers via their taxpayer-maintained email accounts) superintendents around the state then used their publicly funded email networks to enlist the support of publicly-funded faculty and parents to oppose the expansion of school choice.

In Plymouth, Superintendent Clark Reinke sent out a “Legislative Alert” that said, ” I want to urge you to contact our legislators and other legislators on the Joint Finance Comm to voice concern about voucher expansion and the process being used to advance this policy.”

Oshkosh Superintendent Stan F. Mack II did the same thing, forwarding on Evers message with his own personal appeal. “It is critical that you consider following up on the advice of State Superintendent Tony Evers and contact State legislators,” wrote Mack.

A quick look at the Department of Public Instruction finds the government agency acting as the political organizing hub for opponents of school choice. Superintendent Evers has posted statement after statement opposing and deriding the choice program and there is a 17-page white paper detailing DPI’s opposition to Governor Walker’s proposal to expand the school choice program. And now we know that Evers’ deputy was running an operation to mobilize opposition to the expansion of choice.

This is the logical result, first, of voters having given little thought to who should run the state’s schools over the decades. The next superintendent of public instruction (Evers’ releases refer to himself as only “state superintendent,” by the way) who actually gives a damn about how taxpayer dollars are spent will be the first. The next superintendent who is not a puppet of the Wisconsin Education Association Council will be the first. The next superintendent who admits that this state’s public schools are (1) overrated and (2) failing some children will be the first. (Truth be told, in the same way that a civilian heads the U.S. Defense Department, a non-educator should head DPI.)

Part of this is conservatives’ fault for not fielding credible, well financed opponents for the incumbent superintendents. (I voted for Don Pridemore in April, but I had no illusions of him actually winning, and I never thought he was the best possible non-education-establishment candidate.) Republicans have been less than successful  in explaining to and persuading voters, particularly parents, that children deserve the best possible education — not measured by how much money is spent, but on results — and if that best possible education isn’t in the child’s home school district, then somewhere else, public or private. (The federal GI Bill allows veterans to attend any college they wish, public or private. The GI Bill does not violate separation of church and state. The GI Bill might be a useful model for state education spending.) The GOP also failed to persuade parents who like their kids’ schools of how vouchers wouldn’t hurt successful public schools. (Indeed, the proposed $150-per-student increase in allowable spending should have been based in part on the school report cards, with more money going to the school districts with A- and B-graded schools.)

I’ve been around long enough to remember when Gov. Tommy Thompson hamhandedly tried to go around DPI by creating a Department of Education run by his own nominee. No one in the Thompson administration apparently bothered to check on whether that was constitutional (it most likely wasn’t — their apparent model of taking duties away from the secretary of state to the governor’s cabinet appointees didn’t really apply), and no one felt like taking on the educational establishment, including DPI, by promoting change to the state’s Constitution to get rid of DPI. Which is not to say the Democrats are the party of political courage in education either, proven not just throughout Recallarama but particularly by the failure of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett to demand control of Milwaukee Public Schools, as his predecessor, John Norquist, wanted.

The flip side of the Republicans’ miscommunicating their stance on education is what happened to school vouchers in this state as of, apparently, when the 2013–15 budget takes effect. Wisconsin started with vouchers only for MPS. Republicans wanted to add nine other school districts that have big-city school district problems. (Several of those additional school districts opposed the voucher program. The correct response to that is the Golden Rule of Politics: He who has the gold makes the rules.) At no point have I ever heard a Democrat explain why parents of children who attend private schools — who want, for instance, their children to get the morals and values the public schools do not teach — why they should pay for public school property taxes and private-school tuition tax-break-free.

Democrats and, apparently, the Republican Gang of Three — Sens. Mike Ellis (R–Neenah), Luther Olsen (R–Ripon) and Dale Schultz (R–Richland Center), who relish their contrariness when they’re in the majority — opposed adding the nine school districts. So what are we getting instead? School choice for every school district. Yes, it’s only 500 students statewide this coming school year and 1,000 the following school year, which averages out to one to two students per school district. But study of government demonstrates that once a government program begins, it’s nearly impossible to stop. Future Republican gubernatorial and legislative candidates will campaign on expanding the program beyond 1,000 students. Their future opponents will be hard pressed to explain to parents happy with their children’s school choices why they should be pulled out of those schools and thrown back into the inferior (in the minds of those parents) public schools.

Educational politics is a real education, isn’t it?

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