By Paul Vallas
Yes, there is institutional racism in this country. It’s in our antiquated public school system. I’m not suggesting that is necessarily by intent, but it’s an undeniable outcome of the status quo.
Institutional racism both festers and flourishes in the absence of school choice.
It festers when communities, particularly, poor urban school districts, are denied quality educational options and are unable to force fundamental changes in their often-failing neighborhood schools.
It flourishes because teachers unions spend fortunes to preserve their destructive monopoly on America’s public school districts.
This monopoly – like all strangleholds unfettered by competition – too often dooms children to “educational redlining.” In other words, low-income families are forced to accept what their geographically assigned school district provides. When the quality is bad, they are stuck with subpar neighborhood schools.
If the idea of “union monopoly” is new to you, read the National Education Association’s (NEA) “issue explainer” on vouchers. It’s an unabashed manifesto for the destruction of choice under false pretense of “accountability.”
Organizations such as the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) perennially demand more funding and less accountability for traditional public schools, while working tirelessly to roll back choice for low-income and minority families. That’s because providing parents – especially those of modest means – free or subsidized alternative education options creates accountability for traditional public schools.
Ask yourself: If teachers unions are so confident in unionized schools, why are they so afraid of a little competition?
The battle against vouchers and other education subsidies most recently surfaced in President Biden’s COVID-19 American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Heavily influenced by teachers unions and union-funded politicians, Biden’s ARPA included more than $125 billion for government K–12 public education programs but just $2.75 billion for private schools. Private schools educate 10% of America’s students but received 2% of the money! It wasn’t even allocated directly to the schools. Instead, it went to state education agencies to distribute only to select private schools that “enroll a significant percentage of low-income students most impacted by the qualifying emergency.”
All schools and students were dramatically impacted by the pandemic. Federal COVID relief dollars should’ve been distributed equally, commensurate with their share of the student population.
NEA and AFT direct equal hostility at free public charter schools. Their intent is to destroy them by lobbying for capping their numbers and imposing restrictive mandates that undermine what is appealing about charters in the first place: their flexibility to innovate to improve quality. For example, the U.S. Department of Education is currently sabotaging charter schools with an unprecedented rewrite of the federal Charter School Program (CSP) rules. It’s a shocking attack by a Democratic administration on the legacy of another Democratic president – until you consider that Biden and his NEA-member wife have made it clear from the outset that they are no friend to charter schools.
President Clinton created the CSP in 1994. The modest $440 million grant program provides start-up funding for public charter schools, mostly for the benefit of low-income and minority families who otherwise would have no choices. The Biden administration’s proposed rules rely solely on school district enrollment numbers, not quality. With many urban districts’ losing enrollment − in no small part because of shoddy quality − it will be virtually impossible for new and innovative charter schools to open where they are most needed: minority urban communities.
The NEA and AFT regularly play the race card against school choice advocates − but the critical question is this: Who are these proposed rules designed to serve and protect? Certainly not the low-income children trapped, through no fault of their own, in failing public schools.
Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the traditional public education system’s weaknesses by revealing how ill-equipped schools were to deal with the immediate crisis. From coast to coast, parents witnessed districts’ failure to adjust and reopen safely to restore in-person instruction. Traditional school districts – burdened by centralized bureaucracy, collective bargaining agreements and outright union interference – simply aren’t designed to adapt or innovate in real time, even in an emergency. Compounding districts’ failure was union leadership’s dogged insistence on prioritizing its members’ interests at all costs – even at the expense of students and their working families.
In spite of the science, traditional schools were fully or partially closed for nearly a year and a half. Studies show that virtual schooling left students devastatingly behind. On average, kids lost half a year, with learning loss falling disproportionately on low-income, Black and Latino students. Another million students functionally dropped out of school altogether. The American Academy of Pediatrics concluded that social isolation imposed on children caused a mental health “state of emergency.” The damage to a generation of children’s educational advancement, social-emotional development and the social mobility prospects for its most marginalized members will never be repaired.
It didn’t have to be this way. Scores of private, parochial and charter schools welcomed children inside with no mass spread or hospitalizations. Their superior pandemic performance − compared to traditional public schools − is well-documented.
One would have hoped that the catastrophic consequences from remote “learning” while teachers unions forced schools to stay shuttered would prompt the NEA and AFT to rethink their self-interested hostility toward school choice. One might have reasonably expected those who insist, with a straight face, that they “put kids first” would be forced at long last to admit the myriad benefits school choice creates.
No such luck. Teachers unions know the pandemic outed lackluster traditional schools where the interests of adults are valued over the interests of children. They’re doubling down on blocking school choice, which they perceive as an existential threat.
Fortunately, despite attempts to deny families alternatives to failing public schools, parents are voting with their feet. Last year, charter school enrollment grew by 7% or almost a quarter of a million students. Private schools saw comparable increases. At the same time, 20 states enacted new or expanded existing school choice programs. That trend will continue as more and more parents demand alternatives to government-run schools educating their children.
But the pain caused by teachers unions’ endless tantrums is real. The recent kowtowing of the Biden administration on the federal CSP is a prime example. This is why it’s more important than ever for charter, parochial and private school parents and supporters to unite and aggressively advocate for educational freedom. They should enlist natural allies like the police unions whom the teachers unions consistently malign, suburban public school parents on the frontlines for reopening schools, and taxpayers without school-age children who see 60-70% of their property taxes spent on underperforming K-12 public schools.
Crises have a tendency to bring out both the best and worst in individuals and in organizations. The teachers unions’ refusal to respond to this historic national emergency in a way that prioritized children, and their unending fight to maintain the public education status quo – even when it has been starkly revealed by that emergency to be wholly inadequate – is stunning.
They shamelessly let kids bear the brunt of the pandemic while gaslighting the public as they wrapped themselves in the flag of the “progressive” movement. Preserving a broken status quo is, by definition, antithetical to progress.
Those well-versed in civil rights history see that the denial of school choice amounts to education redlining. Denying poor families access to education during the pandemic and denying them choice beyond this emergency is nothing more than a present-day version of “separate but equal.”
America’s socio-economic Achilles’ heel is its union-dominated, monopolistic public education system. No amount of funding can correct that.
It is time to free America’s children and reconstitute this country’s public education system, which is arguably the most regressive and discriminatory institution in America. Failure to do so will leave an indelible stain.
Paul Vallas formerly ran the public school systems in Chicago and Philadelphia and the Louisiana Recovery School District.