Fighting for Control over Children

Published May 1, 2000

Power Comes First

When the income of a business is threatened by the loss of customers to a competitor offering better service at lower cost, a number of responses are possible, from aggressively topping the competitor’s offering to simply hoping the problem will go away.

But when that business is the public school system, and its captive income of $300 billion a year is threatened by competition from school vouchers, tax credits, or K-12 education savings accounts, the teacher unions–the major beneficiaries of that huge cash flow–fight back not to match the competition but to kill it.

In a major new book about the destructive effect of organized labor on American education, G. Gregory Moo, a former teacher, high school principal, and educational administrator of 20 years, reveals how the largest teacher union–the National Education Association–has developed into the most significant obstacle to education reform in the United States today.

Moo’s book, Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children, shows how the NEA works to block the competition that parental choice in education would offer to public schools. He presents convincing evidence that the union’s aim is to control the public education system for its own ends, not “for the children.”

“No significant reform can come to American education until the NEA is first deposed from its ill-gotten position of power and control,” writes Moo, noting that the source of the NEA’s influence over public education lies in the power it has been given to extract compulsory union dues from classroom teachers.

But Moo also indicts school boards and school superintendents as partners in what he calls an “uneasy alliance that determines policies, sets priorities, and dictates prices”–defeating taxpayer efforts to control the costs of public education and sidetracking parents who seek to make curriculum changes. Whether reluctant partners or not, this “unholy alliance” works together to acquire public resources for distribution among its various constituencies.

While teachers like to think of the NEA as a “professional association” rather than a labor union, Power Grab notes the union has a record of 170 incidents of violence, making it the most violent of the public-sector unions.

Betraying Parents’ Trust

Parents would rightfully feel betrayed and angry if they found that a trusted babysitter had allowed their young child to stay up past midnight, gorge on junk food, and watch R-rated movies. The parents wouldn’t be impressed by arguments from the babysitter that their ideas on bedtimes, nutrition, and freedom of expression were “old-fashioned” and “repressive.” But today, it’s not just babysitters parents must worry about: It’s what happens when their children are given into the care of their local public schools.

As Elaine K. McEwan details in Angry Parents, Failing Schools, parents are shocked and angry when they learn what public schools are doing with their children.

“It seems the schools spend a lot of time trying not to teach,” Jud Martinson told McEwan after he and his wife had moved into an affluent community in the Pacific Northwest, where they had assumed that “affluence” meant “good public schools.” The Martinsons started to homeschool their children after discovering the public schools were in fact “intellectual wastelands, that touted one line of drivel without any rigor or real investigation as to whether it works or not.”

These empty teaching methods do have consequences when students move on to college. Despite the glowing “A” grades bestowed upon them by their nurturing elementary and secondary school teachers, many find they need remedial courses before starting college-level work. When concerned parents take their complaints about “whole language” reading or “fuzzy math” to teachers, principals, administrators, and school board members, they quickly find the public schools do not operate according to the rule, “the customer is always right.”

Despite the difficulties, parents can bring change to the system, says McEwan, a retired school teacher and administrator. In her no-nonsense book, she opens readers’ eyes to the disturbing curriculum and pedagogical changes that have contributed to the failure of public schools. She also provides a helpful list of action steps parents can take to begin changing public schools into institutions that once again merit the public’s trust.

“You may experience disappointment, rejection, vilification, and frustration” if you become a school activist, warns McEwan. “But you will make a difference.”

The Political Struggle

High-cost public schools may be graduating functionally illiterate adolescents, and parents may be angry about what is taught in public schools and what it costs, but with the average family unable to shoulder the crippling dual cost of public school taxes and private school fees, there is little competitive incentive for the public school system to change even when many of its taxpaying customers are dissatisfied with the product they are served.

Only during the last decade have lawmakers in several states leveled the playing field by authorizing parents themselves to direct their education tax dollars to the school of their choice, rather than having a school board, school administrator, or other government official do it for them.

Although there still are only a few examples of this transfer of power to parents–in Milwaukee, Cleveland, Florida, and Arizona, and in states with charter schools–it’s becoming clear that passing legislation to let parents choose schools can be a potent spur for public schools to improve their performance. But for every school choice advocate who wants lawmakers to give parents the power to direct tax dollars to the schools they choose, there are thousands of school board officials, school administrators, and teacher union officials who want to keep that power for themselves.

The struggle between these two groups is the subject of a valuable new book by Hubert Morken and Jo Renée Formicola, called The Politics of School Choice.

Starting with a brief summary of the important court rulings on parental choice in education, the authors provide a perspective on failed school choice initiatives in California and Colorado as an introduction to a wide-ranging account of current school choice efforts across the country.

Far from being what opponents have called “a vast right-wing conspiracy,” the school choice movement turns out to be largely driven by locally funded grassroots efforts where there is broad agreement on the need for reform, but where a common vision of school choice reforms still has to be hammered out.

“No organization or combination of groups controls or dominates” the school choice movement, according to the authors. They observe that the fortunes of the movement could shift dramatically if religious groups and African-Americans were to embrace school choice and organize for its passage.

“As black pastors join in and create schools, the benefits of school choice become tangible to people,” write Morken and Formicola. “For black churches school choice represents tremendous potential for securing greater independence, opportunity, and equality for children.”

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.

For more information …

Power Grab: How the National Education Association is Betraying Our Children, by Greg Moo (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 1999) ($24.95 cloth, ??? pages, ISBN 0-89526-315-7)

Angry Parents, Failing Schools: What’s Wrong With the Public Schools and What You Can Do About It, by Elaine K. McEwan (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1998) ($12.99, 297 pages, ISBN 0-87788-019-0)

The Politics of School Choice, by Hubert Morken and Jo Renée Formicola (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999) ($24.95 paperback, 336 pages, ISBN 0-8476-9721-5)