Tax-Funded Schools Are Political Machines, Author Says

Published November 1, 2005

Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education
by Joe Williams
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005
272 pages, $16.47, ISBN: 140396839X

In Cheating Our Kids: How Politics and Greed Ruin Education, author Joe Williams makes the case that as long as tax dollars fund public schools, education will be a political operation.

Traditional public schools, Williams notes, have a captive audience and a continuing supply of money to spend on the adults lining the system. Alternative options, such as charter schools, are able to make more efficient use of per-pupil funding–if only because there are fewer hands grabbing for a piece of the pie.

Entitlement Mentality Pervades

Williams provides many anecdotes showing how an entitlement mentality permeates school districts. Their highest priority, he says, is to make sure contracts with the adults benefitting from the system aren’t violated: Teachers with no knowledge of sign language are hired at a school for the deaf; janitors refuse to clean carpet squares in classrooms because it isn’t in their contract to do so.

Reformers are always calling for more transparency and for school districts to share critical information that could improve education, but contracts negotiated out of the public eye make it difficult to know who should be held accountable when the system doesn’t run smoothly. Contracts shouldn’t work against the kids and the teachers, Williams argues. Case in point: Administrators should not purchase supplies through contracted vendors, who charge much more than Sam’s Club or other local retail outlets.

Taxpayers’ education dollars are used improperly in other ways as well, Williams points out. For example, during the 2004 presidential election, the National Education Association (NEA) was the single largest contributor to the Floridians for All Political Action Committee, providing $250,000 to its campaign to raise the minimum wage as part of a greater strategy to make sure people would vote against President George W. Bush.

Because union dues are tax deductible, tax dollars pay for such activities.

Philanthropy Involves Risks

There is considerable debate about whether reforms driven by philanthropists are further disenfranchising the public from the public school system. The latest fad is small schools within schools, a trend that may be driven by the accompanying funding.

All philanthropy comes with strings, and whoever accepts the money should understand the long-term consequences of implementing any reforms, Williams says. Philanthropically driven reforms should be evaluated for their impact by unbiased sources. Moreover, Williams argues, educators should turn down money offered by philanthropists who interfere with the public’s role in making important policy decisions.

Unarguably, Williams says, philanthropy has helped fuel the school choice movement. Organizations such as Partners Advancing Values in Education, the Bradley Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the Friedman Foundation helped create the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program school voucher system 15 years ago.

In fact, because the late Wal-Mart heir John Walton gave large sums of money to support charters and private school choice, the NEA urges its members to boycott Wal-Mart. This leaves many business leaders somewhat squeamish about funding education alternatives.

But as Williams points out in this well-written book, the data are in: Competition has improved all of Milwaukee’s public schools since vouchers were approved. Parents across the country must assert themselves as customers in the system. They must educate themselves on what is happening in schools, because knowledge is power.

When parents understand how schools work and how their children’s schools compare to others in the system, they will be more inclined to level the playing field for their own kids.

Nancy Salvato ([email protected]) is president of The Basics Project.