Teacher Unions Resist Introduction of Competition

Published October 1, 2001

“It is better for the public to procure at the market whatever the market can supply; because there it is by competition kept up in quality, and reduced to its minimum price.”
Thomas Jefferson, 1808

“We don’t want our schools to be open to the market.”
Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International July 25-29, 2001

As Thomas Jefferson’s advice from almost two centuries ago indicates, privatization has a long pedigree in the United States, and its benefits address two fundamental aims of current public school reform: How to achieve a high-quality education, and how to do so without spending more tax dollars than necessary.

But as Fred van Leeuwen’s assertion to the recent World Congress of teacher unions also indicates, privatization of public school services is likely to be strongly opposed by organized labor.

The Web sites of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers leave no doubt that opposing privatization is a top priority for the teacher unions. That opposition is just as strong in the nation’s smallest school district as it is in the largest, and it extends beyond U.S. borders to international trade pacts affecting the import of educational services from foreign countries around the world.

Free Trade in Education

According to NEA Resolution A-22, “The Association opposes any privatization or subcontracting arrangement that . . . [r]eplaces services that are, or could feasibly be, provided by the public schools.”

NEA delegates were among those at the recent World Congress of teacher unions in Jomtien, Thailand, where the 1,100 or so delegates approved a resolution opposing attempts to open up international trade in educational services by including them in the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

A perceptive conference report by Education Week writer Jeff Archer laid out what was bothering the teacher unions.

The World Trade Organization will meet in November in Qatar, and according to Archer, the teacher unions appear concerned the U.S. may agree to liberalize international trade in K-12 educational services. Such liberalization could lift restrictions on who can open and operate a school and who can be a teacher. The teacher unions fear that a foreign country exporting to the U.S. could argue American restrictions in this regard are protectionist barriers and seek to have them lifted.

Union Blocks Cost-Saving Effort

Earlier this year, the Michigan School Boards Leaders Association honored school board members Mary Rogala and James Harden with Courage in Leadership Awards for their valiant efforts to try to direct more of the tax dollars at their disposal to the education of the children in the Upper Peninsula’s Arvon Township School District. The district is one of the nation’s smallest, with only 15 students, a budget of $260,000, and five employees, all members of the Michigan Education Association.

Concerned with excessive non-educational expenditures–such as $11 per child per day for lunch–Rogala and Harden were instrumental in gaining board approval last July for a budget that eliminated non-teaching staff from the payroll and reduced transportation, food service, and janitorial spending by 30 percent. The school board planned to redirect the savings to a $5,000 boost in the school library fund and a $20,000 program for science, music, art, and technology.

But the MEA fought the proposal, filing a flurry of lawsuits against board president Rogala and harassing another board member who subsequently withdrew his support for the cost-reduction measure. The school board reversed the budget proposal at a special meeting in August.

One of the MEA’s arguments is that contracting out does not work, and in fact may cost the district even more money. However, Rogala pointed out that the MEA contracts out at its own headquarters.

“It shouldn’t be this difficult to help kids,” commented MSBLA Executive Director Lori Yaklin. “But if you think the teacher union isn’t willing to go to the mat for a 15-student school, think again.”

Edison May Take on Philadelphia’s Schools

With an expected 136 schools and about 75,000 students at the start of the 2001-2002 school year, Edison Schools, Inc. is the nation’s largest private manager of public schools–but it hasn’t made a profit since it was founded by CEO Christopher Whittle nine years ago. When the company recently reported a fiscal 2001 loss of $38.1 million on revenues of $375.8 million, Whittle said he expects the company to become profitable in fiscal 2002.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge recently hired Edison to make recommendations on how turn around Philadelphia’s public schools.

Only one in eight of Philadelphia’s 210,000 students perform at a “proficient” level on state tests; the school board has ignored cost-saving proposals from state auditors and run up a $216 million deficit; and the district currently is operating without a superintendent. On August 1, Ridge gave Edison $2.7 million to analyze the district and come up with a reform plan by the end of September.

Edison’s relations with teacher unions and parents are mixed. The company met with opposition from the teacher union in San Francisco and Las Vegas, but with an offer to work together in Miami. Parents in Baltimore and San Francisco like Edison, but parents in New York City voted to keep Edison out. Last year, school officials in Inkster, Michigan, voted for management by Edison rather than face takeover by the state. Now, Philadelphia’s school system may face the same choice.