Union Chief: Give Money to Us, Not to Parents

Published January 1, 2000

“I represent teachers. That’s who I represent.” Sandra Feldman, American Federation of Teachers president

If more money were to be made available for the education of poor children, teacher union chief Sandra Feldman made it clear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that she didn’t want any of it going to parents so they could choose nonpublic schools for their children. Instead, said the American Federation of Teachers president, the money should go only to public schools to fund union-supported initiatives.

William Bennett, U.S. Secretary of Education in the Reagan Administration, shared the program with Feldman on November 7. Bennett warned that the union’s stance on vouchers is “hurting the cause of teachers and hurting the reputation of teachers.”

“Meet the Press” host Tim Russert had raised the issue of vouchers bringing competition to the education monopoly, asking the union chief for her reaction to a school choice proposal made by Matthew Miller in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly.

Miller, who used to work in the Clinton Administration, wrote: “Let’s do a large-scale test of vouchers and higher spending. Let’s raise funding for education by 20 percent for schools in the inner cities while also giving students the option of choosing a non-public school with a voucher worth at least half of the per-pupil spending in the public schools, or about $3,000 to $6,000. Milton Friedman, Lamar Alexander, and NAACP president Kweisi Mfume said it’s worth a try.”

“So the public schools would get more funding, but parents would then have a choice as to where to send their kids, and the competition would be great for public schools, great for teachers, great for parents, and great for kids,” said Russert. “Would you accept something like that?” he asked Feldman.

While granting that Miller’s proposal was “thoughtful” and “well-meaning,” Feldman rejected the voucher component and said that all of the extra money should go into what the union wanted in public schools: “lowering class sizes, better teacher training, putting proven programs into place, wiring the schools . . .” She favored choice, but only within the public school system.

“I’m opposed to vouchers as public policy,” she declared.

Miller’s article exposed the hypocrisy of the teacher unions, said Bennett. The unions say they need more money, and so Miller had proposed a 20 percent increase in exchange for a large-scale trial of vouchers. But the teacher unions still say, No deal.

Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, also had rejected Miller’s proposal–even when Miller suggested doubling or even tripling current education spending in return for having a real experiment with vouchers. No deal, said Chase.

“It’s not about money. It’s about keeping their monopoly,” said Bennett. “There’s no legal argument left, there’s no constitutional argument left, there’s no moral argument left. All that’s left is the power of the teachers unions.”

Russert opened the program by quoting from a front-page story in the November 6 issue of The New York Times:

  • “Most eighth-graders in New York City fail state test;”
  • “77 percent of eighth-graders flunked math;”
  • “65 percent of eight-graders flunked English.”

“This is a disaster–a disaster about our public schools,” said Russert.

“Well, it isn’t really a disaster,” protested Feldman, explaining that the public schools now were asking a lot more of students and testing at a higher standard than they had for the past two decades. Curriculum hasn’t yet caught up with the test, she said.

Though Bennett gave the AFT credit for its promotion of educational standards, he disagreed with Feldman’s view of public schools. “I’d be closer to saying it is a disaster,” he said, particularly in areas where children are most in need of a good education. He pointed out that only one-fifth of U.S. fourth-grade students were proficient in math, only one-fourth proficient in writing, and only one-third proficient in reading.

“We don’t have a majority testing at the proficient level in the fourth grade in any of those three basic subjects–we’ve got to do better than that,” he said.

Feldman protested that “we have been doing better,” and complained that “it’s unfair” to have a constant “doom and gloom” attitude about what’s happening.

“I wouldn’t deny the improvement,” said Bennett, “but it’s from a level that’s so low . . .[that] you’re bound to make improvements.”

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