What About the Children? an interview with John E. Berthoud

Published March 1, 2000

If the “New Unionism” did mean something–if it wasn’t just a lot of rhetoric coming from a big public relations firm–then you might expect to see an organization that now was a little more interested in qualitative reforms rather than just the same old “tax and spend” solutions for education.

As we measure it, the NEA agenda now is $200 billion bigger than it was just three or four years ago. If anything, the NEA has become more statist and more supportive of Big Government.”

When President Clinton delivered his final State of the Union message to Congress on January 27, the enthusiastic support of Democrats for his 60-odd populist federal spending proposals sent a none-too-subtle signal to taxpayers that the recently banished figure of Big Government was ready to make a triumphant return to Washington, DC.

Initially, that return was made to seem much more attractive by the lack of price tags on the favors the President was offering to the country. That quickly changed when the National Taxpayers Union Foundation estimated the taxpayer impact fee for each of the President’s offerings and added up the total bill: $125 billion annually in new spending.

NTUF’s timely and well-respected work in this and other areas on behalf of the American taxpayer is directed by Dr. John E. Berthoud, president and chief operating officer of the Foundation and its parent, the National Taxpayers Union. Both organizations are located in Alexandria, Virginia.

NTU, founded in 1969, is the nation’s largest grassroots taxpayer group, with 300,000 members in all 50 states. NTUF was founded in 1977 and provides valuable research on a variety of tax and fiscal issues.

One vital area of NTUF’s research is on the legislative agenda of the nation’s largest teacher union, the National Education Association–the most powerful opposition force in the country today in the battle for parental choice in education.

Last April, choice advocates were buoyed when Milwaukee voters rejected all five teacher union-backed school board candidates. But since then the union and its state affiliates have redoubled their efforts, scuttling voucher legislation in Pennsylvania, blocking charter school expansion in Michigan, and pulling off the stunning defeat of a heavily favored pro-voucher mayoral candidate in Philadelphia.

John Berthoud received his Ph.D. from Yale University, where he studied the impact of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law. He began his career in Washington as legislative director for tax and fiscal policy at the American Legislative Exchange Council, and subsequently served as vice president of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. Berthoud is an adjunct lecturer in budgetary politics at George Washington University, and his work has been published in numerous periodicals. He recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become involved with the National Taxpayers Union?

Berthoud: I have been interested in politics since I was about 12 years old and it was very clear to me early on that the taxpayer, the little guy, often lost out to special interests in Washington and in state capitals around the country. I very much subscribe to the thesis that there’s an imbalance between concentrated special interests and those with just a general interest. Repeatedly in the budget process you will see the special interests–those who stand to gain a sizable amount–win at the expense of the general populace to whom the cost is a minimal amount.

That naturally drew me to the work of the National Taxpayers Union in fighting the good fight for taxpayers. I had heard of NTU through high school, in college, and during my early professional career.

After I finished my studies at Yale, I worked at the American Legislative Exchange Council for a couple of years and in 1994 was asked to come over as vice president for research of NTU’s 501(c)3 foundation, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. I worked there for a couple of years, went to the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, and then came back in 1997 as president of NTU and NTUF.

Clowes: Last year, NTUF did a study of the legislative agenda of the National Education Association. With so many special interest groups and agendas, what made you pick the NEA?

Berthoud: First, the NEA is a very important organization. They spend millions of dollars every year in the American political process. For the past two years its president, Bob Chase, has been talking about a “New Unionism” and “reinventing” the union. We thought it was important for elected officials, for those in the media, for teachers, for parents, and for all those interested in American public policy to understand what is the real motivation and agenda of the NEA. We asked the question: “What is this group really about? What do they stand for?”

Secondly, from a taxpayer group point of view, looking at the battles and fights that we have across the states and in Washington, there is no group that is out there more consistently on the other side of the fence from the interests of taxpayers than the NEA and its state affiliates. They repeatedly look to a “tax and spend” solution for our schools.

When the NEA sees problems in America’s schools, they think the solution is to be found in a quantitative change, i.e. spending more dollars. We believe in qualitative change, particularly in light of the fact that for in almost every decade since WWII, on average, per-pupil spending in American schools has risen by about 40 percent. One of the #1 reasons taxpayers have faced higher taxes in recent years has been the strong advocacy of yet more spending by groups like the NEA.

Clowes: Where did you get the NEA’s legislative agenda and how did you estimate its cost?

Berthoud: We have a program at NTUF called BillTally. This is a database that contains details of the budget impact and sponsorship of every piece of legislation in Congress that costs or saves more than one million dollars per year. What we normally do with BillTally is to summarize that information for each Member of Congress, so that you can look at all the bills that, for example, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin is sponsoring and cosponsoring. We also add up the cost of all those bills to estimate how federal spending would change if everything that Senator Durbin supported was enacted into law–would federal spending increase or decrease?

The NEA’s Legislative Agenda is a big book that they publish from the Resolutions that are approved every two years at the NEA’s General Assembly. They have a legislative program for the 106th Congress. We went through that agenda and linked each item to legislation in BillTally that would achieve it. For example, if the Resolution said “NEA supports protection of the environment and natural resources,” we did our best to find legislation in BillTally that would enact that Resolution. When we’d done that, we could summarize the NEA’s Legislative Agenda in the same way we summarize the legislative agenda for each Member of Congress.

Clowes: What were the major findings of the study?

Berthoud: We found that if you adopted everything the NEA would like to do, federal spending would increase by $906 billion a year–that’s billion with a “b.” That’s about a 60 percent increase over current outlays. For the average American family, the cost of the NEA programs is $12,874, which is a stunning figure. Most significantly, only about 3 percent–about $33 billion–of all that increased spending is related to education.

The other 97 percent of the NEA’s $906 billion spending increase is for national health care, Social Security–where they propose a $46 billion spending increase–and a whole host of other areas where they would like to see higher spending. Now, this is a group that says it is first and foremost dedicated to the best interests of children. But with future generations already facing huge unfunded liabilities, increasing spending on Social Security would be about the worst thing you could do right now. It just would add to the liabilities that children today already face.

The NEA even supports reductions in the Social Security retirement age. When the program was enacted in 1935, the age at which you started to collect Social Security was 65, but if that age had risen in accord with demographic changes, it would be about 73 today. Right now, the retirement age is slowly rising from 65 to 67, and the debate in Washington is “Do we keep it the same, do we raise it a little bit, or do we raise it a lot?” The NEA is so far out of the mainstream that they are in this outlier position of advocating lowering the Social Security retirement age. If there’s any way that I can think of to hurt the fiscal future of today’s children, it’s policies like that.

Clowes: What specific proposals does the NEA have for education?

Berthoud: Of course, they oppose the abolition of the U.S. Department of Education, which they helped create during the Carter Administration. They support greater federal involvement in education with proposals for federal enforcement of truancy laws, federal programs for school-based health programs, federal assistance for school construction and maintenance, and “strengthening national security by increasing federal funding for education.”

There is also support for a whole host of other proposals, such as efforts to end illiteracy, improved parental involvement, initiatives to combat violence and drugs in schools, programs to enhance other educational programs and improve student performance, protection of students from school environmental hazards, and programs to assist students in urban and rural areas in coping with the stress of their environments. But what is significant is that these education proposals–i.e., programs for children–are such a small part of the NEA’s legislative agenda.

Clowes: What about NEA claims that they have shifted to a “New Unionism”?

Berthoud: If the “New Unionism” did mean something–if it wasn’t just a lot of rhetoric coming from a big public relations firm–then you might expect to see an organization that now was a little more interested in qualitative reforms rather than just the same old “tax and spend” solutions for education. With a “New Unionism,” one might imagine that the Big Government agenda we’ve seen year after year from the NEA would change a little bit. But none of it has really changed. I have not seen any real change in its public policies.

As we measure it, the NEA agenda now is $200 billion bigger than it was just three or four years ago. If anything, the NEA has become more statist and more supportive of Big Government.

One way to put the NEA’s $906 billion Legislative Agenda in perspective is to compare it to the cost of the agenda for an average Member of Congress, as determined by BillTally.

Now, some legislators have agendas to cut spending, but a lot of them have agendas to increase spending. In the 105th Congress the average member had an agenda to increase spending by about $64 billion. In other words, the NEA’s agenda is about 15 times larger than that of an average Member of Congress. That doesn’t sound like “New Unionism.”

Clowes: The NEA frequently complains that teachers are underpaid. Did your study throw any light on that issue?

Berthoud: No, it doesn’t. But we do bring out the fact that Bob Chase is pulling down a very healthy salary of $270,000 a year, and a lot of NEA staff members are very highly paid–over 2,000 officials of the NEA and its state affiliates make over $100,000 per year. That’s about triple the average teacher’s salary.

The idea that teachers are underpaid is something that we hear from the NEA all the time, but when you look at the numbers you realize that teachers work only 185 days a year as compared to 235 for the rest of us. Studies by Mike Antonucci and others show that, in general, teacher salaries are higher than the average pay in most states in the nation. Also, contrary to what the NEA is suggesting, teacher pay in most communities is at a very comfortable level.

Clowes: What would be the one action the NEA could take that would make the biggest improvement to education for children in the United States?

Berthoud: There’s not much doubt about that. If the NEA changed its position on school choice and vouchers, that would be like a dam breaking. It would have a monumental impact.

If you go back six or seven years and think about the book Reinventing Government, you’ll recall that the notion of incentives in public policy was very attractive to a lot of centrist Democrats and to New Democrat politicians like Bill Clinton. But, of course, the teacher unions have squelched all such ideas vis-a-vis education.

The NEA has millions of dollars to spend and they practice the “politics of fear,” where politicians who stand up to them and their interests will be targeted for defeat. For example, if you come out and say that a spending increase of 15 to 20 percent for schools or teachers is too much, you’ll be labeled “anti-child,” even if you’re saying you support a 10 percent increase. In that regard, it’s worth noting that the NEA’s Political Action Committee is beginning to give more money to Republicans. The NEA is such a big force that if they promise to give an incumbent Republican a few dollars, or at a minimum promise to stay out of the race, a lot of Republicans appear willing to bend over backwards to appease them.

If the NEA changed its opposition to things like choice and vouchers, I think almost immediately you would have a lot of states and a lot of communities changing their policies in response to the disappearance of that wall of opposition. Unfortunately, that’s wishful thinking–they’re not going to change that policy anytime soon. But that certainly would be the most significant policy change the NEA could make to improve the education for children in this country.