by Christopher Paslay
Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.
Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first! “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday. “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.”
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman. His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools.
Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?
Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.
As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less. Where is the “lifetime appointment”?
Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700. As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension). This can hardly be considered “cushy”.
As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized. NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.
Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students. Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.
Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?
Teacher Pay: Old vs. New
Romney wants to pay new teachers more. “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”
By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience? The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources? The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth? Those “older teachers”?
By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience? The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management? By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years? Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?
Romney doesn’t think class size matters. In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending. “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois. “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.”
Really? So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23? No difference in classroom management? No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction? No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents? Or the money needed for resources and supplies? Money for paper? Books? Laptops? Field trips? No difference between 23 and 33, huh?
There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program. And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.
From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base. Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.