The public school teacher debate continues

November 03, 2011 | By JENNIFER THOMPSON

PLF has long been concerned with the powerful role that unions play in dictating government spending policies across America.

One area where the problem is particularly acute is in public education, where PLF has challenged government enforced teacher monopolies and the right of parents to choose alternative education options for their children.

Here then, is a refreshing statement about public education funding from former Chancellor of D.C. Public Schools and public education advocate Michelle Rhee:

“We can accomplish the goal of attracting and retaining the best teachers and be fiscally responsible at the same time by moving money out of bloated bureaucracies that doesn’t improve student learning and into the classroom where it can.”

Rhee issued this statement, via Politico, in response to a study released this week by the Heritage Foundation, finding that total compensation for public school teachers is “52 percent greater than fair market levels, [which is] equivalent to more than $120 billion overcharged to taxpayers each year.”

And while Rhee was ostensibly criticizing the Heritage report and its conclusion that “teachers are overpaid,” there clearly is common ground between the report and Rhee’s vision of reform.  For one thing, on Heritage’s website announcing the release of its report, the authors state:

“While union contracts help secure overcompensation for the average teacher, they may still leave the most valuable teachers underpaid. . . School administrators need to be able to hire and fire teachers as needed, basing personnel decisions on rigorous value-added evaluations . . . “

That is precisely what Michelle Rhee attempted to do during her tenure as DC Chancellor.  A powerful documentary film, Waiting for Superman, chronicles the attempts of several DC children and their families to navigate and try to escape from a failing public school system via charter and private schools.  A scene in the film shows Rhee discussing her proposal for a merit-based pay system that would provide teachers with the opportunity to earn up to $140,000.  The teachers’ union was too threatened by the proposal to even permit its members to vote on the issue.  Not surprisingly, Rhee became deeply unpopular with unions, intent on maintaining their power grip on public education.

The lesson for today is that support for public education reform that centers on retaining and rewarding teachers who teach well, can come from across the political and ideological spectrum.  The movement needs the analytical prowess of think tanks as much as it needs the input of educators who have spent time in the trenches and who know what works and what doesn’t inside American classrooms.  It also needs more people like Rhee who are willing to think outside of the box and to challenge the union-promoted status quo.  By focusing on those areas where different reform groups share common ground, the movement is more likely to succeed in its struggle to win over hearts and minds in the education arena.