By Steve Gunn
WASHINGTON, D.C. – America’s public education system is “crumbling,” and the 2012 presidential candidates have a responsiblity to address that issue in greater detail, according to the College Board, a non-profit student advocacy organization.
To drive home that point, members of the group have spent this week placing 857 empty student desks in close proximity to each other on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The empty-desk protest – part of the group’s “Don’t Forget Ed!” campaign – is meant to signify the number of American youths that drop out of school every hour of every school day.
The College Board has never been political in nature, and is not endorsing a presidential candidate this year, according to a story published by MSNBC.com. The group simply wants the public to demand that President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney make education a major focus of their campaigns.
“Really, this is about rallying the American public,” Peter Kauffmann, the College Board’s vice president of communications, was quoted as saying.
One expert, quoted in the MSNBC.com story, said the College Board effort will probably fail to a large degree, because education will again be overshadowed by concern over the economy.
Obviously there is some truth to that. But we still believe education reform could be a wedge issue that could make a big difference in a very close race.
The ed reform movement has been big news around the nation for the past few years, largely due to the national recession that has slowed the rate of government tax revenues. With fewer tax dollars going to schools, local officials have been forced to examine their budgets and determine where all the money is going and why.
The obvious answer is union labor costs, which eat up about three-fourths of a typical school district’s general fund budget. Many unions around the nation have rejected calls to make voluntary contract concessions so more money can be redirected toward student needs.
That union stubbornness has angered the American people. A recent poll showed that more than half of respondents now consider teachers unions bad for education. The people have seen what the unions prioritize – money and power – and what they’re willing to sacrifice – student needs.
That’s why thousands of citizens have formed local “parent unions” and other watchdog groups, to monitor union activity and advocate for students. That’s why Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker survived the teacher union-led recall election earlier this month. And that’s why the presidential candidate who has the good sense to co-opt this popular movement may get a leg up in the election.
The people understand where the problem lies, and are willing to back leaders who have the courage to go toe-to-toe with the union special interests.
So far Romney seems to understand that fact more than Obama. He recently launched a blistering attack on America’s teachers unions and promised they would have an active critic in the White House if he’s elected.
President Obama, on the other hand, seems to be focused on the tired old formula of “investing” more federal dollars in education. Never mind that most of those dollars usually end up in the pockets of school employees, in the form of salary raises or increased benefits extorted through collective bargaining.
Obama can’t afford to offend the national teachers unions, which provided him with huge amounts of campaign cash and thousands of eager campaign volunteers four years ago. And the unions like the president’s plan to give them more money.
But the unions no longer control public opinion when it comes to education.
Obama doesn’t appear to understand that American schools need financial and structural reform before they can start performing better. Only more accountability and increased competition will bring about improvements in the system.
As long has tough economic times continue, the majority of scarce school dollars must be spent in ways that directly benefit students, even if that means less compensation for union employees.
School labor spending must be redirected in a manner that rewards outstanding educators. Tenure laws must be repealed so there is less protection for poor teachers. Parents must be empowered with government vouchers to shop and find the best schools – public or private – for their children.
Voters are warming up to all of those ideas, but the unions hate them. That puts Obama in a very tough position.
The president has already accepted the endorsements of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Given the current public mood regarding teachers unions, those endorsements could turn out to be electoral kisses of death.