Kow-Towing To Teachers' Unions Shortchanges Kids' Education

By Dorman E. Cordell 

Anybody who ever drove a Plymouth Volare in the 1970s understands the debt of gratitude we owe the Japanese auto industry for the high quality of today's American cars. Competition did it.

Too many public schools are Plymouth Volares, and supporters of school vouchers think competition will force the education establishment to improve.

When the public schools, which now control 92 percent of all money spent on elementary and secondary education, know that parents have a choice of schools for their children, they will have to rely on more than duress to fill their buildings.

The teachers' unions don't want the monopoly to have competition. And since 365 of the delegates and alternates to the Democratic National Convention this year were members of the National Education Association, Al Gore doesn't want vouchers either.

Education Secretary Richard Riley told NEA members, "Gore will fight vouchers till the cows come home."

Now that Joe Lieberman is the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, he has decided that maybe he doesn't like vouchers as much as he thought, either.

So we can be sure a Gore presidency will fight for the status quo. If schools are improved, it will have to be without competition -- which really means we will continue to have a host of Plymouth Volare schools under a Gore administration.

And children whose families can't afford to send them to private schools or to move will be stuck if they're in a bad school. It also means we can forget about reforming other programs that spend large amounts of money with questionable results, such as Title I and Head Start.

Title I, in effect since 1965, is supposed to help close the achievement gap, particularly in reading and math, between economically disadvantaged students and other students. Last year it consumed nearly $7.7 billion. But for the most part the gap hasn't been closed.

Further, a congressionally mandated national assessment last year that did find an improvement in reading and math scores among disadvantaged children could find no link with the Title I program. One reason may be the flawed design of Title I. The money targets schools in poor areas, not children.

Thus, only about half of the 11 million students covered by Title I are poor, and 4 million poor students who don't attend the target schools are not covered. But the protectors of the status quo have resisted change.

Republican vice-presidential candidate Dick Cheney has taken heat for voting against Head Start when he was in Congress -- but maybe he had the right idea. As structured from the beginning, Head Start is a day-care program, not an education program.

After almost 35 years, the Department of Health and Human Services still cannot articulate what Head Start is supposed to accomplish or how well it is doing. Perhaps that helps explain why studies show that any learning gains Head Start children make disappear after a few years.

The argument here is not against early childhood education, but for reforming a program that, after spending $35 billion, doesn't know where it is trying to go or where it has been. Our public schools need to be in a position where they have to do their job well to survive. The monopoly needs to be broken up. But a president in thrall to the teachers' unions isn't likely to do what needs to be done.