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The Causes of the Crisis

The causes of America's educational crisis certainly include the people closest to the problem, government school teachers and the educationists who have assumed the task of preparing these teachers.

Incompetent Teachers

A growing body of evidence suggests that many teachers are woefully undereducated. Several years ago, I spoke about the subject of this book to an audience in a large city in Florida. After my lecture, a member of the audience who works as a substitute teacher in the government schools of that city told me the following story. One day, she was substituting for a teacher in a special education class. By coincidence, her husband who works for a utility company had to visit the same classroom to check out some problems with the electrical wiring. That night over dinner, the husband remarked to the wife how difficult it must be to teach in a special ed class. He had noticed that a number of words written on boards around the room contained letters that had been written backwards. The husband assumed that the signs of illiteracy around the room reflected the meagre educational accomplishments of the student. He was corrected by his wife who told him that the incorrect letters had been written by the regular teacher. This teacher had been hired because of the school's need to meet certain racial quotas. Even though the teacher held a college degree in education and was certified to teach, she was functionally illiterate. When the complaints of parents finally forced the school's administrators to deal with the incompetence of their new teacher, they refused to fire her because she helped the school meet its affirmative action quota. They moved her instead to the special ed class, reasoning I guess that the parents of the special ed children would be unable to tell how incompetent she was.

This story still makes me angry. I'm sure most people reading this book believe that children in special ed courses ought to have the best teacher in the school, not a functionally illiterate person hired because she satisfies some affirmative action quota. Obviously, there are many intelligent, dedicated and competent teachers in America's public schools. But the number of poorly educated, incomptent and even illiterate people now holding teaching positions in America's government schools continues to grow.

There is embarassing evidence that suggests that many of the college students presently electing education as their field of study are significantly weaker than the average college student. In 1988, SAT scores for students planning to study education averaged 855, forty-nine points below the mean of 904 for all U.S. students planning to attend college. In 1989, things got even worse. The average SAT scores for prospective education students in that year fell to 846, fifty-seven points below the national average of 903. During my twenty-seven years as a teacher and administrator in a university that had a large teachers' college, I taught enough students to know that many who majored in education did so with the full understanding that it is one of the easier fields in which to get a degree. I also know that almost all of the truly bright people who studied professional education joked about how easy the program was. They often expressed anger at the poor quality of training they received from professors who themselves were often the most poorly educated members of the faculty. But if you want to teach these days, you have no choice; the system requires such people to take lots of useless education courses instead of more valuable courses in literature, history, math and the sciences. And so the quality of the people presently selecting education as a college major is a legitimate cause for concern. When the personal shortcomings of many of these students are linked to the essentially contentless courses in education they're forced to take, it is easy to see why so many poorly prepared people are ending up in our nation's classrooms.

In recent years, disturbing signs of how widespread this incompetence is have come to light. In its issue of June 16, 1980, Time magazine carried a cover story titled, “Help! Teacher Can't Teach!” The fact that the story is now seventeen years old is no cause for comfort. In the intervening years, other national magazines have carried similar stories that make it clear that the situation has gotten worse. That issue of Time told about a Chicago public school teacher who answered a news reporter's question with the words, “I teaches English.” A third grade teacher in Chicago wrote the following sentence on a blackboard: “Put the following words in alfabetical [sic] order.” A fifth grade teacher in Mobile, Alabama, the proud holder of a Master of Education degree from some teachers' college, sent the following note home to one of her students' parents: “Scott is dropping in his studies [no punctuation] he acts as if he don't care. Scott want pass in his assignment at all, he had a poem to learn and he fell to do it.” If anything has changed in seventeen years, fifth graders no longer have poems to learn.

Professional Educationists

Almost all of the control over American public education rests in the hands of an educational establishment. The educational impoverishment of the people who control teacher education is a major factor in America's education problem. Most of the people in education, or so it seems, have never grasped that the primary task of teachers is to gain expertise in the subject they are going to teach. So what the educationists insist on instead is that future teachers study so many contentless courses in education that they have little time left to study literature, history or science.

As Samuel Blumenfeld explains, “A vast army of professionals and careerists populate this establishment, from lofty professors of education to lowly first-grade teachers, not to mention the bureaucrats in the state departments of education and the administrators who run the schools. A network of teachers' colleges - like a system of religious seminaries - has been built to train all of those who would become professionals in the educational establishment. In these colleges future teachers and administrators are indoctrinated in the dogma of the public religion. The combination of vast sums of [taxpayers'] money, sacrosanct institutions of learning, and an army of professionals make up this formidable establishment.”

The departments and colleges of education in this country are a major reason for the incompetence of so many teachers. Not only do the people who run these centers control what future teachers are taught, these same people also help set the qualifications that anyone desiring to teach must meet. Not surprisingly, those qualifications include an indefensibly high number of courses taught by educationists. What makes the presence of these sorts of educationists in the academic world even worse is the fact that they somehow have gotten the politicians in their states to dictate that no one can become a public school teacher in that state without taking an inordinate number of courses in professional education. Even if these future teachers learned how to teach, they end up having little or nothing to teach.

Reginald Damerell states that “Empty credentials are all that any school or department of education in any university in the United States gives to its graduates. The education field is devoid of intellectual content, has no body of knowledge of its own and acts as if bodies of knowledge do not exist in other university departments.” The noted American economist, Thomas Sowell, calls schools and departments of education “the intellectual slums” of American academia. The controlling ideology is these centers of education is a philosophy of education that regards information and course content as unimportant. The neglect of information and academic content is ruining the futures for millions of youngsters who end up culturally and functionally illiterate.

Indifferent Parents

Many parents also bear responsibility for the bad education of their children. Many simply leave the task to the government schools-- a big mistake. Of course, most American parents are themselves products of public schools, even though the educational malfeasance of their schools was not nearly as bad as it is today. Parents need to look carefully at the textbooks their children are using, check on their children's homework, reading, math and writing skills, and visit the school on a regular basis.

It is important to challenge that widely-held assumption that an expensive suburban location guarantees quality in education. The government monopoly over America's public schools has set in place something we might call “trickle-down mediocrity.” Liberal ideologies picked up in colleges of education by younger teachers are now widely taught in the upper grades. Although it is often true that such suburban schools see many of their graduates enter prestigious colleges, they may have harmed these young people by eroding the family and Christian values of these graduates.

Teacher Unions

America's public schools are possibly the most unionized workplaces in the nation. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) represent almost 75% of all public school teachers. They have the most to lose if the status quo were to end. They see themselves as educational experts who are “in charge” of their workplace. Most public school teachers are compelled to join their local education association but as part of this process, they must also join the national union, most commonly the NEA. The NEA collects an astounding pile of cash in this way, about $400 million a year. Obviously, that gives the teachers' unions a great deal of power As Peter Brimelow and Lesie Spencer note, they are “the near-monopoly supplier” of labor to “a government-enforced monopoly consumer.”

The National Education Association is the largest union in the world, with more than 2,000,000 members The $400 million it receives from dues each year make it an enormously powerful organization. It uses its clout and financial muscle to elect politicians who support its causes. The largest gift to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign ($400,000) came from the NEA. That money was apparently more than enough to cause him to switch from a 1991 supporter of school choice to a 1992 enemy of family choice. Ten percent of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention are members of the NEA, the largest representation of any single group. It carries on an aggressive lobbying campaign. In 1993, for example, California teachers spent $16 million to defeat a voucher system that would have made it possible for millions of California families to send their children to private schools.

The NEA and AFT ceased to be professional associations long ago. They do not really represent the rank and file teachers that make up its membership. Numerous critics have noted that the union has stopped representing the real interests of America's teachers and American education. According to Dr. Ron Taber, a 1996 candidate for Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state of Washington, “The teacher unions are major political and economic factors in America. They are not simply politically disinterested representatives of the nice men and women we remember in yesterday's classrooms. They have a liberal political agenda financed with dollars extracted from the public purse. With raw political power they recklessly drive up the cost of education. We now spend more on education than we do on national defense.”

NEA opposition to school choice results from the union's self-interest. Smaller competitive schools would put an end to the large bargaining blocks that centralized school administration makes possible. With decentralization and experimentation come varying terms and conditions of employment not amenable to the kind of control the unions demand. For example, it is not possible for a school board to transfer its best teachers to the weakest schools without union approval, which is seldom granted. Once again, the liberal monopoly works to the disadvantage of the minority and poor children in the inner city.

The NEA uses several strategies to increase its control over education. One way is though the control it has over teachers' colleges. Another is its enormous influence over teacher certification, a necessary condition for public school teaching in most states. In addition to its control over who teaches America's children and who teaches the teachers, in addition to its intention of gaining the exclusive right to represent all teachers, the NEA has made it clear that it also wishes to control what our children are taught. Its preferred curriculum is unmistakenly secular and naturalistic.

The NEA seeks control over the disbursement of tax dollars to schools. It opposes the use of tax dollars to support private schools. The NEA opposes all efforts to increase parental choice in education including private schools. It has publicly stated its opposition to any form of home-schooling unless performed by state-certified teachers who use a state-approved curriculum.

State Monopoly

Many people fail to recognize the governmental monopoly in public school education. But just consider the control public school districts possess over the people who live within those districts. If large numbers of those people do not have access to other educational opportunities, the people running the neighborhood public school can resist and even oppose criticisms of teachers, curricula, courses and administrators. Typically, the only alternatives parents have to the public school monopoly in their neighborhood include moving to a different school district or enrolling children in a private school. Obviously, the high costs of either option put them beyond the means of a large number of American families. Law professor Philip Johnson notes another serious consequence of the state's educational monopoly.“We should not be surprised,” he writes, “that American public education is a failing enterprise, for it is managed like Soviet agriculture in the period of stagnation. State monopoly is the rule and the ideal; private choice is the grudgingly tolerated exception.”

The existence of this educational monopoly conflicts with other areas of American life where people have a wide range of choices available to them and where market competition rewards those who offer a worthy product for an acceptable price and punishes those who do not. The state monopoly with its inferior product offered at an inflated price cannot be altered until families finally have financially accessible alternatives to the government schools. If a school offers a bad education, an unsafe environment, incompetent teachers or poor service, why should such a school not lose students and funding? As Robert and Dirk Mateer ask,“Why not organize an educational program that would allow parents to move their child into another school (along with the accompanying state tuition aid) if their neighborhood school was doing a poor job of educating? This is precisely what the 'educational choice' movement seeks to accomplish, the creation of alternative educational opportunities for dissatisfied parents.”

Students of economics long ago explained why socialistic, monopoly systems like America's government schools cannot work. It is because they are not accountable to those who must purchase their product, in this case, students and their parents. Indeed, under the present government monopoly, government schools that do excel receive no additional funding. Typically, what the bureaucrats do is siphon off extra money and send it to the schools that are doing the worst job of educating students.

The Mateers point out how the powerful bureaucrats of public education “justify their monopoly power just as their Soviet counterparts used to do, by telling us that choice and competition will lead to inequality and exploitation. Some students will learn too much; others will lag behind. Bureaucrats usually prefer equality in mediocrity under their own management to diversity of achievement under conditions of freedom. They also have a very low opinion of the people over whom they rule. Our rulers of education insist that American parents are incorrigible racists who will resegregate society if given the opportunity. On the other hand, these same rulers also oppose choice even when it is offered specifically to inner-city racial minorities who are learning next to nothing in the state schools.” While the teachers' unions claim that they want disadvantaged minority children to have a chance at a good education, the Mateers continue, it can occur “only under the management of the state monopolists. If educational reform means allowing private providers, and especially Christian schools, to show that they can do a better job, they want none of it.”

Public School Finances

An important corollary of the government school monopoly is the huge amount of money government schools spend to achieve the non-education of American children. During the 20 years between 1972 and 1992, public school spending in the U.S. increased by 400% while actual enrollment declined by 7%. However the number of public school teachers jumped dramatically from 1.4 million in 1960 to 2.4 million in 1991. Between 1960 and 1991, teachers' salaries adjusted for inflation increased 45% from $24,229 to $35,243. During the same three decades, expenditures per pupil, adjusted for inflation, increased by more than 100%, from $2147 to $5872.

The total annual public school budget in the U.S. exceeds $300 billion in goods and services. This is more than our nation's military budget. Six million people work for public schools, a figure that represents about 30% of all civilian government employees.

As public school budgets have gone up, the number of people on the payroll actually involved in classroom teaching has plunged. During the 1949-50 school year, 70% of government school employees were teachers. Twenty years later (1969-70), only 60% of public school employees were teachers. By 1991, the percentage of teachers had dropped to close to 50%.

While the Los Angeles Unified School District spends $3.9 billion a year, only about one-third of this budget actually supports teacher salaries, textbooks and supplies. The other two thirds of the budget goes to pay for such things as inflated salaries to the incredibly large number of adminstrators in the system. In 1990-91, for example, the superintendent of the school district earned more than $160,000. Almost one third of the district's entire budget supports administrative costs in the headquarters and regional offices. A small army of non-teaching bureaucrats (called “administrators”) earned 1990-91 salaries in excess of $100,000 a year. While only 44% of the Los Angeles' districts' total number of employees are teachers, 86% of California's private school employees are teachers.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, only about 25% of the school budget actually goes to pay for such educational expenses as teacher salaries, textbooks, and furniture. The remaining 75% goes to pay for “administration” costs. The Milwaukee public school with the highest per-pupil funding is also the high school with the lowest student grade point averages in the city. The deplorable facts about Los Angeles and Milwaukee are representative of conditions across the nation. In America's larger urban school districts, the percentage of government school budgets allocated to actual teaching expenses is typically around 33%.

According to Daniel McGroarty, the evidence about public school expenditures points to a “reality that does not square with the image of cash-starved public schools. Higher expenditures per pupil, lower pupil-teacher ratios, more teachers paid higher salaries. All of this is precisely what the public education establishment assures will produce superior student performance. Instead, student achievement is stagnant at best and measurably poorer in important areas.”

Contrasts Between Private and Public School Achievement

Given the disparity in available monies, the contrast between student achievement in private and public schools becomes even more significant. This is apparent, for example in the fact that while 95 percent of students in the Catholic school system of New York City graduate from high school, the graduation rate for the city's government schools averages about 25%. In 1993, the New York State Department of Education discovered that Catholic schools with a high minority enrollment produced significantly better results than New York City's government schools with similar minority enrollment. Students in New York City's Catholic schools scored 17 percentage points higher in third grade reading than their government school counterparts. In the case of third grade math, students in Catholic schools scored 10 percentage points higher. Similar disparities existed across the board, with the students in the Catholic system always doing superior work.


The public school education monopoly cannot reform itself. We need competitive school choice both inside and outside of the state school system. Public education needs the discipline of the marketplace as part of the cure for the problems of our schools.