With every headline about underfunded state and local public pensions, voters are coming to regret the overly generous retirement deals their representatives have negotiated with government unions. Dr. Joe Nation of the Stanford Institute for Policy Research puts the cumulative debt for all public pension systems at $5.599 trillion, or $46,884 per household.
But amid the growing concern about how state legislatures and city councils have failed to adequately fund retiree pensions, we must not forget that public workers have a performance issue of their own. Voters might question compensation packages for police, firefighters, and many other public employees, but at least the contracted services were provided.
The same cannot be said of primary and secondary educators who, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, comprise 99 percent of all local public employees and more than a third of all government workers.
Our Education Monopoly Strangled Quality
To appreciate the extent to which the teaching profession has consistently shortchanged taxpayers, we must go back more than half a century to October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union put the world’s first satellite into orbit. Literally overnight, there was a nationwide clamor for higher academic standards, especially in math and science.
A very contemporary education reform—school vouchers—was already on the table. Two years earlier, the late economist Milton Friedman had published a seminal article on “The Role of Government in Education,” which argued for allowing parents to direct the public funding for their children to schools of their choice.
Although widely debated in Congress and state legislatures, Friedman’s proposal was successfully resisted by the National Education Association (NEA) and other unions who argued that professional educators, armed with the tools of social science, would do a much better job. By the early 1960s, independent teacher colleges across the country were rapidly becoming graduate departments of major universities and, financed by President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, loading the curriculum with courses on human development, intelligence measurement, and motivation.
What followed was a succession of instructional fads, typically based on the theory of some briefly popular psychologist. Educators experimented first with “discovery learning,” a technique that had children teach themselves, and later with “open schools,” which tried to improve learning by literally removing the walls that separate students from teachers and different age groups from each other. There was also considerable tinkering with standards for university education departments, although federal funding was never contingent on the teaching abilities of a school’s alumni.
Unions Care About Money, Not Learning
Despite their promise to the American people, neither of the two major unions ever attempted to evaluate any of these fads. According to a 2004 paper on “Teacher Union Support of Education Research and Development” by University of Michigan Professor Maris Vinovskis, the only studies produced by the NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) between the early 1960s and the early 1980s focused on how to negotiate more benefits from local school boards or how to poach on each other for members.
By the time President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, T. H. Bell, formed his National Commission on Excellence in Education to assess the state of learning in America, SAT scores in the verbal and math sections had fallen 50 and 40 points respectively from 1963 and only a fifth of 17-year-olds could write a persuasive essay. The commission’s official report, “A Nation at Risk,” famously concluded that “the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
At this point the NEA and AFT could still have lived up to their Sputnik-era promise, but instead redoubled their efforts to preserve the status quo, contributing money and volunteers to political candidates who opposed substantive education improvements. Thus even many conservative politicians were cowed into silence, and few of the Bell commission’s recommendations were enacted or even allowed to be tested.
Indeed, the only major instructional change during this period was the rise of the “whole language” approach to reading. Based on the theories of MIT linguist Noam Chomsky and University of Arizona professor Kenneth Goodman, it instituted the now widely discredited practice of teaching children new words by having them guess at their meaning.
Should We Pay You to Fail Our Kids?
It was not until 2001 when even many teacher union allies, including Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), helped pass President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, the first serious federal effort to enforce some degree of school accountability. But even then, unions skillfully lobbied for riders that prevented interference with local teacher contracts and effectively neutered Section 9532, which required states to transfer children from “persistently dangerous schools” to safer placements.
Coming down to the present, it is impossible to fairly discuss what taxpayers owe retired public educators without remembering that for half a century Americans entrusted their children to a profession that pledged unrelenting self-improvement in return for its autonomy and generous benefits. A few genuinely promising innovations, such as charter schools and voucher programs targeted to special-needs children, were implemented during the period, but only by overcoming fierce union resistance.
All this is not to suggest that every public-school teacher has intentionally underperformed or failed to do his or her best within a system well beyond one person’s control. But if the union argument today is all members who showed up for work during the last 60 years deserve their promised compensation, it is equally true that the taxpayers who employed them have the same right not to be stuck with an academic lemon.
The public pension crisis cannot be resolved without a recognition that a contract binds both parties and that, in the case of educators, the voters’ failure to adequately fund pensions has been more than matched by the unions’ failure to prioritize excellence. If there is to be remedial funding of teacher pensions, which inevitably means higher taxes and fewer government services, public unions must first end their resistance to meaningful education reform.