Not too far from my house in Phoenix, Arizona, stands a Christian school that may just say everything about the educational reform debate in this country—and why it is so often impossible to make any sense of it, in particular. One assumes that what this school has to offer is back-to-basics education, superior teachers, a library of good books, and computer labs hooked up to the Internet: all things a parent would demand before shelling out tuition for a private education. In fact, the school’s main appeal seems to be its easy access for sport utility vehicles, especially the mega-sized Suburbans and Expeditions so favored by the nouveaux riches these days.

Meanwhile, in the far reaches of the suburbs where retirement communities offer security and companionship for “only” $90,000 and up, the anciennes riches complain of having to pay taxes to support a nearby, largely minority school district that must go back to the voters time and again to raise money to build more schools and modernize existing classrooms. In the past, the seniors’ tactic has been to turn out in large enough numbers to vote down every attempt at funding those bonds. Now they wish to secede from the district and be done with the hassle so as not to interrupt their rounds of golf, while the state legislature continues to debate how it will bring the public schools into compliance with a state Supreme Court order mandating an “equalization” of capital funding—a nearly impossible chore if local control of school districts is to be maintained.

These senior citizens differ in one critical way from the Expedition drivers unloading their children at the Christian academy. The yuppies have made the decision to go private from concerns for status, their children’s educational opportunities, and their safety; perhaps even for religious reasons. Yet they are content to continue funding the public schools through their taxes. Many of them might even be among the sizable crowd who tell pollsters that yes, indeed, the public schools should be equally funded. One never knows, after all: the law practice could collapse some day, and Junior might have to be educated among the great unwashed.

The problem, of course, is that “equal” funding too often implies a uniform mediocrity that destroys the choice parents have always had when it comes to public education: namely, of moving to a richer, safer school district in order to escape court-ordered busing, over-centralization, the disintegration of older districts caused by falling property values and the loss of highly taxed industries, declining test scores produced by an influx of immigrant children, militant teachers, and so forth. No wonder, therefore, that religious academies are beginning to sprout in the “burbs.” Unlike the old folks in their golden ghettos, parents who have moved into suburban districts only to find the schools there unsatisfactory cannot so easily launch a secessionist campaign; instead, they look for a safe haven. Perhaps, if the children can get better instruction and their chances for acceptance at a better-than-average college are improved, the investment will be worth it even if the cost is an arm and a leg (not to mention the mandatory Suburban). Yet this entirely free-market approach to education reform does little actually to reform education; indeed, it may be impeding it by gradually removing more and more of the general public from the necessary business of running the public schools.

Not that the public majority was ever involved in the first place, having long since been shunted aside from its community responsibilities. Federal judges have been running some districts for decades now. Political correctness, not community influence, all too often determines everything from setting the curriculum to choosing textbooks to maintaining extracurricular activities. In the predominantly minority Oakland, California, school district, black English, or Ebonics, was pushed through briefly as an accepted language for instruction before the board retreated amid a nationwide outcry.

How public education reached this miserable condition is a question rarely raised and almost never answered, although we have been dancing around it for years now. The usual response has been to advocate simple cure-alls that bring us to a brief, feel-good consensus: spend more money in order to raise teachers’ salaries, reduce class size, tap the federal treasury to fund before-school (and now after-school) programs. Yet classes are still considered too large by the President of the United States, among other people. Schools continue to cut back their curricula, most notably in music and other fine arts. Decades of preschool instruction have produced millions of children who cannot read at the third-grade level when in the third grade, or in high school. Most assuredly, though, teacher incomes have increased, largely by reason of inflation and the unionization of the teaching profession.

Teachers, of course, are grossly underpaid. Compared to auto repair, computer programming, or street-corner drug dealing, teaching is a low-end occupation. And teachers enter into their profession knowing full well that it likely will always be a low-end occupation, no matter how much they groan about being under-paid and under-appreciated. Teachers who are more willing to market themselves according to the laws of supply and demand—by moving, say, to a state where the pay ranges are considerably higher—can be rewarded more handsomely. But that still leaves Mississippi and other low-pay states with teaching jobs to fill, and applicants lining up to fill them. So there is something to the argument that teachers aren’t compelled to choose their miserable lot, and if such people choose to take a vow of poverty in the interests of the commonweal, then they will obtain their reward in the hereafter.

Absent real reform, such as education vouchers that would allow those folks who drive secondhand Toyotas the opportunity to shop around for a better place to educate their children, people continue to demand cure-alls, while hoping the bill won’t be too high should they actually succeed in obtaining them. The teachers, however, are demanding more—especially from the federal government. President Clinton, in his State of the Union address this year, called for another 100,000 of them, as if staffing the schools had suddenly become a federal responsibility (and as if demographics has anything to do with it). “What counted was (and is) subjective perception, not objective reality,” Dr. Lieberman writes in The Teacher Unions.

Just as the unions of professional athletes strive to convince their millionaire members that the latter are being mistreated by their employers, the teacher unions persuaded the most highly paid teachers that they were being mistreated by school boards.

Much of Dr. Lieberman’s work could be called having an ax to grind, and bully for him that he does. His book sets out an ambitious premise, and it largely succeeds because Dr. Lieberman sticks to the subject that he knows best. He painstakingly chronicles the rise of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and the politicization of both organizations to the point where they now stand as among the most powerful of unions, still on the upsurge at a time when other trade unions have all but withered away.

As he demonstrates, such clout pays the unions—both of them supposedly bipartisan—big dividends, especially when it comes to matters concerning the Democratic Party. By helping elect “pro-teacher” candidates to everything from local school boards to the Oval Office, the unions assure that their issues (many of which have nothing to do with education) will be heard and, most likely, become public policy. More insidiously, such politicking also shuts out real debate on education reform, since any legislature packed with representatives who won office with teacher union endorsements is likely to dismiss reformers as being “anti-education.”

However unwittingly, therefore. Dr. Lieberman’s book may be a strong incentive for the reader to throw up his hands on education reform, enroll his children in a private school, and visit the nearest Chevy or Ford dealer to price the new Suburban or Expedition.


[The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy, by Myron Lieberman (New York: The Free Press) 305 pp., $25.00]