The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "MEA Remains Clueless on Charters" by The Detroit News, 2/20/98.

Original Title:
Teachers Unions and School Choice
by Barry McGhan

MEA President Julius Maddox recently attacked the idea of tuition tax credits for children in private schools. Equating tax credits with vouchers, Maddox wrote, " . . . vouchers by any other name are still vouchers. And they are still a scam." [Paid advertisement, The Ann Arbor News, 11/23/97.]

The tax credit proposal comes from the Midland-based Mackinac Center, but it's unclear what Maddox is suggesting. Should we believe the Center is fronting for private school profiteers to whom it is beholden? Or--more likely--are they just backing another two-bit concept?

Vouchers are a bad idea, but to claim they are merely a scam is to misrepresent the real needs of some families. Maddox and the MEA don't understand that what seems like a scam to some, looks like salvation to others, especially black parents.

In 1997, the Detroit News ran at least six articles about blacks' growing interest in school choice and vouchers. Obviously, parents concerned about the quality of their children's education need help now. They don't have time to wait out a lengthy dispute among impersonal bureaucracies.

What does Maddox offer the educationally needy? He calls for partnerships between educators and others; holding high expectations for all children; family participation in education; safe environments for living and learning. And you know what? He's right--those things will improve education.

But, don't hold your breath.

Maddox's solutions are verses from the same song we've heard other educators singing for more than 30 years. And we still have substandard education in some Michigan schools. However, there is a way out.

We need to stop running public schools under a 19th Century system of "micro-managing" local boards, administrative bureaucracies, and entrenched special interest groups. The current top-down control structure needs to be turned on its head. The adults closest to the classroom--teachers and parents--need to have much more control of school operations.

An alternative to the current power structure, provided by Michigan's charter school law, is within our grasp. All we have to do is take it. Current public school teachers should seek charters from their own school boards to operate their districts' schools. Cutting back the bureaucracy will lead to improvements, and is a reasonable solution for parents who need immediate help.

Public schools that convert to charters can get up and running more quickly than start-from-scratch charters. And, unlike charter-converted private schools, they'll still be serving mostly public school students from the district granting the charter. If the idea of de-bureaucratization has any merit at all, this must be a winner.

One might think that bringing teachers and parents to the top of the public education barrel via charters would be a no-brainer for a teachers' union. There are probably several reasons the MEA has failed to move in this direction.

One is that a comfortable, symbiotic relation between the union and the current power structure has developed. They cling together like doomed passengers on the Titanic.

Another reason is that teacher unionism has become professionalized. Before the 1970's, most union activity was carried out by volunteers. A professional staff provides expertise, but may have special interests contrary to the organization's mission. MEA leaders may feel they've already lost so much ground in the Engler era that they just can't give another inch.

A third reason for the MEA's disinterest in charters may be that its leaders misunderstand the significance of the word "choice." Inextricably linked to the notion of choice is "freedom." Choice implies that options are available and that parents should have freedom to make a selection. "Freedom" is a fundamental American value, and concerned parents of minority children may have a keener appreciation of it than others. Does the MEA get this?

Also, "freedom for parents" implies "freedom for teachers." What parent would want to choose a school where the teachers didn't have the freedom they need to offer the best education they can? Is the MEA clueless here, too?

MEA leaders need to get up off those fat salaries and start promoting charter schools run by public school teachers in their own districts. It would put more certified teachers in charter classrooms. It would make site-based decisionmaking a reality rather than another fad perverted by a school bureaucracy. Teachers would have all the protections of their union contracts, and their retirement benefits would continue. If necessary, school management could be turned over to one of the new school management companies, perhaps at a saving from current administrative costs. Most important, charter proliferation would reduce the appeal of vouchers and tax credits.

Come on, Mr. Maddox. Lead the MEA into a new era--where, through a sensible expansion of "choice"--teachers' and students' interests both get attention from your organization.


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