Throwing a Party for the Educational Status Quo

The National Education Association recently concluded its annual convention in Los Angeles, gathering 8,000 delegates in celebration of the status quo in public education. When attendees weren’t offering a vigorous defense of their government-protected monopoly, they were proposing resolutions to boycott Wal-Mart, oppose Social Security reform, and ban latex gloves and balloons from NEA events, among others.

Of course, the main “education” plank of America’s largest school employee labor union centered on renewed pleas for higher teacher pay with NEA President Reg Weaver saying, “I don’t care where the money comes from.”

Observers also noted the group’s continued trend away from even a pretense of bi-partisanship, with podium speakers stirring the assembled against Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger’s modest education reform measures and President Bush’s “sanctions” against public schools.

And for all the critics of public education, Mr. Weaver let them know how proud he is of the union-controlled schools. “If there are those who choose to call us the keepers of the status quo, so be it,” he said. “The status quo is the ‘public’ in public education, and we are the keepers.”

But the “keepers,” as he calls himself and his compulsory union members, are defending more than the honor of the public school system. They are the guardians of a deep vault of unflattering statistics and mounting evidence demonstrating that the union’s unrivaled dominance of schooling in America continues to fail students and parents.

Unfortunately, our commonwealth’s school system is a prime example of the NEA’s status-quo success.

Today, Pennsylvania ranks 3rd in the nation in per-pupil spending, when adjusted for the cost of living, with an average expenditure of nearly $11,000 per student. Also adjusting for the cost of living, our teachers have the highest average salaries in the country, exceeding $51,000 per educator.

According to Reg Weaver and company, Pennsylvania should already have the monetary ingredients for success. Yet, just this month, Governor Ed Rendell signed another massive increase in education spending, vowing to never again “shortchange” the public schools. Apparently an even bigger taxpayer investment in a system that the governor himself agrees is underperforming will somehow improve educational outcomes where it has failed to in the past.

Indeed, despite the hard work and dedication of many truly fine teachers, the current government-run, union-dominated school system places Pennsylvania’s students among the lowest five in the nation on the SAT college entrance exam, along with a high rate of failure on the state’s basic academic skills test. In short, Pennsylvania schools are outperformed by their counterparts in most states, and outpaced by their peers in other countries.

For too many public school students, the NEA’s enthusiastic embrace of the status quo has meant unrealized and squandered opportunities. Their dream of a one-size fits all system of schooling—limiting children to a single choice, confined by a zip code—has become a nightmare for kids eager to learn, but predestined to fail.

So the next time the “keepers of the status quo” throw a party in celebration of themselves, they should spend less time worrying about discount retailers and latex balloon makers and start getting serious about making schools work for kids. But don’t expect that to happen at next year’s convention—that would break the status quo.

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Jeff Coleman, a former member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, is vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational institute located at the foot of the Capitol in Harrisburg.