The Bankrupt Agenda of the Save Our Schools Movement

True progressives would embrace school choice, not teachers' unions.

Matt Damon, in my book, could do no wrong. He is way too cute and his acting has something that thinking women find attractive: gravitas. Alas, that was before he opened his mouth at a Save Our Schools rally in Washington, D.C., recently.

Damon, the son of a public school teacher-cum-activist, upbraided a Reason.tv reporter for her “MBA-style thinking” because she suggested that public school teachers might teach better if they didn’t have tenure. “A teacher wants to teach,” he lectured. “Why else would you take a s****y salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really love to do it?”

Great response, except that teachers don’t earn lousy salaries and don’t work long hours. Still, the liberati went giddy, calling Damon “brilliant,” “cheer-worthy,” and “perfect.”

But if Damon were so smart, he wouldn’t be supporting his mama’s organization and cause. Indeed, notwithstanding its radical billing, SOS is not a force against the establishment but an agent for the status quo.

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To understand how wacko the organization is, consider the fact that Damon was the most sensible speaker at the rally. All he did was wax bathetic about the love public school teachers bestowed on him to “unlock his potential.” But at least he stuck to the subject. Not so with Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who aimed a broadside at every ill in American society: poverty, segregation—and volunteer teachers. Then there was Sam Anderson, a founding member of the Black Panther Party, who advocated a Black-Latino alliance to “eradicate the onslaught of privatization” in education.

But stripped of all the radical-sounding babble, the only radical thing the organization wants is radical unaccountability. Its entire “reform” agenda amounts to: More money, fewer questions.

Nearly every speaker complained about “underfunded” public schools, even though per-pupil education spending in America in 2006—before the Obama administration poured even more stimulus money into K-12—was 2.5 times higher than in 1970 in inflation-adjusted dollars. On average, America spends $13,000 annually per child now compared to $6,037 then.

Yet graduation rates have actually dropped four percentage points. The average reading and math scores for 17 year olds on the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s gold standard for measuring student achievement, are no better today than they were in 1971. SAT verbal scores have declined from 530 in 1972 to 504 in 2009 and math scores have essentially flat-lined.

The only upward trend has been in the staff-to-student ratio—up by 70 percent since 1970.

In light of this, is it so unreasonable to demand that our education dollars actually educate? But SOS is a mortal foe of all accountability measures—big and small, Republican and Democratic.

It hates rewarding good teachers through merit pay and penalizing bad teachers by eliminating tenure and firing them. It is implacably opposed to President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, even though the act pumps tens of billions of extra federal dollars into K-12 every year. Why? Because it requires states to develop tests to measure student progress and threatens to withhold funds from chronically failing schools. A few days ago, the Obama administration, infuriating Congress, unilaterally handed waivers to states unable to meet the law’s proficiency goals. But that won’t earn it any brownie points with SOS, which wants the law’s testing requirements scrapped. What’s more, the organization has condemned the administration’s Race to the Top program that hands $4 billion in reward money to states with the best reform plans to raise academic standards, improve teaching quality and—horror of horrors!—expand charter schools.

But of course the organization’s ultimate bête noire is school choice measures—vouchers, tax credits—that give parents options outside the public school monopoly. On this SOS is by no means alone among liberals, something that speaks volumes about how unmoored from its own principles the American progressive movement has become.

The whole point of government involvement in K-12 is to offer universal access to a quality education to kids, not provide guaranteed employment to teachers. Hence, if anyone were talking about actually cutting back the government’s commitment to education, then progressive fury against school choice might be understandable. But all that school choice proponents want to do is use the existing funds to transform public education from a soup-kitchen to a food-stamp welfare model, to put it in non-MBA terms that Damon understands.

Just as the hungry have no control over the gruel they are offered at soup kitchens, parents have no real control over what their kids are served up in public schools. And just as food stamps empower the poor to shop at stores best serving their grocery needs, vouchers empower parents to choose schools that best meet their children’s needs. No one would consider it progress if, prodded by soup-kitchen unions, we eliminated food stamps and opened more soup kitchens. Yet that’s what passes for enlightened thinking among SOS “progressives.”

If Damon’s beloved public school teachers had taught him to think critically, he would be fighting for parental choice—not unleashing banal rants against those telling him the obvious.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at Reason Foundation and a columnist at The Daily, where this column originally appeared.

Shikha Dalmia is Senior Analyst





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