Money before unions

Orange County Register, January 7, 2010, January 10, 2010

Sacramento legislators and Gov. Schwarzenegger may have achieved one of the most elusive accomplishments in California politics: bucking the teachers unions. The Assembly passed a package of education bills Tuesday that give parents more authority to move their children out of poor-performing schools, petition for radical reforms in their schools and evaluate teachers based on student performance – all of which help qualify California for a portion of the $4.3 billion in federal Race to the Top grant funding. These measures were strongly opposed by teachers unions.

These reforms are a good start and long overdue, but the motives of Assembly members were far from pure. Just follow the money.

The Assembly education bills don’t really offer a lot in the way of new ideas; many have been around a long time. What makes this effort different is that the Obama administration has attached money to the reforms, money California badly needs. Think of it as a California education bailout. Sacramento is chomping at the bit for a piece of the $4.3 billion, which could be about $700 million.

Nevertheless, the bills could help move California’s public schools forward. Most notably, parents could force local districts to take bold steps to improve schools, including transforming a school into a charter; ousting school administrators, or closing a school altogether. In a nutshell, parents get more power, and underperforming teachers and administrators are less protected. This could mean a more promising future for California students – and bode ill for the influence of teachers unions.

What the Assembly legislation intends to do is give parents more options or choice in their kids’ education matters. But as Lance Izumi, Senior Director, Education Studies for the Pacific Research Institute, puts it, the bill only creates the “illusion of choice.” What it purposely omits is any provision to allow parents to keep their tax dollars and transfer their students out of public schools and into private schools – school choice or vouchers. The legislation gives parents an option to move from one public school to another. But at some point an abundance of parents are going to compete trying to enroll their children in one of the few good public schools, leaving some kids without a good public school to attend. Why not let them enroll in the neighborhood private school? That is real open enrollment and real education competition.

Mr. Schwarzenegger fought hard toward the end of last year to get these reforms through the Assembly. Next, the Senate should pass the Assembly bill.

If enacted, these reforms should provide some marginal improvement for California public schools. Beyond these measures, however, is for the governor and the Legislature to show some more gumption and empower parents to choose nonpublic options that better serve their children.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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