State meddling hamstrings schools

SACRAMENTO To show the results of union dominance of the public education system, John Stossel, host of Fox News’ “Stossel,” on a recent show held up a convoluted chart that detailed, in small print, the amazing lengths to which New York school administrators must go to fire an incompetent teacher. The viewer sees a long and detailed chart filled with boxes connected by arrows. Then, Stossel reveals that what he’s holding up for the camera is only the beginning, as he lets falls to the floor several more pages that had been hidden, accordion-style, behind the first page of the termination procedures chart.

The joke – actually much sadder than funny – is on us, as we realize that there’s no way that even the worst teacher can get sacked and that it’s basically impossible to reform the public school system as it is currently structured. Yet local, state and federal officials go on proposing reforms that will surely turn the nations’ bureaucratic, government-controlled public school systems into models of efficiency and high-performance learning.

Many proposals have a point, but trying to reform these unruly systems is like trying to improve a crumbling, crooked old building resting on a cracked foundation by installing new dual-pane windows and nicer carpeting. No one, quite frankly, wants to strike at the root of the problem, which is the existence of a monopoly school system run by the government, financed by tax dollars and dominated by union employees who don’t have to please any customers.

California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, which has a deservedly fine reputation for analyzing budgetary matters, last week released a report, “Education Mandates: Overhauling a Broken System,” which jumps into the fray. It identifies a real problem – the proliferation of state mandates that require districts “to perform hundreds of activities even though many of these requirements do not benefit students or educators.” The report pins the annual compliance cost for school districts at more than $400 million. Furthermore, because of a voter-approved 1979 initiative, Proposition 4, the state is supposed to reimburse local school districts for the mandates it imposes on them. California owes districts more than $3.6 billion – and the state tends to defer these reimbursements, rather than paying up in a timely manner.

“In short,” the report explained, “districts are required to perform hundreds of activities – many of dubious merit – without regular pay, resulting in billions of dollars in state debt.”

Of course, many of these mandates were imposed by the Legislature to improve the often-poor quality of public education across the state and try to assure that all districts were teaching some standardized curricula. But whenever education is politicized (and all public education is political, in that the decisions are made through a political process), this is what will happen. Legislators will pass reforms, many of which are transparent attempts to promote one special-interest group’s agenda over another’s. You get the good, the bad and the ugly. And all of it is expensive and, ultimately, counterproductive.

The LAO report points to a chart evocative of the long, pointless chart Stossel displayed. This “Mandate Determination Process” reveals a convoluted route by which local districts can seek reimbursement from the state. This reimbursement issue is going to become increasingly contentious in these tough budget times.

Ironically, on the same day the LAO released its report, the leading Democratic contender for state attorney general, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris, advocated some costly new education mandates during a Senate Public Safety Committee hearing on school truancy. Harris has been particularly aggressive in using law enforcement in her city to battle truancy, implementing a controversial program that prosecutes the parents of truants and subjects them to jail time and fines. She also proposed a statewide database to track truants – a system that would tie a district’s state funding to the adoption of such a tracking system.

Truancy issues typically are local issues, which prompted a reply from Republican attorney general candidate Tom Harman, a state senator from Huntington Beach: “What I wonder is how creating another statewide bureaucracy to monitor it will keep kids in school. I don’t think the state is in any position to create yet another new program – especially regarding an issue traditionally handled by locals.”

None of this will actually improve the functioning of the school systems. At best, the Harris approach will coerce more people into sending their kids to ill-performing schools, which epitomize the “customer service” approach common in government: Offer poor products and inefficient services, then force people to buy them.

Harris’ campaign, by the way, boasts her endorsement by a former state superintendent of public instruction, Delaine Eastin, best known for trying to use her authority to shut down home schools, under the theory that home schooling is a form of truancy. Let’s hope a Harris victory doesn’t signal a return to these dark days of California education policy. Home-school advocates already are fearful that Harris’ approach could endanger home-schooled kids.

The LAO offers this solution to the mandate issue: “We recommend comprehensively reforming K-14 mandates. If a mandate serves a purpose fundamental to the education system, such as protecting student health or providing essential assessment and oversight data, it should be funded. If not, the mandate should be eliminated.”

Whom do we thank for that groundbreaking suggestion? Of course, good mandates should stay, and bad ones should go, but in a political process, there’s no way of waving a magic wand and making that happen. Maybe the LAO can develop a wall chart with the detailed process the Legislature can follow to attain that unquestionably worthy goal.

The state already spends more than 40 percent of its budget on education. There are stacks of mandates and volumes of legislative reforms passed in recent years. The system still stinks. The only solution is competition. Only competitive systems value the customer and create incentives for efficiency and performance. Happy customers are a better sign of success than long flow charts and endless calls for new legislation and reform.

Steven Greenhut is director of the Pacific Research Institute’s Journalism Center ( He is scheduled to appear this week on Fox News’ “Stossel” show. Check your local cable listings.

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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