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Teacher's Pets
Thursday, August 2, 2001
Testy, Testy
Tuesday , August 7, 2001
U.S. system helps educate world, yet fails at home
Thursday, November 8, 2001
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Voucher
Monday, February 2, 2004
School for Scandal
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Why Private Schools are Essential
Teacher's Pets
By William McGurn
The Wall Street Journal
Thursday, August 2, 2001

    Those of us who have long dismissed the National Education Association as a tool of the Democratic Party have been badly mistaken. Apparently it's just the opposite. As documents now sealed under a judge's order indicate, it's the Democratic Party that is the tool of the NEA.
    That, at least, is the gist of a report from the Federal Election Commission, all the more tantalizing because the object of its investigation was not the NEA but the AFL-CIO. Yet the NEA's name surfaces again and again as one of those organizations that, in return for financial contributions, were given seats on campaign committees in 1996 as well as the right to approve or reject the Democratic agenda.
No Political Expenditures?
    This would be riveting enough on its own. But the Landmark Legal Foundation adds a point that puts it in fascinating context: All the while the NEA was sitting on these committees and financing these Democratic campaigns, it was listing zero dollars for political expenditures on its tax forms.
    "Imagine the outrage if it emerged that the Republican National Committee had given HMOs and the oil companies a veto over the Republican Party platform in exchange for contributions," says Landmark President Mark Levin. "But here you have the largest union in the country apparently doing it with tax-exempt dollars and then turning around and telling the IRS they're spending nothing on politics."
    This integration of the NEA into the Democratic Party goes a long way toward explaining how a monopoly that today leaves nearly two-thirds of African-American and Hispanic fourth-graders illiterate has insulated itself against political accountability. It helps explain too why George W. Bush gutted the key reform of his education package, a tepid voucher provision for failing public schools, understanding as he did that the NEA would never permit Democrats to sign on to it. Thanks to these new documents, we know that this is not simply because the NEA happens to be influential in the Democratic Party. It's because the NEA -- with 16,000 local offices -- has in some respects become the Democratic Party.
    The history of these documents themselves hint at the scandal behind them. Earlier this month, in response to a request from the Democratic National Committee and the AFL-CIO, they were sealed by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler. Fortunately, Landmark had already snapped them up during an all-too-brief, four-day window back in May, when the FEC had made them public. Had Landmark not grabbed these papers in time, the degree of intimacy between the NEA and the Democratic Party would remain secret.

    So what do these FEC documents show? They show that in spite of NEA President Bob Chase's ritual invocations of "bipartisanship," when it comes to political campaigns the NEA has lashed itself firmly to the donkey's tail:

  • A response to an FEC subpoena written on the DNC's letterhead confirms that there indeed existed in 1995-96 a "National Coordinated Campaign Steering Committee," which met at DNC headquarters and "normally included" the NEA.

    The Clinton/Gore '96 Primary Committee defines this coordinated campaign as "the project of the state parties to register and turn out Democratic voters on behalf of the entire Democratic ticket in the general election."

  • In response to another subpoena, a lawyer for Project '95/'96 defined it as a "coalition of labor unions, environmental, senior and public interest organizations" formed in wake of the Republican takeover of the House to stop Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. An FEC analysis stated the Project was funded by "in-kind contributions" from its "participating organizations," among which was the NEA. Activities included dispatching "field organizers" to Republican districts deemed vulnerable to Democratic takeover in the 1996 elections.

  • In North Carolina the president of the state NEA, John Wilson, also served on the Democratic committee that handled day-to-day management of the coordinated campaign. The "Coordinated Plan" lays out the quid pro quo: "When the DNC and its national partners, including ... the NEA, agree on the contents of a plan, each national partner will give their funding commitment to the state."

  • In the prelude to an affidavit filed by Joseph Cullen, Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania's 10th Congressional District, the FEC defined the Coordinated Campaign as "a separate statewide campaign structure within each State Democratic Party, created and financed by Democratic nominees and allied organizations [emphasis added]."

    Again, all this emerged in an investigation of the AFL-CIO. What incriminating documents might turn up in an investigation of the NEA itself is anyone's guess.
    The NEA continues to maintain its tax form is correct; there have been no political expenditures as defined by the IRS, notwithstanding statements listed in its own budget priorities that smell an awful lot like the kinds of things described in these Democratic answers to FEC subpoenas. To take but one example, the NEA's strategic plan for 2000 budgets $386,000 in members' dues for "organizational partnerships with political parties, campaign committees and political organizations." Mary Elizabeth Teasley, an NEA official who served on the national steering committee, says that language is "misleading." And she says that though she did serve on the national steering committee, the aforementioned reference to a quid pro quo with specified donations is wrong; she was there only for "informational" purposes. And "every dime" the NEA contributed to any campaign was through a political action committee.

    Now, the NEA is perfectly entitled to spend money on politics through its PAC. But that would require the union to list any money transferred to its PACs on line 81 of its Form 990. That would be inconvenient for two reasons: First, the money would be taxable. Second, under the Supreme Court's Beck decision, union members have the right to a refund of dues money spent for such purposes. In any event, the NEA's PAC is not mentioned in the subpoenaed documents.
    The FEC has opted not to pursue the case against the AFL-CIO, despite its conclusion that Democratic campaigns had granted the AFL-CIO and NEA the "authority to approve or disapprove plans, projects, and needs of the DNC and its state parties." The apparent flip-flop stemmed from a judge's decision in a case involving the Christian Coalition, whose ruling interpreted the First Amendment as setting a higher bar for proving illegal "coordination" of campaign activities.
Why Johnny Can't Read
    Yet even if the Constitution permits the NEA to run the Democratic Party outright -- as I think it does -- this ought not to mean the NEA is free to flout laws about the use of tax-exempt dues for political purposes. For years the great lament over American education has been that no one holds teachers accountable for the fact that "Johnny can't read." The evidence of these documents suggests that might have something to do with the New Math the NEA uses on its tax forms.

Why Private Schools are Essential
Testy, Testy
Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal
Tuesday , August 7, 2001

    Once upon a time there lived a handsome prince, one of whose most attractive qualities was his courage in attacking the "soft bigotry of low expectations" -- shorthand for the way the kingdom's school system defrauded the children its less fortunate members of a decent education. And there was even a moment when we thought we might get to report a storybook ending, with the prince triumphing over his foes and everyone living happily ever after. But alas, what really happened was that the prince woke up to find himself in the Beltway, where they deal with reformist princes by sending their education bills to a nasty place known as the conference committee and have the life wrung out of them.
[Portrait of George W. Bush]     And that's pretty much where we stand today, with George W. Bush now forced to fight for a provision that's already had its teeth kicked out: mandatory state testing. The way it's shaping up, it looks as though even if the President "wins" -- that is, he gets a "bipartisan education reform package" -- he loses.
    To understand the predicament the President now finds himself in, it helps to remember that there are three broad schools of thought here about education reform. The first two start from the premise that the problem with our public school system is a lack of accountability, to which the preferred conservative fix is to let parents and not bureaucrats choose where children go to school. The second school of thought believes that the real problem is the lack of standards, and its solution, taken up by the President, is to impose mandatory testing, both so that parents would know whether their children are learning anything as well as to identify failing schools for further action.
    The third school, of course, is represented by the National Education Association and the rest of the teachers' unions, who oppose both testing and vouchers because they don't want accountability. This explains why an NEA that steadfastly opposes anything that would give parents a real say in how the schools are run did approve one "pro-parents" resolution: allowing parents to "opt out" of testing.
    Now, the push for mandatory testing stems from an accurate reading of a legitimate concern: the erosion of standards. And indeed, those pushing for tests are not necessarily opposed to school choice. To the contrary, many of the pro-testing advocates believe that in addition to letting parents know where their kids stand, testing would highlight failing schools. These in turn could then prove a wedge to introduce vouchers, at least for those American schoolchildren who need them most.
    On paper the logic is irrefutable. In practice, however, putting testing before competition in a system as politicized as ours can mean getting the worst of both worlds.(cont...)

We've already had a glimpse of that earlier, with a rush of headlines after three economists ran a study showing that something like 90% of all schools would not meet requirements for "adequate yearly progress" as defined by the House and Senate versions of the education bill. In fact, the real threat is not that the tests will be too stringent but that because no one wants to admit failure on a large scale the process will be watered down.
    Indeed, that's generally been the history thus far. We keep hearing about Governor Jeb Bush's harsh new standards for Florida, but do you know how many schools in the whole state actually received an "F" this year? Zero. Are we to believe there are no failing public schools in Florida? Likewise, California Schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin watered down the grades required to pass on the state tests, and -- hesto presto -- thousands more California kids who would have failed under the tougher standards recommended by the state panel suddenly passed. The U.S. Education Department confirmed that many states notched up their scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress by excluding greater numbers of students from the final average.
    The short answer here is that mandating testing before requiring competition gets the equation backwards, creating almost irresistible political pressure to dumb down unfavorable results. In an American system where parents could choose their kids' schools, by contrast, we wouldn't have to haggle over one national or state test, because we'd soon have competition among tests as well as among schools.
    President Bush may yet get the testing provisions he asked for -- in a bipartisan education bill that will give him and Ted Kennedy the opportunity to give themselves an "A+" for having improved the tone in Washington. But however they pretend to grade it, the score will stay the same.

Why Private Schools are Essential
U.S. system helps educate world, yet fails at home
The Forum
USA Today
Thursday, November 8, 2001

   The future of the U.S. economy depends on the ability of public schools to produce graduates who can compete internationally -- and most now can't, says Craig R. Barrett, president and CEO of Intel Corp. Barrett, who was honored Tuesday by the National Alliance of Business for his leadership in improving math, science and technology education, met that day with USA TODAY's editorial board. His comments were edited for length and clarity:
   Question: What fuels your firm's interest in public schools?
   Answer: We are a U.S.-based company, but we do about two-thirds of our business outside the United States, and our international components are increasing. We have a constant need for more high-tech trained people. The bulk of our research and development is done here, but increasingly that's going to move out of the United States for a variety of reasons, one of which is the availability of trained resources here.
   We've all seen the results of the international tests that show that U.S. fourth-graders are about on par with their international counterparts, but by the time they get to the 12th grade, they are in the lower 10% of the industrialized world in terms of math and science competency. This is something you wouldn't tolerate in any other situation. We fire football coaches after the first year of a losing record, but we continue to let the public school system take children and basically degrade them on a relative basis to their international counterparts.
   Q: Who is the coach you'd fire?
   A: The coach is the system. The educational system basically hasn't changed in the past century, and it hasn't recognized that there is international competition. It hasn't really recognized that our university system is popular with graduate students from foreign countries because it's the best university system in the world. More than 50% of the degrees in engineering are granted to foreign nationals. It hasn't recognized that, very methodically and consistently, what you are doing is dumbing down the U.S. citizenry and educating the rest of the globe. It hasn't fully recognized that the standard of living is going to be dependent on the quality of the workforce.
   Someone -- in this case, the federal government, because it has a lot of leverage over local school districts -- has to say to the local school districts that they are failing and that they need to plan for improvements. It has to say that here are the general guidelines, and you work out the details, you work out the plan, you control the curriculum, you control the standards. But at least let's have a plan that leads to constant improvements. Don't fail another generation of kids.

   Q: Why is a country with our resources behind others?
   A: I visit about 30 countries a year. In every country I go to, there's a recognition that the future of the economy depends on educating young children, and the future of the economy doesn't depend on low-paying jobs; it doesn't depend on any physical resource, whether agricultural or natural resources. It depends on entering the information era. Perhaps because of its abundant wealth, because of its leadership in this area, the United States is relatively passive. I get a totally different reception in just about every country from that I get in the United States on this topic. In the U.S., we have endless debates over whether we should test or not test. We are in gridlock. We are just denying the existence of a problem. The debate is whether your capital plant, your school, should be up to standard. The debate isn't should the child graduating from your school be up to standards. It's misplaced priorities.
   Q: How is this solved?
   A: If you want to solve a problem, you define the problem, plan a solution, implement the solution, check the results and then cycle around from the results back to an action, then have a spiral plan to check the action. You can't solve a problem unless you monitor it, and you have to monitor it by testing the children through some form of standardized tests, typically at the local or state level, because I don't think we are ever going to have national criteria. They have to have a plan in place; they have to implement that plan, check the results and then act on those results to fix the system.
   Q: Have state-based assessment programs helped?
   A: The ultimate test is how well our students do internationally. My particular interests are math and science, and if you look at those international results, I think it's safe to say the U.S. has not shown any material improvement relative to its international counterparts. You are just in fact starting the system. You've introduced testing or assessment. Now, how do you use those results? How do you train those teachers? How do you adjust the curriculum? How do you measure the students' progress? That may be foreign to many administrators in the academic environment, but it is certainly not foreign to the rest of the world. Every business in the United States has a more complex environment to operate in now than it did 10 or 12 years ago. You hear quite often from schools about the difficulties they have with the influx of foreign students with multi-language capabilities and so forth and so on. Frankly, those are excuses for why you are not performing. Everyone has a more complicated job than they had 20 years ago. It's a matter of integrated training, implementation and assessment of results, then taking those results back in and determining whether you need more training or need to change the curriculum. And you just have to continue this cycle.
   Q: Where are we in this cycle?
   A: We are still in the planning cycle. I'd like to say we have the plan. But we are just implementing this.
   Q: What key point would you make with the administrators of our public schools?
   A: You are producing a product, and your product has to be acceptable to the end customer. There really are two end customers: the individual who receives the education and the company that hires that individual. You have to produce an end product that is acceptable to both. We've had anything but stringent requirements.

[see Protectionism (in Public Schools Destroys)]
Why Private Schools are Essential
Yes, Virginia, There Is a Voucher

    Maybe when your childhood memories include waking up at midnight to a burning cross on your front lawn, you're not going to let a Teddy Kennedy or Eleanor Holmes Norton intimidate you. Just ask Virginia Walden-Ford.
    As executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, the 52-year-old Mrs. Walden-Ford played a pivotal role in the landmark vouchers bill that just passed Congress. She did that with a public campaign that pushed one uncomfortable fact to the fore: How many of the Congressmen and Senators fighting hardest against school choice for black and Latino children choose private schools for their own little darlings. But the willingness to spread a little discomfort shouldn't be all that surprising coming from a woman whose father was the first African-American administrator in the Little Rock school district and who herself graduated from the same Central High that was home to the Little Rock Nine.
    "I was called 'nigger' most every day and I begged my father -- begged him -- to let me go back to an all-black school," she says of her high school experience. "But daddy wouldn't let me quit, and I learned that I was supposed to stand up and fight.
    Put the emphasis on fight. Little more than a year ago, when this reporter called the White House and the more established school choice groups about a D.C. voucher bill, the argument was the same: Washington just wasn't ready; it might take years to build up grass-roots support. But Mrs. Walden-Ford and the parents around her insisted they were the grass roots.
    And she didn't need Milton Friedman to tell her what vouchers could do. As a single mom in Washington's northeast working two jobs to support three children, she found the system in desperate shape by the time her youngest son, William, landed at Roosevelt High School: The school was a disaster and he was running with a bad crowd. But then William was given the gift of a lifetime when a neighbor offered a private voucher that allowed Mrs. Walden-Ford to put him in Archbishop Carroll, a parochial school.
    "The change in my son was immediate and dramatic," says Mrs. Walden-Ford. Within short order she would proudly sit through two graduations she believes would have been unthinkable without that voucher.

The first was from high school. The second -- the day after the 9/11 attacks -- was from Parris Island. While some of his contemporaries ended up in jail or plagued by drugs, today William is about to be deployed to Iraq as a United States Marine.
    But even after Arizona Republican Jeff Flake put choice back on Congress's legislative table, it appeared to be headed nowhere. Then City Councilman Kevin Chavous announced a public hearing, and Mrs. Walden-Ford surprised everyone by producing dozens of D.C. parents who testified they needed vouchers and needed them now. The establishment took note. Within two weeks School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz would write an op-ed for the Washington Post arguing that choice be given a chance. And though Mayor Anthony Williams had thrown a wet blanket on vouchers in February, by May he had been born again.
    Mrs. Walden-Ford's second critical intervention came in the Senate, where the D.C. reform faced its stiffest opposition. It was precipitated by the bombshell dropped by Republican Arlen Specter and Democrat Mary Landrieu right before a crucial Senate Appropriations Committee vote: They were switching their previous yea votes to nays. On the way out, says Mrs. Walden-Ford, Mr. Specter couldn't look them in the eye when he tried to explain himself. When Mrs. Landrieu appeared, nine-year-old Mosiyah Hall asked the senator where she sent her own kids.
    "Georgetown Day," she answered, a reference to one of the toniest private schools in the district. What really ticked off the moms, though, was when Mrs. Landrieu tried to explain to them -- without knowing any of their financial circumstances -- that even with this voucher they couldn't afford Georgetown Day. "Senator Landrieu and Senator Specter talked to us like we were brain dead," says Mrs. Walden-Ford.
    That was the moment the D.C. moms decided they needed to up the ante. The first shot was a full-page ad in the New Orleans Time-Picayune in Mrs. Landrieu's home state, with a photo of young Mosiyah under this headline: "My mom wants you to know that Sen. Mary Landrieu doesn't want me to go to the same school where her child goes." A similar ad would be run in Chicago likening Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin to George Wallace for his opposition to vouchers.


    But the most controversial was yet to come. A TV spot run during "Good Morning America" featured Mrs. Walden-Ford comparing Teddy Kennedy to Bull Connor -- the Birmingham police chief who loosed the dogs on Martin Luther King -- against a backdrop of searing civil-rights era images. "Senator Kennedy, your brothers fought for us," says Mrs. Walden-Ford, surrounded by a group of black children. "Why do you fight against us?" None of her coalition partners really wanted her to do these ads, and Mayor Williams criticized them publicly. Today Mrs. Walden-Ford not only defends the ads, she thinks D.C. vouchers might have fallen to the wayside if she'd just continued to play nice. After all, an anti-voucher vote for Democrats has traditionally had no negative consequences, while a pro-voucher vote risked irritating the teachers unions into backing a challenger in your next primary.

    The ads were never going to change the minds of die-hards such as Mr. Kennedy. But it did put them on the defensive, and some of his colleagues had to ask themselves whether this was really the kind of thing they wanted showing up in their own hometown papers and TV stations. Mrs. Walden-Ford notes that after the ads ran, Mrs. Landrieu voted "present" instead of "no" when the measure finally came up for an Appropriations vote. And during the Senate floor debate, only four Senators were willing to speak out against it.
    "When you're a parent and you go up to Capitol Hill, they're nice to you and get you coffee but then they go out and vote against you," says Mrs. Walden-Ford. "We decided we had to do something to make them take us seriously." It's probably safe to say: Now they do.

The above is by William McGurn, The Wall Street Journal - Monday, February 2, 2004
Why Private Schools are Essential
School for Scandal

    Over the past half-century, New York's employees and officials have ripped off the city's public schools to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Some of the stealing has amounted to a direct violation of the penal code. But the larger part has been the "legal graft" that special interests have secured for themselves by manipulating the system's labyrinthine rules and regulations. It is an appalling situation and the central subject of Lydia G. Segal's splendid "Battling Corruption in America's Public Schools" (Northeastern University, 257 pages, $32.50).
    Few people are as well situated as Ms. Segal to tell the story. She served for three years in the office of the late Edward Stancik, the crusading prosecutor who headed the Special Commission on Investigations of the New York City public schools, and she now teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Here Ms. Segal traces patterns of corruption in the nation's three largest urban school districts: New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. But it is New York that gets most of the attention, and understandably so.
    Reaching into the files of the Investigations Commission, Ms. Segal gives us a rogues' gallery of school employees. To take but one example, school custodians for many years put their wives on the payroll as virtual no-show "secretaries," and they used Jeeps purchased for incidental "snow removal" as their personal property year-round. Their union leaders, if confronted with such venal conduct, would merely shrug and say: "It's in the contract." And it often was.
    One suspects that if the New York school system were a $12 billion private corporation rather than a public monopoly there would be more media and citizen outrage at such abuses. Indeed, politicians would be railing against the political party in power for failing to combat a "corporate crime wave." Unfortunately, public education has a halo of sanctity hovering over it. In the name of "the children," education officials perennially demand more taxpayer money to prop up an allegedly underfunded system. Rarely does anyone ask them to account for the bankrupting effects of fraud, pilfering and waste.
    What is shocking in Ms. Segal's account is the sheer brazenness of the thievery.

Those committing the misdeeds -- whether actual felonies or legal graft -- don't seem to think that they have to exert much energy covering up. With 1.1 million kids and more than 100,000 employees spread out over a vast city, it is assumed that no one will notice. Thus everything that is not nailed down is up for grabs.
    New York's multimillion-dollar Bureau of Supplies, for example, has been a thieves' paradise for almost a century. School employees called it the Bureau of Surprise because, as Ms. Segal puts it, "no one knew what they were going to get when they opened their boxes." Meanwhile, the main warehouse was called "The Sieve."
    Every few years or so a scandal would erupt, and some people would be arrested. Then the thievery would start up again. The scale changed, however. In 1972, the total value of pilfered supplies was a half-million dollars; by 1985, it was $7.2 million, about six times the rate of inflation. In some cases the system lost money not because of outright theft but because of a slacker culture. Investigators once found $4.5 million in unused textbooks. Employees had just been too lazy to return them to the publishers for credit.
    To correct this state of affairs, Ms. Segal proposes a number of sensible reforms: creating an independent Inspector General's office in all big-city school districts, privatizing custodial and repair services, decentralizing various purchasing decisions. She also notes that cities need to rein in their unions so that employees can no longer cite the labor contract as an excuse for shortchanging the kids.
    Will any of this happen? Perhaps. But the best antidote to the endemic corruption that Ms. Segal so richly documents would be to subject our monopoly public-education system to outside competition. Nothing is more likely to concentrate the minds of education officials than the prospect of losing their customers.
Mr. Stern is a contributing editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.

The above is "School for Scandal" by Sol Stern
The Wall Street Journal - Thursday, February 19, 2004