New Yorkers may find plenty to criticize about their schools, but Washington, D.C.'s next mayor wants them. Last week, the mayor-elect, Adrian Fenty, made his third trip to New York City to meet with Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein. This time he brought with him 11 members of the D.C. Council, as well as the school superintendent, Clifford Janey, to see how Washington, D.C., can learn from New York.
Washington, D.C.'s schools spent over $15,000 a student, the highest level in the nation, in the academic year 2004-05, according to the National Education Association, and well above the New York level of almost $13,000. But District of Columbia students lag behind in testing, and schools are poorly maintained. Most parents who can afford to opt out, do so, either by moving to the suburbs or by sending their children to a private school.
Expenses for maintenance and administration are a major problem. According to a report by the Council of Great City Schools, an advocate for public school districts, only 32% of per student spending in Washington, D.C., goes toward classroom instruction, compared to 43% in other school systems.
Mr. Fenty wants to follow Mayor Bloomberg's lead and turn the nine-member District of Columbia school board, which currently runs the school system, into an advisory board. Most of the school board's functions would be taken over by a new department of education reporting directly to the mayor.
New York's progress has not been free of obstacles. Just last week, the administration had to withdraw a plan to build a complex of four schools in the South Bronx, complete with athletic fields, to avoid the project being voted down. And Governor Pataki hasn't succeeded in raising the number of charter schools to 250 from 100.
But New York has seen steady improvements, with nearly 200 smaller schools replacing large high schools. Students can choose which school to attend, and the new schools provide a more pleasant and secure environment for teenagers, a socially vulnerable age group. Also, students can focus on specific areas such as math, science, law, and the arts.
In addition, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are teaming up with Carnegie Hall and the Julliard School of Music to send professional musicians into the public schools, with most of the costs covered by private donors. In exchange for the golden opportunity of training at Julliard and performing at Carnegie Hall, aspiring musicians will spend a day and a half a week teaching at a public school. The program will start with 16 teachers and increase to 50 after three years.
Washington, D.C., clearly stands to gain by copying New York's initiatives. And, with a smaller metropolitan area, reforms such as smaller schools and more choice should not be as difficult. But one obstacle to Washington's progress, and the progress of all cities that seek to emulate New York, is the power of teachers unions, which have consistently lobbied against positive changes for children.
Next month the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the cases Washington v. Washington Education Association and Davenport et. al. v. Washington Education Association. Four thousand teachers in Washington state asked the Washington Education Association to return the portion of their dues used for political activity.
Washington state law prohibits the use of dues for political purposes without permission. Moreover, the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in Communications Workers of America v. Beck, as well as explicit U.S. Department of Labor regulations, stands clearly in favor of refunds. But in March 2006, the Supreme Court of Washington state ruled that it was too administratively burdensome for the unions to return the money, and that the teachers' request interfered with the unions' rights to free speech.
The amounts spent by teachers unions, including the Washington Education Association, are enormous. The WEA alone spent $10 million on political campaigns and lobbying since 2000. They clearly have no problem with free speech.
The American Federation of Teachers filing for its national headquarters lists expenditures of $13,971,868 specifically for political activities and lobbying for fiscal year 2006. The figure for the National Education Association is $26,934,620. Both are documented through the U.S. Department of Labor's electronic Web site, erds.dol-esa.gov/query/query.do. These funds are distributed to local affiliates all over the country.
In addition, spending by the American Federation of Teachers on meetings and conferences totaled over $5 million in 2006, including an itemized $189,237 listed as "DNC PR AT ASILOMAR," meaning Democratic National Committee Public Relations in Asilomar, Pacific Grove, Calif.
The National Education Association spent $7.4 million on lodging, including visits to the Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort in Colorado Springs and the Walt Disney Park and Resort in Georgia.
Officers of education unions are well paid to protect teachers from reform. In fiscal 2006, the National Education Association listed 21 employees and officers who received total disbursements of over $200,000. The association's president, Reg Weaver, received disbursements of $417,858, and the executive director, John Wilson, received $351,803. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Edward McElroy, received a more modest $368,985.
These teachers unions have consistently used their power to protect teachers and public schools from competition, to the detriment of children in New York and Washington, D.C. They are against raising the number of charter schools, despite the lengthy waiting lists for existing charter schools. They're against merit pay and school choice, and they make firing incompetent teachers a lost cause.
So, as Mayor-elect Fenty examines New York City for options, he may also wish to pay a visit to Mr. McElroy at the headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers and to Mr. Weaver at the National Education Association. They're each just a short cab ride away. Perhaps over a nice lunch the mayor-to-be might get permission for some real change.
This Op-Ed was featured in The New York Sun edition of December 15, 2006.