Guest commentary: Increased competition is hardly the key to better schools
May. 1, 2011
BY DAVID HECKER
DETROIT FREE PRESS GUEST WRITER
Gov. Rick Snyder is right: All of Michigan's children deserve an excellent education. Our state's future depends on it. The question is: How do we move toward this shared goal?
Snyder has stated -- and we agree -- that school improvement can be "achieved in our present system of collective bargaining." However, Snyder also proposes a market-driven system based on increasing competition. Competition results in winners and losers. When it comes to our kids, that's not an outcome we can accept. Public schools are not private firms driven by the profit motive.
Michigan has already experimented with increased competition in education more than most states over the past two decades, and we need to look closely at the results. Our charter-friendly laws have led to the development of more charter schools than all but a handful of states, 75% of which are operated by for-profit companies. Research has shown that charter schools as a whole do not outperform comparable public schools, but they have certainly destabilized many school districts (including the 23 mentioned as candidates for emergency financial managers by the governor in his speech).
Parents and students need good schools, not CEOs fighting over per-pupil dollars. "Schools of choice" policies have led school districts to divert money away from the classroom into glossy advertising campaigns and do not help improve struggling districts.
If we allow even more charter schools to set up shop in struggling school districts or require all districts to accept children from anywhere in the name of market-style competition, we are pulling even more resources away from the schools and students who need them the most. If we financially reward school districts for increased student performance, how will struggling schools get the additional resources they need?
There is one business approach that is absolutely essential to our public schools: investment. Business owners know they must invest and reinvest to grow and compete. They also know a well-educated workforce is essential to their future success. Yet proposed state budgets disinvest in our public schools.
For instance, while the governor agrees with us that ensuring high-quality early childhood education is essential, and that keeping young, promising teachers from leaving the profession is critically important, proposed budget cuts will make it difficult to achieve these goals. Peer learning, good evaluation systems, appropriate use of instructional technology, and other key factors from the American Federation of Teachers report on retaining Generation Y teachers cited in Snyder's speech all require investment. Funding cuts proposed by the Snyder and the Legislature -- along with proposed concessions on salary and benefits -- will hurt, not help.
Moreover, Snyder called for the virtual elimination of seniority, a system put in place to protect employees from arbitrary actions by administrators and school boards. The argument against seniority is that good teachers may be laid off as a result of funding cuts.
This issue should be addressed first and foremost by ensuring objective and regular evaluations for all school employees, which the governor acknowledges are needed but not currently the norm. If teachers are fairly evaluated and provided resources to improve, but still perform unsatisfactorily, they should no longer be teaching. Eliminating seniority rather than focusing on creating real teacher evaluations will result in taking the failure of some administrators out on teachers.
We will improve our public schools by implementing and funding research-based programs proven to work. We look forward to working with the governor on his evaluation, anti-bullying and master teacher proposals. AFT Michigan's reform ideas are presented in our comprehensive PreK-12 Platform, which can be found at www.aftmichigan.org, along with our model evaluation system and proposal to streamline due process hearings.
Our experience in Michigan shows that further increasing competition will not produce better schools for our children. Our members want to be part of transforming our schools into places that support high-quality teaching and learning. We don't agree with Snyder on all of the ways to get there, but get there -- and get there together -- we must.
David Hecker is president of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, AFL-CIO, a union with 35,000 members across the state.