Choice, Polls and the American Way


Some weeks ago, a Calvert reporter went to a conference jointly hosted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and People for the American Way (PFAW), a liberal organization founded in 1980 by Norman Lear. The NAACP/PFAW marriage goes under the name, “Partners for Public Education,” a partnership whose mission, at least ostensibly, is opposition to school choice. During the opening plenary session of “The Future Is in Our Hands,” as the April 3 conference billed itself, none of the speakers seemed terribly interested in any form of school reform, other than yet more money. None even mentioned the possibility that the public schools themselves might in some degree be responsible for their own demise.

The two groups’ espousal appears slightly odd. PFAW is a youthful, predominantly white Washington advocacy group. The Baltimore-based NAACP is far older, both as an organization and in terms of the age of its membership. A visit to PFAW’s Internet site reveals its agenda to be that of a standard cultural left organization – abortion, gay rights, “motor voter,”1 affirmative action and so on.2 At first glance, the PFAW appears to put more stock into the relationship than does the NAACP. PFAW’s Internet site contains a whole section on the Partners for Public Education program. The NAACP’s home page has a reference to the program, but it simply links one to PFAW’s site.3

Perhaps aware of the lopsidedness of the partnership, PFAW’s literature at the event – just about all the literature was provided by PFAW – went out of its way to emphasize the group’s civil-rights record. One of the conference handouts, “People for the American Way’s Commitment to Civil Rights Progress,” presented a menu of proof that black Americans could, indeed, rely on PFAW’s sincerity. Support for Lani Guinier’s short-lived candidacy for assistant attorney general for civil rights; opposition to Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court; “active” work on behalf of minority nominees for the federal bench “attacked by right-wing groups” – it was all there and more.4

On March 28, PFAW made a request – a copy of which was obtained by the Calvert Institute – to a well known local foundation for $86,200, nearly all of it for the Baltimore event. It is not clear whether the foundation made the grant, though, it if did, it must have been in the nature of a reimbursement, as most of the conference-planning expenditure must already have been made by March 28. The grant request made no reference to any NAACP expenditure on the program.

At the time of the meeting, a number of school-choice supporters expressed concern to the Calvert Institute. They should sleep easy, as there is probably less to this than meets the eye. The audience at the conference probably amounted to somewhat over 200 people, about 60 percent black and 40 percent white. It was made up of “civic associations, national organizations and concerned citizens,” said Phil Hayes, a PFAW activist.5 A veteran Baltimore newspaper reporter, however, wryly observed that it looked as though both groups had bused in a considerable number of supporters. Predictably, also in evidence were some teachers’ union representatives, sporting buttons proclaiming, “I am the NEA,” referring to the National Education Association.

The PFAW grant request spoke boldly of “roll[ing] out this initiative across the country,” by holding similar conferences in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Miami, New York and Philadelphia. A PFAW activist, however, told a Calvert reporter only that there “may” be further events, with nothing currently planned. While the Calvert Institute, a proponent of school choice, may be unpleasantly surprised, there may very well be no further events. The cost, certainly, may be prohibitive. Also, the NAACP’s concern at the April 3 event seemed to be as much about the Baltimore City schools settlement dispute, at the time still raging in Annapolis, as it was about school vouchers. (Though the measure was in the end passed toward the very end of the 1997 state legislative session, on April 3 state legislators from some suburban counties were still balking at the Glendening administration’s proposal to funnel an extra $254 million of state school aid to Baltimore over five years in return for a greater say in the management of the city’s public schools. Following the publication by the Calvert Institute of statistics showing state taxation levies to fall very heavily on a few counties,6 Montgomery County legislators in particular were said to be concerned about channeling more funds to Baltimore with no guarantee of improved school performance.)7

In addition to wary suburbanites, the city schools settlement came under great criticism by segments of the African-American community as involving the surrender of authority by a black mayor to a white governor. In his opening comments, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume praised Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III (D) for “leading the fight against the state takeover.” When conference attendees returned to their cars, they found each to have a flier posted under the windshield wiper. “Stop the Racist Takeover of Baltimore City Public Schools!” it roared, before demanding of readers, “Did we elect an African-American mayor so that he could give the schools away to the state of Maryland?” The fliers were not printed on NAACP stationery, but the settlement may well have been uppermost in the minds of many conference attendees. One Baltimore-based conference planner was overheard to say that the vouchers issue was in large part simply an excuse to draw attention to public education in Baltimore.

The plenary session ended when a couple of public school students were led onto the stage by their teacher, Rebecca Joseph. Hailing from Southeast Middle School, No. 255, located a stone’s throw from the county line, they made the standard pleas for “fairness” and so on. But the amusing thing was this: Every speaker before her had faithfully repeated the anti-choice crowd’s mantra, “I am a product of the public schools.” The fiery Ms. Joseph no doubt wished she could but, sad to say, this was not possible. She is a 1981 graduate of McDonogh, the up-market prep school in Baltimore County with current annual tuition costs ranging from $10,800 to $16,750.

Black Polling

One of the sad things about the NAACP’s opposition to choice is that this puts it on the wrong side of a good number of black Americans, who are disproportionately trapped in America’s abysmal urban schools. Tellingly, an April 1996 poll by the left-leaning Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. showed that blacks favored school choice more than the population at large.8 Sixty-one percent of black parents favored choice, 64 percent of 18- to 25-year-old blacks, 61 percent of 26- to 35-year-old blacks and 51 percent of all black females.9

Status Quo

The NAACP’s decision to oppose choice is unfortunate, given the failure of government monopoly education for poor people in Baltimore. Though one hates to sound a note of pessimism amidst establishment jubilation over the passage of the schools settlement legislation, it is only reasonable to ask for diminished expectations at the outset. Extra money has not previously solved Baltimore’s problems; it is not clear exactly why it should now.

In the annual Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) tests administered by the state, Baltimore routinely comes in at last place. In 1996, all told, only an average of 13.6 percent of city 3rd-, 5th- and 8th-graders scored at the “satisfactory” level in all tests at all levels.10 The state average was 40.7 percent.11 Let us be sure to understand that money alone is not the answer. From school year (SY) 1990-91 through SY 1995-96, city per-pupil funding increased by 10.32 percent in real terms, from $5,017 to $5,535 in constant 1994 dollars. Statewide per-pupil spending only increased by 0.59 percent, from $5,938 to $5,973 (1994 dollars). True, Baltimore per-pupil spending is below the state average, but the city is far from being the least funded school district. In SY 1995-96, that distinction went to Caroline County, with an average of 38.6 percent of students passing each test at each grade. The best-scoring district in terms of average MSPAP passing grades was Howard County, which was in SY 1995-96 funded at $6,402 per pupil, the second-highest level in the state. On the other hand, the next-best scoring district was Frederick County, whose per-pupil spending of $5,435 was the eighth-lowest in Maryland. By contrast, Montgomery County’s extravagant expenditure of $7,254 per student only bought it the sixth-best average MSPAP scores.12 (Note that, unless otherwise noted, all figures cited are in 1994 dollars.)

The lack of any funding/performance relationship is further illustrated in figure 1. The black lines, measured on the right-hand scale, represent the percentage of students in the 11th grade passing all four “Maryland Functional Tests” (reading, math, writing and citizenship). We use this MFT measure in preference to MSPAP scores because the state has been administering its functional tests for longer, allowing us to create a longer trend line. Each cluster of columns represents six years, starting in SY 1990-91 and ending in SY 1995-96. The individual columns within each cluster, measured on the left-hand scale, represent per-pupil spending over those years.

The four cluster categories are these: The first represents the best funded district over the six-year period under review. This is Montgomery County, with six-year per-student expenditure ranging from $7,843 to $7,254. (In Maryland, school district boundaries are identical to county boundaries.) The second category is the least well funded district, which throughout the six-year period was Caroline County, with spending varying from $4,658 to $4,959. The third group of columns stands for worst-performing district, which over six years consistently was Baltimore City. Its spending increased from $5,017 to $5,553 per student. The final category is slightly more complex. This represents the best school district. However, as this honor has varied over the years from district to district, the gray columns represent different counties. The first column is Baltimore County, which was best in SY 1990-91; the second, Dorchester in SY 1991-92; the third, Queen Anne’s in SY 1992-93, the fourth, Carroll and Cecil equally in SY 1993-94; the fifth, Cecil in SY 1994-95; and the sixth, Kent in SY 1995-96.

The important thing to note is that high spending does not guarantee high results. Montgomery County’s high spending does coincide with quite good scores, but these scores are certainly not the highest in the state. Never during the six years under consideration did Montgomery attain this. In fact, in SY 1995-96, no fewer than 14 school districts scored better than Montgomery in the MFTs. Turning to the second cluster, Caroline County’s spending is well below that of Baltimore, but its scores – while not the highest in the state by any stretch – are respectable in comparison to the city’s. Perhaps more interestingly, until the final year, Caroline’s scores are virtually identical to Montgomery’s. Of the Baltimore cluster, there is little to be said, other than that money does not buy results – witness the coincidence between the city’s increased real per-pupil spending and its plummeting test scores. As for the final cluster, it is immediately apparent that the best scoring counties are not the best funded. Sometimes a little lower and sometimes a little higher than the Baltimore spending average,13 these counties obviously are not among those most lavishly funded. They have achieved much with little.14

Union Agenda

Given these dismal statistics, one must ask why the political establishment has appeared so reluctant even to experiment with educational choice. With the notable exception of Baltimore City’s Delegate Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, not many Democrats have been known to step up to the plate on this issue. Though his Task Force on School Choice ultimately recommended against a voucher program last November,15 the mayor must be given due credit for creating the panel to start with. Similarly, Delegate Rawlings’ various attempts to enact school-choice pilot programs are appreciated by choice advocates, even if plans have foundered on the rocks of bureaucratic self-interest.16 As noted in the previous edition of this journal, the mayoral task force’s chairman, Baltimore Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell, Jr. (D), has also indicated a certain degree of enthusiasm for choice: In January 1997, in response to a question posed by a Calvert reporter, he said that he would be willing to return to the issue if the Supreme Court upholds the school-choice experiments currently under way in Cleveland and Milwaukee.17

The Maryland State Teachers’ Association (MSTA), the local affiliate of the NEA, “[s]upport[s] public dollars for public schools and oppose[s] vouchers and tuition tax credits for private schools.”18 This stance appears to be mirrored by many elected officials. One of the reasons for Democrats’ reluctance to tackle education reform seriously is money. To be blunt, the teachers’ unions simply pour money into the campaign coffers of Democratic candidates. In fact, the NEA and the smaller American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are among the most partisan of unions in America, more so than the Teamsters and almost as much as the AFL-CIO.19 At the national level, though many public school teachers may not be aware of this, during the 1996 campaign season 99.2 percent of AFT and 98.9 percent of NEA political action committee (PAC) contributions went to Democratic candidates.20 This is astounding, given that teachers’ partisan affiliations are far more like those of the public at large. A 1996 survey by the National Center for Education Information found that nationally 42 percent of public school teachers identify themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as Republicans and the rest as independents.21

In Maryland, the percentage of Republicans is higher. Says Bob Rankin, a spokesman for the MSTA, among those expressing an affiliation within the 47,000-member union, 40 percent are Republicans. The other 60 percent are Democrats.22 The relatively high percentage of registered Republicans among Maryland’s public school teachers only serves to highlight the bias of the union in this state. Though the situation is not as skewed toward the Democrats as it is nationally, the MSTA certainly does not skimp its in support of Democrats, as evidenced in exhibit 1. While only 60 percent of party-registered MSTA members are Democrats, during the 1991-1994 state election cycle, 91.6 percent of the union’s state and local political funding went to Democratic candidates or organizations.23

By way of caveat, readers should be aware of the limitations of Maryland’s current system of campaign finance reporting. The figures for exhibit 1 are taken from the MSTA’s political spending reports for 1991 through 1994, available at the State Administrative Board of Elections Laws. Such records are not currently computerized, meaning that researchers may miss one or two contributions among the mass of dog-eared sheaves of paper. During their research, the few times Calvert staff did not recognize the name of a recipient, he or she was not counted toward the total. (These tended to be losing candidates from low-budget, local-level races in the earlier years of the survey.) Nonetheless, the pattern is clear: Year in and year out, some 90 percent of MSTA contributions go to the Democrats, regardless of the party affiliations of member teachers.

Teachers Should Know

Given the partisan bias of the MSTA and the larger, national NEA and AFT, teachers should know the facts about their unions. First, NEA members’ dues go to pay some very high salaries among the staff of the NEA. Over 2,000 officials of the national NEA and its state affiliates make over $100,000 per year in salary and benefits. This is about three times as much as the average public school teacher’s salary of $34,153.24

Second, teachers do not have to pay dues or fees to support union activities not related to collective bargaining and contract administration. They may not be aware of this right, but it was established by the Supreme Court in 1977 and again in 1988 in, respectively, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (431 U.S. 209) and Communications Workers of America v. Beck (108 S. Ct. 2641). The court held that, while an employer and a union could enter into a collective bargaining agreement requiring all employees in the bargaining unit to pay union dues as an initial condition of employment, employees that resigned from unions or who, where possible, chose not to become union members even if they paid union “association fees,” could not be required to contribute to union spending unrelated to collective bargaining. The court also ruled that dissenting employees were entitled to a partial refund of union dues or a reduction in future union dues because of union spending unrelated to bargaining. A recent out-of-court settlement in Washington state provided teachers who objected to the union’s political activities with a 50 percent reduction in all dues for SY 1994-95 and 1995-96, including a 100 percent reduction in local dues for 1994-95.25

To be fair to the MSTA, the Maryland union does not utilize the infamous “reverse check-off” method of collecting funds for political activities. Under reverse check-off, payroll deductions are automatically made unless a teacher expressly forbids it. According to the MSTA’s Bob Rankin, in Maryland in all but two school districts automatic deductions are not made; rather, teachers annually make such contributions by means of a pledge card.26 Nonetheless, teachers should be aware that such political contributions are not a requirement in any form.

Third, the NEA’s public-policy agenda goes well beyond educational concerns. All told, if everything proposed in the NEA’s legislative program for the 104th Congress had been enacted into law, federal spending would eventually have increased by at least $702 billion per year. This proposed expenditure was bigger than that of any single member of the House or Senate in the 104th Congress. Much of the financing burden for this would have fallen upon America’s children, in the form of greater deficits. On the other hand, if the NEA’s spending agenda were to have been paid for through taxes, it would have translated into an added burden of $10,554 per year for a family of four. Some of this weighty social agenda is replicated at the level of state affiliates, too. The MSTA, for example, “Support[s] health care reform measures that move Maryland closer to the goal of universal coverage, quality assurance and cost containment, and that address the needs of children and education employees through a tax-supported single-payer health care plan.”27 It is unclear how this relates to the three Rs.

Fourth, besides being outlandishly expensive, the NEA’s agenda contains many fringe propositions and items that have nothing to do with education. Items advocated by the NEA in its resolutions and legislative agenda include: (a) a nuclear freeze, (b) opposition to the establishment of English as the official language, (c) policies that would increase Social Security spending by at least $126.8 billion per year and (d) statehood for the District of Columbia.28 And you thought teaching was all about grammar and calc. Pass

Posted in: Education, News Series