If almost half the unionized workers at an auto plant could get a free Chevy as a company perk, but instead bought one made by non-union workers from a different car-maker, what would you think?

A few weeks ago, Richard Stutman, head of the Boston Teachers Union, wrote a piece in which he delivered the standard issue body slam of charter schools. He sounded the alarm bells about these alternative public schools which he claims are a “step toward privatizing public education.” And to any teacher union leader, the word “privatization” is more profane than the F-bomb for one simple reason: private schools are almost never unionized. But for parents, a private school can be a godsend.

By choosing to send their kids to private schools, parents assert their right to be in control of their upbringing – the way it had been for time immemorial until the 19th Century, when the state began to supplant parents as “professional experts.” We have since devolved into a zip-code monopoly, a government-run, technocratic and often unionized school system which frequently delivers a substandard product.

The unions insist that “for-profit education” only exists to make its owners wealthy. What the union crowd never mentions is that the only way anyone makes money is if they deliver a good or a service that someone else wants. (Of course unions don’t operate that way; they force teachers throughout much of the country to pay for their services whether they want them or not.) Also, as Greg Forster writes, the “unions are quick to point out that education reform serves the interests of for-profit businesses. It does—and so does a failure of education reform. In fact, more for-profit businesses are served by pursuing the unions’ tired old agenda than by pursuing reform.”

Back to Stutman. I would like to ask the union boss why, if public schools are so good, those who actually teach in them send their own kids to private schools in much greater numbers than the general public. A 2014 Education Next poll found that 19 percent of public school teachers send their own kids to private schools, while just 14 percent of the public does. And a 2004 study by the Fordham Institute showed that the percentage of big city teachers who put their own kids in private school was even greater. A few examples – all of which are in cities dominated by Stutman’s national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers:

  • Philadelphia – 44 percent
  • Chicago – 39 percent
  • New York City – 33 percent.
  • (Stutman’s) Boston – 28 percent

Whatever reason these teachers may have, they at least can afford a private school for their kids. Poor parents, who are trying to escape the same schools that teachers don’t want to send their kids to, can’t always do that. And it’s the teachers unions in every state leading the charge to keep the poor trapped in their failing public schools, doing whatever it takes to keep them from getting a voucher to attend a better private school.

And the public v. private battle certainly isn’t limited to our country. In fact, the battle rages in some of the poorest places on the planet, where the truly impoverished are way more desperate than those living below the poverty line in the U.S. The Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick recently wrote about James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. The author documented how “low-cost private schools operated in the world’s poorest areas, from the slums of Hyderabad in India to remote mountain villages in China and shanty towns in Kenya. According to the international development crowd, these schools shouldn’t exist….” The government provides the poor no-cost schooling in better facilities (with indoor plumbing!), so why then would those living in abject poverty pay for something they could get for free?

Bedrick continues, “According to The Economist, hundreds of new private schools are opening in Lagos, Nigeria, many of them charging less than $1 a week.” In fact, Tooley now reports that 70 percent of “pre- and primary children” in Lagos are in non-government, locally-run schools. In the private schools paid for by parents living in dire poverty, Tooley observed that they typically turn out better educated kids than the public schools, which get greater funding from the government and more from foreign countries, as well as donations from the U.N. and philanthropists like Bill Gates. But with all that, they often lack teachers who actually show up for work. At a school in nearby Ghana only 3 of 10 teachers come to school regularly. But due to the teachers union, there is nothing that school officials can do about it. (Sound familiar?)

Yes, even in the remotest areas of the world, the teachers unions are a force that must be reckoned with. Education International claims to be the “world’s largest federation of unions, representing thirty million education employees in about four hundred organisations in one hundred and seventy countries and territories, across the globe.” Its website minces no words when it comes to privatization:

Commercialisation and privatisation in and of education will be at the heart of Education International’s agenda for the next four years as the organisation concluded a successful Seventh World Congress in Ottawa, Canada. It is a ‘threat that poses great harm to the greatest enterprise of our society: quality public education,’ said EI’s President, Susan Hopgood in her closing remarks at the end of five days of debate, networking, and sharing of ideas and best practice. ‘We leave here united, ready to fight against the scourge of private enterprise in our classrooms.’ (Emphasis added.)

Yet the children’s test scores in the private schools Tooley visited – some run on a few dollars a day – routinely beat those in the government-run, unionized schools.

It’s obvious by now that many teachers in America’s biggest cities and the poorest parents around the world aren’t buying the unions’ anti-privatization twaddle. It’s about time the rest of us recognized that the real “scourge” in education is not privatization, but rather the corrupting influence of Big Government and its international partner in crime, the teachers unions.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

2 Responses to Private v. Big Government-Unionized Schools

  1. Israel Teitelbaum says:

    Thank you Larry for your insightful comments. We can all take one giant step forward by calling our representatives in Congress (202-224-3121)to call for a bipartisan hearing on the crisis in education, especially the one all American taxpayers support, the DC Public Schools. Children there are condemned to a life of misery, at an annual cost of $29,408 per child. The few lucky enough to receive a voucher worth less than one-third of this are graduating at the rate of 91 percent.

    • Richard Rider says:

      Seldom mentioned in this debate is the difference in taxpayer COST for public schools vs. vouchers. In DC, the maximum private school voucher is $7,500 a year. The average DC voucher disbursed is less than $7K a year — almost all for rather Spartan Catholic schools.

      Even if the private schools were providing no better education than the DC public schools (no one but a teacher union official would make such an assertion), then we are getting the same education for $7,000 that otherwise we’d be paying $29,000+ for.

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