On school choice, teacher unions & McDonald’s franchises

While doing my end-of-the year inbox purge, I came across a few interesting items.

In a Sept. 30 column in Human Events, Jeb Bush offered the nation’s teacher unions a grand bargain: “If unions released their grip on political levers, and parental choice was absolute, many public school reforms would be unnecessary because the desired results would be achieved through market forces.”

Eventually, teachers unions will accept this deal and embrace full parental empowerment in exchange for full teacher empowerment, but only after membership nationally slips below 25 percent. With market share in the low twenties, financial necessity will force unions to expand their business model to include educators working in charter, private and virtual schools. And once they develop successful business relationships with educators in these non-district schools, the unions will be fully supportive of parents using public funds to access these schools. The unions already support students using public funds to attend unionized private colleges and universities, and unionized private pre-K programs.

In a somewhat related event, last September AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka convinced fellow labor leaders to invite “millions of non-union workers into the labor movement even if their own workplaces are not unionized.” Trumka called for the AFL-CIO to become a place where progressive organizations and individuals come together to develop and promote a common agenda.

Trumka’s vision provides teacher unions with an excellent rationale for dropping their opposition to full parental choice and forming partnerships with parents and educators in non-district schools.  Empowering low-income and working-class parents to access the schools that best meet their children’s needs is a necessary step toward reducing our country’s widening inequality gap, and progressives say reducing inequality is one of their top priorities. Nonetheless, as I previously mentioned, teacher unions will put inequality concerns on the back burner and refuse to find common ground with parents and educators in non-district schools until forced to by internal financial pressures.mcd vs bk

There was more evidence from my local school district last month that district school superintendents are increasingly thinking and acting like McDonald’s franchise owners. The Tampa Bay Times reported that Pinellas County Superintendent Mike Grego is “studying the number and location of charter and private schools” in the district to fine tune his strategy for recapturing lost market share. “I believe as a public school system we ought to compete,” he said.

Part of Grego’s strategy includes putting new magnet programs in closed school buildings so he won’t be pressured to sell these buildings to charter school operators. That this will waste tax dollars by creating excess capacity in several neighboring district schools is apparently not a concern.

School districts should not be competing for market share.

They should be focused on serving the public good by ensuring all children have access to the schools that best meet their needs. As a public servant committed to serving the common good, a district superintendent should not care whether a child is attending a district or non-district school. In fact, since children educated in non-district schools usually save taxpayer money, public servants should welcome students having their academic and social needs met by non-district schools.

I taught in a highly selective district school for several years, so I’m always perplexed when school choice critics say individual district schools are required to accept all students. With a few exceptions, school districts serve all students, but individual district schools do not serve all students who apply.  Here’s a sample of the selectivity of individual Pinellas County, Fla. district schools this year.

Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary accepted 179 of 1,313 students who applied. Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle accepted 226 of 1,126. Osceola Fundamental High accepted 593 of 1,310.

St. Petersburg High School’s International Baccalaureate, where I formally taught, accepted 193 of 481 applicants, while the IB at Palm Harbor University High accepted 200 of 397.

Space is limited at all schools, and not every school is appropriate for every child. Hopefully, we can soon move beyond pointless discussions about whether one type of school is better than another, and focus on how we can better ensure all children have access to the schools that best meet their needs.

New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s appointment of a traditionalist to be the city’s new school chancellor illustrates an interesting irony in public education today: The progressives are often the conservatives, and the conservatives are often the progressives.

De Blasio, a self-described progressive, says he wants to fight growing inequality. Yet he is hostile to charter schools, which New York City’s low-income and working-class families are embracing to promote greater social mobility for their children. Fortunately, parents, teachers and community activists are organizing and fighting back. Whether de Blasio and his progressive allies can block low-income and working-class parents from accessing charter schools will be one of the more important education stories in 2014.


  1. Public schools competing is serving the public good because they have the best things going on.

    Let me sum up above, unions are terrible, competition is only acceptable for private schools and charters not public schools and please ignore the millions that vouchers and charters siphon out of classrooms.

  2. Traditional Public School Teacher

    Teacher-hating Jeb-worshippers are at it again I see. There is a lot of union-bashing in this article. Interestingly, the state that is looked to as an educational model, Massachusetts, has strong unions. Teachers will wake up and see that there is no good reason to ever vote republican in FL again. If unions were half as strong as this author would have us believe I would make twice the pittance of a salary I currently make.

    • Patrick R. Gibbons

      Interestingly the author is a Democrat, former educator and former teacher union president. That said, I don’t know why you want to make this an “us vs. them” issue. Why, as a teacher, do you oppose parents being able to choose what school their child attends? Why, as a teacher, do you want more control in the hands of policymakers (who are far removed from the classrooms) rather than parents…or even teachers like yourself?

  3. Traditional Public School Teacher

    I will tell you exactly why teachers should have more control. We are blamed for everything that goes wrong. You want 100% accountability for teachers? Then we ought to have 100% control of schools. Funny that private schools are dying to get their hands on public money but they do not want to give the FCAT and have their scores publicized. Every kid on a voucher at a private school ought to have to take the FCAT and every other test that public school kids take.

  4. Traditional Public School Teacher

    Furthermore, what good is “choice” when everyone will be following the Common Core? All schools and curricula will be the same.