July 23 2013
Support for Parental Choice or Public Schools is a False Choice from the Teachers Unions
Vicki E. Alger
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten addressed her organization at its annual convention in Washington D.C. on Monday.
Public education, she said, is “under pressure and under assault.” From whom, you ask? Well, from people like my IWF colleagues and me apparently because we believe that all parents should be free to choose the schools they think are best for their children.
The AFT released a poll the same day as Weingarten’s remarks purporting to show that parents prefer supporting strong “neighborhood” schools (that is, district-run public schools with unionized teachers) to expanding parental choice.
A closer look at the actual survey reveals why many parents answered that way.
The AFT polled just over 1,000 public district and charter school parents nationwide—parents who likely have already made their choices about where to live and enroll their children. Also, look at how a primary question was phrased:
“Increase charters and spend less on public schools.” Shocker that more than half of the respondents (53 percent) thought this was a bad idea. (p. 4).
Where to begin addressing the problems with this question alone.
Weingarten knows darn well that charter schools are public schools—she helped oversee one that failed and was closed last year.
The AFT—which claims to be a “union of professionals”—also didn’t bother noting that nationwide the average student funding for charter schools is roughly 80 percent of district-run public school student funding or less, depending on a school’s location. So every student who enrolls in a charter school costs fewer taxpayer dollars—approximately $9,700 versus $12,100—meaning there’s more, not less, public funding available for students in district-run public schools.
Another reason the AFT is possibly taking a swipe at charters is this nifty statistic: close to 9 out of 10 charter schools nationwide (87.7 percent) are not unionized, according to the latest available data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Just 68 of charter schools nationwide that are unionized are affiliated with the AFT.
Now that’s ironic given that the late Albert Shanker, former AFT head, was one of the earliest and most outspoken supporters of charter schools in large part because teachers help found and run them, and teachers have more freedom to innovate in charter classrooms—while abiding by the same admissions, testing, and other accountability requirements as district-run public schools.
But my favorite misleading question comes later on (pp. 5-6) when the AFT asks public school parents to choose between two reform strategies:
Approach A, “We need to make the investments needed to ensure all schools provide safe conditions, an enriching curriculum, support for students' social and emotional development, and effective teachers.”
Approach B, “We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense.”
Seasoned pollsters know that this is what respondents actually hear: “Should we give the public schools your kids attend more money or less money by diverting public funds to private schools where the rich kids go?”
Another shocker: 77 percent of public school parents chose Approach A—more money for their kids’ schools.
In reality, 85 percent of American families with incomes $75,000 and higher send their children to district public schools, compared to 11 percent who send their children to private schools. (Percentages are based on data from the Census Bureau, Table 8)
The AFT survey concludes that parents want a “new approach” to education, namely, more money. There’s nothing new—much less effective—about that strategy.
Maybe that’s why nationwide enrollment in private school parental choice programs has grown five-fold since 2001, increasing from 50,000 to 250,000 schoolchildren today. Over the same period, public charter school enrollment also increased five-fold, from 459,000 students to nearly 2.3 million students today.