‘Passing the trash’ in public schools

Fixing public education is beginning to sound like the old line about the weather: Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything.

For as long as I can remember, in every legislative session, Nevadans wrestle with the problem of excellence in public education. It usually breaks down with the teacher unions crying for more money (which they always get) and taxpayers crying for more “bang for the buck” (which they never get).

Each and every legislative session, we groundhog those arguments over and over and over again. And each and every legislative session, nothing substantially changes.

I’m not saying I have all the answers for what ails public education. I’m just saying, instead of doing the same stuff again and again, how about we do something different?

Here’s my modest proposal: Take one school in Clark County and make it union-free.

Pick any school — the best, the worst or something in the middle. Free the principal from all state and federal rules and let him or her build a school year and a staff from the ground up with one mandate: no unions. Then see what happens. Will that school get better, worse or experience no change?

It’s a simple idea. And it’s not new. Some union-free charter schools achieve remarkable excellence. But to really make a difference, we don’t need a charter school here and there. We need reform that can work in all public schools.

It shouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime more. And over a few short years, we’d at least know whether union rules produce bad schools.

More than a few educators believe that unions gone wild in public education make for a bad educational system.

This is not to say that there aren’t good unionized teachers. There certainly are. But teacher unions don’t exist to produce excellent results for students. Teacher unions are businesses designed to collect dues from teachers. Period.

To do that, unions protect the worst teachers like they were the best teachers. Unions resist efforts to pay teachers better based on merit. Unions create work rules to make life easier for teachers, not to help students learn: fewer classroom days, longer vacations, less accountability.

Anyone who has seen the documentary “Waiting for Superman” can’t make it through that depressing film about the woes of public education without acknowledging that unions have become the key impediment to school reform.

The film was made by a progressive guy who ascribed to the starry ideal of all good Americans sending the kiddos off to a neighborhood public school, holding hands, looking both ways before crossing the street and singing “Kumbaya.” But when the time came to send his kids off to a public school, he did what any sane parent with the money would do — he paid big bucks and drove his kids in the Lexus to a private school.

That’s what President Obama did, too. He talks big about improving public education, but when push came to shove with his own kids, he sent them to a private school. Considering he lives in Washington, D.C., I don’t blame him.

That’s because the president knows what we all know: Public education in America, if I may use the vernacular term, sucks big time. It’s playing craps with your children’s future on the line.

Consider, as just one piece of the problem, the inability of schools handcuffed to union rules to “weed the garden” of substandard teachers.

“Waiting for Superman” points out that doctors and lawyers police themselves far more aggressively than teachers. While something like 1 in 60 doctors and 1 in 100 lawyers will lose their license to practice each year, only 1 in 2,500 teachers will be drummed out of the profession.

That’s because unions make it almost impossible to fire a substandard teacher. In the documentary, different districts had different names for this phenomenon.

Some called it the “Lemon Dance,” meaning a principal dances one bad teacher out of his school into another school. Meanwhile, he gets the favor returned, hoping that his new “lemon” teacher is better than the lemon he just passed on.

In Nevada, I believe the term is “pass the trash.” The Clark County School District hires thousands of teachers but fires next to none.

No matter how you slice it, that fact alone erodes excellence in schools. Talk to any good principal or teacher in your district, and they can tell you the substandard teachers in their school inside of 30 seconds. But the union system protects them, and the administration, which is unionized itself, lets it go on.

Pass the trash. Good for bad teachers. Bad for good students.

Even President Obama points out that the abysmal results of public education speak for themselves, and it’s time to acknowledge bad performance and do something about it.

The federal government now says that as many as 82 percent of the nation’s schools could be failing under the No Child Left Behind Act.

Think about it. Eighty-two percent.

Let’s do something different: One experimental, union-free school for every unionized school district.

Then let the chips fall where they may.

Sherman Frederick (sfrederick@reviewjournal.com), the former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/sherm.

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