Jeb Bush: Reforming education

By Jeb Bush

The teachers strike in Chicago is not about money. Mayor Rahm Emanuel has offered an average 16 percent pay increase over four years even as the school district faces a $1 billion deficit. Imagine a private company with that kind of balance sheet being so generous.

No, this strike is about the Chicago Teachers Union clinging to bargaining positions sharply at odds with the current direction of public education.

It is about two concepts that every professional in the workplace understands.

The first is that if your boss is held accountable for the performance of the team, the boss gets to decide who to hire. Second, and most important, your job review is based on how well you do your job.

These sound like common-sense principles but are anathema to many teacher unions, particularly the CTU. It not only wants to block meaningful assessments of teacher performance but also wants to dictate to principals which teachers they can hire.

The union’s position basically amounts to this: All teachers teach equally. And if some appear not to be doing their job, it is the fault of their students or the students’ home environment or school administrators. Therefore pay and job security should be based on longevity, with tenure protections so ominous that termination of even the worst teachers is too burdensome to even attempt. This is the mentality that brought us the infamous New York City “rubber rooms” for teachers who were accused of wrongdoing but could not be fired.

The interest of children is secondary to the interest of adults.

We must make children the priority by identifying and rewarding great teachers and weeding out ineffective ones who fail to improve.

This can be done by including student test data in job reviews. Test scores should not be the only factor in evaluating teachers. But they must play a role if we are to reform a system that has automatically bequeathed almost every teacher with a satisfactory rating. This is not a new idea. Dozens of states are planning to use test data in evaluations, and many teachers welcome having an objective measure of their abilities.

Not only does the CTU want to block this reform, it also wants to preclude principals from hiring the teachers they feel are the best fit for their students. Instead it wants to force principals to hire teachers who had been laid off from other schools, regardless of their abilities.

These positions increasingly fall out of the mainstream. Reform has been embraced by so many Democrats that it has become a bipartisan issue. This is particularly true with big-city mayors who see firsthand the impact failing schools have on low-income, minority children.

These are the students who can least afford an ineffective teacher. If they start the school year already behind academically and then lose a year of learning gains in the classroom, the achievement gap for them becomes a chasm impossible to bridge.

Making this situation worse, unions have fought charter schools and other options that give parents choices if they are not satisfied with their designated public school. This has led to a growing backlash against trapping children who can least afford it into failure factories.

It is why Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer for teachers, calls union leadership an “unwavering roadblock to reform.”

It is why, in June, Villaraigosa, Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia and Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Calif., led the U.S. Conference of Mayors in unanimously endorsing “parent-trigger” laws. These allow low-income parents to seize control of failing schools so they can rid them of ineffective administrators and teachers.

Chicago’s teachers certainly have a right to organize. But the CTU is on the wrong side of history, as are the national teacher unions hoping to make these negotiations their Maginot Line. At best, they can only hope to delay the inevitable.

Jeb Bush was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education. this oped originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 9/14/12.

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