The Worm in the Education Apple
Jude Wanniski
July 27, 2000


To: 'Club for Growth'
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Stephen Moore at His Best

When you folks decided to oppose Rep. Marge Roukema [R-NJ] in her re-election bid this year, because your new president, Steve Moore, decided she was not sufficiently “pro-growth,” I thought you were all off base. And I was delighted to see Marge win easily in her primary fight against your candidate, as attractive as he may be. My guess is that Steve Moore is just getting his feet on the ground in the real political world, as opposed to the ivory tower at the CATO institute, where he had been hanging out with his Ph.D. in economics for the last several years. When I was in Washington last week, I picked up the Washington Times and found Steve writing about “The Worm in the Economic Apple” and found him working at his best, making the case against the teachers’ union. It was chock full of good arguments and facts and figures that came closer to persuading me that we have to try vouchers than anything I had read during the past decade. Here it is....

“The Worm in the Apple”
By Stephen Moore
Washington Times “Commentary Section”
There is an old joke about teachers that goes like this: What are the three best reasons for becoming a teacher? June, July and August.

Lately there has been a massive propaganda campaign about the inferior pay that teachers receive for their nine-month-a-year jobs. Earlier this month the National Education Association (NEA) held its national convention in Chicago where the union publicized a study indicating that teachers are paid $30,000 a year less than computer engineers and other professionals. Robert Reich recently moaned in his National Public Radio editorial that we are never going to get better schools until we start paying teachers more. And many fast-growing communities complain there is a severe shortage of competent teachers. The message is: If parents want school quality, they are going to have to pony up for it.

If only the solution to better schools were just that simple. It is not. Most public school teachers are not paid less than a market wage, but more. There is a competitive marketplace for teachers and it is called the private school system. And guess what? Private school teachers are generally paid about 30 percent less — yes, less — than what their public school counterparts earn. In the Chicago area, Catholic school teachers are sometimes paid only half what the public school teachers earn. Yet, every objective testing measure on student performance indicates that private school teachers do a better job than public school teachers. Ahh, but the public school teachers complain the comparison is unfair. Private schools have other advantages, including the fact they can impose discipline, they can expel problem kids, and they have parents who are more engaged. True enough, but this only reinforces the point that teacher pay is mostly irrelevant when it comes to improving schools; it's these other factors that are critical to academic excellence.

Even if we examine just the performance of the public schools across the states, we find teacher pay is totally unrelated to student performance.

• North Dakota ranks 44th in per pupil expenditures, 49th in teacher salaries, and in the bottom ten of every measure of spending. But it ranks in the top five in almost all measures of student performance. South Dakota ranks dead last in teacher salaries. It ranks third in SAT scores.

• New Jersey spends twice what Utah does on schools and yet New Jersey ranks in the bottom 12 in test scores and dropout rates among the states, while Utah ranks in the top five in these achievement categories.

The problem with our schools is not teacher pay, it's the heavy hand of the unions. Today there are more than 4 million unionized teachers, 2.5 million of whom are members of the NEA. In 1960, only 20 percent of teachers were unionized — now 80 percent are. Back then public schools worked. Today a lot don't.

Nearly every meaningful school reform measure has been rejected over the years by the unions: teacher competency testing, true pay for performance, the abolition of tenure, vouchers, tuition tax credits, allowing professionals in other occupations to teach part time, and other promising experiments. Because of the job-for-life laws in most states, Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform reports that "in New York it can cost up to $200,000 to dismiss a teacher who is incompetent."

Ironically, at the same time the teachers are complaining about being woefully underpaid, they somehow found the discretionary income to afford to raise their union dues this year so they can raise more money to defeat Republican candidates in November. (Helping the Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives is a top NEA priority.) The NEA collects more than $250 million a year in dues from its "underpaid" clients. Big chunks of this money is diverted to promoting political causes — including abortion rights, gun control, national health care, and racial quotas — many of which have little to do with education. In August the teachers unions are expected to send more delegates to the Democratic Convention than any other special interest group. What makes this union especially insidious is that it is willing to hold our nation's 6-year-olds political hostage to achieve its self-serving agenda of higher pay.

More money for teachers won't buy better schools. What it will buy is more NEA funding for political causes, including opposition to parental choice reforms that would actually mean more competition and better schools. No wonder Forbes Magazine once described the teachers unions as "the worm in the education apple." Until parents have total control over where they send their kids to school, and who teaches them, teacher pay raises simply further entrench a system that is failing our children.

Stephen Moore is president of the Club for Growth.