May 11

Can addressing the educational needs of the soul be achieved in a society that insists on perpetually misinterpreting our Constitution’s “Establishment Clause”, such that “separation of church and state” is the rule of the day? Is a strict separation of church and state even healthy to the respective parts?

These were the questions I posed to Joseph Pagnozzi, co-founder and President of The Montfort Academy, at the end of the first installment of my interview with him several weeks ago.

Continue reading at Forbes Opinions…


Apr 09

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”   Such are the profound words of Jesus as told by the Apostle Matthew (NIV 16:26).  At least one educator in the country believes that’s precisely the problem with education today, and he’s championing that message via the small private school he founded and runs in northern Westchester County, New York.

Continue reading at Forbes Opinions…

Aug 31

Across the United States, millions of families are entering that perennial time period of anticipation, anxiety, excitement and hustle-bustle: Back To School.   In the majority of cases, parents choose their schools for their children indirectly, by moving into a neighborhood where the public schools meet their needs.  In a large minority of cases, families are stuck with the public school tied to their zip code, unable for one reason or another to move to better pastures.

In a smaller minority of cases, a private school is selected and paid for, often while simultaneously paying the local taxes that fund their would-be public school.   Some of these private schools choose their students with rigorous admission processes, where the applicants voluntarily subject themselves to all sorts of trial and tribulation, firm in their beliefs that the rewards will justify the means.

And in the tiniest minority, when like an “oversubscribed” bond offering the school has more applicants than slots, the school chooses the students randomly, by lottery.

What would make any parent reach for such a brass ring? A powerful independent documentary, “The Lottery”,  directed by Madeleine Sackler and released late in April seeks to shed some light on this situation.   It’s a film that no parent, voter, or teachers union member, should miss. Continue reading »

May 16

Talk with a typical liberal-leaning voter and soon enough you’ll find that reducing income-inequality ranks as one of their most vaunted public policy goals:  just about any legislation can be justified as righteous if it claims to hit that mark.

In discussing income inequality, the liberal commentariat will invariably point to some kind of statistic showing that the gap between the people at either end of the earnings bell curve “has never been wider”.   Or put differently, “the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer”.    What these people miss, as economists like Thomas Sowell and Alan Reynolds have repeatedly demonstrated, is that the people at any given percentile of the curve change over time.   As Sowell says when talking about supposedly stagnant household incomes:

“The problem is you’re talking about households, rather than flesh and blood human beings.   One of the real fallacies that runs through a lot of talk about income is confusing statistical categories with actual flesh and blood people.”

Income Inequality Sowell vs. Krugman

Essentially then, static comments made about a dynamic curve are meaningless.   By contrast, longitudinal studies following particular people over the course of their earning careers tend to show upward trends.

It turns out that one group of people, tracked longitudinally, have been on a particularly nice up-slope: public sector employees.   Continue reading »

Oct 03

Something’s askew with President Obama’s stance towards unions.

As reported by Neil King Jr. in a September 30th Wall Street Journal article,  Education Secretary Arne Duncan is staring down opposition from the teachers’ unions in his bid to (gasp!) improve outcomes within public schools through the promotion of charter schools, merit pay, and changing the rules for hiring and firing teachers.   Duncan’s plans reflect Obama’s vision from his campaign, and as someone who considers himself entirely pro-teacher, but anti-teacher-union, I want to applaud and give credit where due.

But such support flies in the face of Obama’s otherwise strong support for union organizing and one would think by extension, what unions are all about.   Such support includes the promotion of the Orwellian-named “Employee Free Choice Act” where simply put, workers would lose their right to a secret ballot on whether or not to have a union.   You read that correctly, and it is comical to listen to union leaders try to defend the proposal.      Note that the March 6, 2009 low in the S&P500 was within days of the revelation that EFCA  might not be the legislative layup many people anticipated.

Reviewing the text of Obama’s September 15th speech to the AFL-CIO, where he spoke of the need to grow the nation’s labor unions, it is impossible to not see the similarities in his descriptions of the state of labor in the early 1930’s and the state of big government today:

“It was a tough place for workers in the 1930s. “A benevolent dictatorship,” said the local steel boss. Labor had no rights. The foreman’s whim ruled the day, and the company hired workers from different lands and different races, the better to keep them divided, it was thought at the time.”

Isn’t Obama himself relishing the opportunity to be nothing less than a benevolent dictator?   His stable of “czars”, upwards of two dozen depending on who’s counting, could be straight out of Stalin’s Russia of the 1930’s.   Rahm Emanuel, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid play the roles of foremen very well, thank you.   And the very presence of a union in any company acts to keep labor and management divided.

Specifically regarding merit pay, if it is appropriate for teachers, how is it not appropriate for all workers?    Yet one does not suspect that unions are chomping at the bit to see EFCA passed so that they can then push merit pay for all.   As Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association has said, “If you pay one teacher more you have to pay someone else less.”    Merit pay contradicts the very essence of a union’s purpose, which is to promote equality and unity of the group at the expense of the individual.   Any principal who might be inclined to pay their standout teachers more may in fact be restricted by their need to then pay all teachers more, including those not deserving.   Obama can not simultaneously encourage the creation and expansion of unions, but be against their most fundamental philosophies.

A clear alternative

It is instructive to envision a potential public school system without a union.   It would start with the district superintendent, hired by the school board, a body that must answer to the voters.   The superintendent’s mandate would be to implement the vision and objectives of the voters as discerned by the school board.   The superintendent would in turn hire the management staff of each of the schools in the district: principals, assistant principals as well as district-wide administrators.    In turn, each of the principals would hire the staff of their particular school, coordinating with the district wherever operational efficiencies can be gained.   Department heads, working closely with the principal, would complete the staffing process with teachers and assistants.

Teacher compensation and school operating procedures would be dictated entirely by the management of the school district, according to whatever standards and requirements were necessary to hire the proper staff.  Principals could use any number of techniques, including sign-on bonuses, short or long-term contracts and performance bonuses, customized work schedules and job descriptions, etc., as they see fit. The principal might consider soliciting regular feedback from parents about all aspects of staff performance, and the superintendent might do likewise for their principals.

Competition between school districts would ensure that they treated their teachers fairly.  The best teachers would quickly see their value rise in the marketplace, and a district would have every incentive to keep them happy, according to a personalized definition of happiness as defined by each particular teacher.   To some it might mean more pay.  To others, greater flexibility in scheduling or job description, or any combination of factors.  Likewise, principals would have total flexibility over replacing teachers that were not meeting performance standards.    Measurement of performance would exist at all stages in the system, with the buck ultimately stopping at the public voting booth.

There’s actually nothing novel about such a system.   It’s already in place at thousands of highly successful public companies large and small around the world, with shareholders and customers voting with their dollars in real-time.  And they don’t have unions.

“But hey, schools are different!   How can a principal have so much control over a teacher’s job when their class may have any number of challenges that change year to year? A teacher can’t pick their students!  How could a teacher’s performance ever be fairly evaluated, with their compensation controlled by that?”   Indeed, at a dinner years ago where I sat next to the local teachers’ union president, he described these very concerns to me at length.

These concerns are a complete red herring.  Hundreds of millions of employees work effectively with their management teams to solve tremendously difficult problems all the time and have done so for decades.    It is what makes them “professionals”.    None of this is to suggest that today’s teachers are not professionals.   Hardly.   But the above system would respect that professionalism more, attract and retain the best and most qualified personnel, treat them as individuals and not segregate them into groups of convenience, and produce a better product for the customer – the students, parents and taxpayers.

Perhaps you think that the school dynamic represents the most challenging managerial problem conceivable.   It still does not follow that the solution would involve inserting a group of people unaccountable to the customer, a group whose very presence guarantees the introduction of additional complexity and inefficiency between the two parties involved, into the equation.   Yes there are occasionally times for “mediation”, but why require building that in from the start?

As parents we’ve already done the hard part:  We’ve entrusted our most valuable possessions, our children, to the staff of our school system.   So why can’t we trust the school staff, working closely with us as parents and voters to come up with fair and reasonable organizational systems that all can live with, ones that work best to meet the objectives of the voters?  And if there are laws in place that prevent the above from happening, like New York’s Taylor Law, then that is where legislative action must take place.   We need to start thinking about some basic questions:  What do the teachers’ unions do to advance the goal of providing a great education at a reasonable and sustainable cost, and why is their existence even necessary?  Just who’s running our school districts anyway?   Who should be running them?

With successes like those seen in Philadelphia, teachers’ unions are terrified by the prospect of more widely exposing themselves as an emperor with no clothes.   Unions in general have seen their ideas losing attraction in the marketplace, in the form of steadily declining memberships, and are now seeking to use the force of big government to achieve their goals.  We should all have the “audacity of hope” to see that campaign politics stay out of this trend.

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