TCS Daily

As Florida Goes...

By Ryan H. Sager - June 1, 2005 12:00 AM

What a wonderful win it could be for the Democratic Party: a lawsuit by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers yanking hundreds of low-income students out of successful public and private schools and stuffing them back into the failing public schools from whence they came.

These are the stakes as one of the most important school-choice lawsuits in the country, Holmes v. Bush (that's Jeb Bush), comes before Florida's Supreme Court this June.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that school-voucher programs don't violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, provided parents direct where the money goes, not the state. Left unresolved, however, is to what extent state constitutional amendments banning state aid to religious schools -- known as Blaine amendments, after the nativist Speaker of the House and failed presidential candidate James Blaine -- can thwart these same voucher programs.

Florida, along with more than 30 other states, has a Blaine amendment, so its Opportunity Scholarships Program is open to attack from teachers unions that pretend to care about "separation of church and state," when all they really care about is preventing the separation of unionized teachers from their paychecks.

The fate of the Florida case is impossible to predict, and whatever the Florida Supreme Court does, it will eventually be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But what's clear now is that the teachers unions are losing the education debate in America, and they're losing it badly. They can keep fighting school-choice initiatives across America -- whether they be voucher programs or publicly funded, privately run charter schools -- but parents want choice, and they can't be denied forever.

In short, the unions are out of ideas, and they're out of ways to run.

Recent events in New York City have been revealing. Faced with the success of the state's charter school movement -- where non-unionized, lightly regulated schools have been running circles around traditional public schools in poor neighborhoods -- the local teachers union has been looking to find ways to justify its incompetence-protecting contract.

Their bright idea? Apply to start a charter school themselves.

Now, many charter-school supporters have clenched their teeth and welcomed the idea. After all, the philosophy of the movement is to let a thousand flowers bloom -- and then mow down the ones that don't bloom brilliantly enough.

But when The New York Post got an early look at the United Federation of Teachers' application, it was pretty much a parody of what handing over the asylum to the inmates might look like.


* Charter schools typically improve student performance in very a simple way: giving kids a lot more class time.

Schools like the KIPP Academy in the South Bronx, for instance, run from 7:25 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and a half day on Saturdays; KIPP also has a mandatory summer school that boosts its school year to 220 days, as opposed to the 180-day teachers-contract year. At its proposed charter school, by contrast, the UFT would give teachers new (paid) "professional development opportunities," while giving students not one extra minute of class time.

* Another key to the success of charter schools is the wide-ranging freedom principals have to pick their staffs and hire and fire as necessary.

In the UFT charter school, though, every staffing decision the poor school leader (not a principal, mind you) made would be subject to review by various committees made up of UFT delegates, UFT-represented teachers, parents and other "stakeholders."

* Lastly, many of the most successful charter schools have pursued a back-to-basics approach to the curriculum, making use of traditional, as opposed to "progressive," instructional methods.

UFT President Randi Weingarten has herself been supportive of such an approach and highly critical of New York City's use of the so-called progressive programs. Yet, the UFT decided to use relatively "progressive" math and reading curricula. Weingarten has admitted that she's uncomfortable with these programs, but she simply doesn't seem able to defy the lefty education-school operatives that have infested her union (not to mention every single major school district in the country).

The fact is, the unions have reached a dead end. They know that they're losing the debate and that they need to try something new. But they're so tied to their industrial-union model, where job protection is their North Star, that they can't do anything that leads them too far out of their way.

They can continue to bully for a while, based on their political and financial muscle -- union members are the only reliable voters, especially in urban school districts -- but eventually even that won't work as a new generation of Democratic leaders begins to realize that their constituents won't take it any more.

Democrats are getting the message in New York as the union's support crumbles. Democrats in Florida might start to get a taste of it as their teachers-union allies pick a high-profile fight with poor kids.

Ryan Sager is a member of the editorial board of The New York Post. He also edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections and can be reached at


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