Democrats' education agenda would jeopardize state-level success

Democrats' education agenda would jeopardize state-level success
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Creativity isn’t Washington, D.C.’s, strongest suit.

In 2016, Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanBiden's relationship with top House Republican is frosty The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney Budowsky: Liz Cheney vs. conservatives in name only MORE and the Republicans in Congress ran on “A Better Way” agenda. Last year, Congressional Democrats, led by Representative Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiIncreasingly active younger voters liberalize US electorate Sunday shows preview: House GOP removes Cheney from leadership position; CDC issues new guidance for fully vaccinated Americans The Memo: Lawmakers on edge after Greene's spat with Ocasio-Cortez MORE (D-Calif.) and Senator Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerBiden 'encouraged' by meeting with congressional leaders on infrastructure Republicans welcome the chance to work with Democrats on a bipartisan infrastructure bill Cheney sideshow distracts from important battle over Democrats' partisan voting bill MORE (D-N.Y.), announced the highly original “A Better Deal.” This spring they rolled out the K-12 education portion of it and this too lacks creativity.  It promises to centralize power in Washington D.C., undermine state education reform efforts, and undo collective bargaining reform laws, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s historic Act 10. If it reads like a wish list from the teachers’ unions, that’s because it is.

For starters, the Pelosi-Schumer plan enshrines a federally protected “right of public employees to join unions (and) collectively bargain.” Putting aside how the U.S. Supreme Court in Janus v. AFSCME could make compelled union membership unconstitutional, this proposal would rollback the many states that have undergone significant collective bargaining reform in recent years.


In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature passed Act 10, a historic reform of collective bargaining that essentially limited bargaining between public employees and local officials to wage negotiations.  Union bosses were removed from employment negotiations between teachers and school administrators and school districts were liberated from arcane and restrictive seniority-based pay systems. This unleashed a wave of merit-pay reforms, allowing districts to pay more for the best teachers.  And even though Act 10 saved taxpayers over $5 billion, it had no negative impact on classroom size or the average teacher experience, according to a 2016 study we conducted at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.

This reform — and similar ones in Iowa, Michigan, and Tennessee — would be in jeopardy by what would be an unprecedented federal overreach by the Democrats in Washington, D.C., to compel states and municipalities to collectively bargain with their employees.

In addition, Pelosi and Schumer want to dedicate $50 billion to states and school districts to increase teacher compensation and “recruit and retain a strong, diverse workforce over the next 10 years.”  They cite a 2015 study indicating a decline in K-12 public education funding due to the recession.

In many states the decline in K-12 per student spending has already been reversed. Consider the Badger State again. Last year, Gov. Walker and Republican legislative majorities actually increased school funding. Even before the increase, Wisconsin ranked 23rd in the country for public-school spending. Wisconsin’s teacher salaries ranked 14th in the country, when adjusted for cost of living expenses.   

While the Democrats effectively promise free federal money, voters should remember that coercive strings are always attached. The Bush-era No Child Left Behind (NCLB) forced states to enact certain accountability laws in order to receive federal funds. This became a historic debacle, creating a number of bad incentives, such as threatening states with sanctions if students test scores did not improve, with little to show for it in results.

In addition, the Democrats want to create a $50 billion fund for school infrastructure because “students and educators deserve 21st Century classrooms and up-to-date educational technology and materials.” Yet, instead of helping all students and schools, the Democrats “better deal” is apparently only for traditional public schools. It ignores states’ efforts to promote school choice and alternative forms of education.

This means that the roughly 442,475 children in places like Milwaukee, New Orleans and Phoenix, who use a voucher to attend a private school of their choosing, according to American Federation for Children, would be left out in the cold.

Of the 18 random assignment studies conducted on school voucher programs across the country, 13 found positive outcomes for students with a voucher, according to an EdChoice analysis, while only two found a negative effect. Rather than support states’ efforts to promote school choice — 29 states and the District of Columbia have some educational choice program — the Pelosi-Schumer plan seeks to only help out their union allies in traditional public schools.             

If Pelosi and Schumer want to offer a real better deal that would focus on educating our students, the answer is not a teachers union’s wish list, but to minimize the role of Washington, D.C., and let states pursue the policies known to help their children.

CJ Szafir is executive vice president of Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. He has been involved with litigation relating to school districts violating Act 10, promoting school choice for children with special needs, and pushing back against burdensome regulations. He was appointed by Governor Scott Walker to the Wisconsin Real Estate Board and Council on Mental Health.

Libby Sobic is associate counsel for education law and policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. She has co-authored policy reports, including a memo on the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).