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Kamala Harris goes too far in her plan to improve public education


In a bold move for her 2020 bid for the White House, Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California rolled out a federal education proposal that would “invest” in teacher pay across the country. What the plan lacks in details, it makes up for with broad federal overreach into public school operations at a time when teachers, principals, and parents desperately need less bureaucracy rather than more. News coverage has focused on the incredible cost of the plan at $315 billion and its implications for the presidential ambitions of Harris, yet left unexamined is the hidden hand of unions seeking a lease on life in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling.

An ally of public unions, which invested heavily in Harris in her rise in California politics, her new proposal seeks to bolster her alliance with big labor going into a crowded primary race. The timing is no surprise. The Supreme Court ruling in Janus versus American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees revoked the ability of public unions to require dues as a condition of employment. It also shifted the battle lines in the public education debate. Since the ruling last year, unions have tried a variety of tactics to keep teachers paying their dues whether they want to or not. In fact, my law firm has partnered with the Freedom Foundation to represent several teachers that are currently suing the California Teachers Association to stop this forced dues collection.

{mosads}Now that teachers are free to leave, public unions are beginning to feel the financial pinch, but Harris is poised to come to the aid of her old friends, while leaving unaddressed the root issues causing poor school performance. Public schools do indeed lack resources, class sizes are too large, and many immigrant students do not speak English. These obstacles make it difficult to learn and hard to teach. Increasing the role of the federal government here will not solve any of these problems.

The problems in public school system are institutional but the solutions belong at the local level. We can start by decentralizing large districts, giving greater autonomy to principals, rewarding effective teachers and letting the bad ones go, strengthening families and communities, and empowering parents to choose the right school for their child. These are all solid ways to improve public education without vastly expanding the role of the federal government in what is a fundamentally local issue.

We see this at charter schools, which may offer various learning models and thus meet the needs of individual students. Charter schools have the independence to try new approaches tailored to their communities and can adapt more quickly than schools that are part of a turgid bureaucracy, yet they are also held accountable for student outcomes. Unfortunately, the unions see charter school success as a direct threat. It is unsurprising that when Los Angeles teachers went on strike earlier this year, increasing teacher pay was not their top priority. Stopping charter school expansion was. Unions continue to blame charter schools for many of their woes.

The unions feel threatened by charters and by the decision Janus, in part because groups like the Freedom Foundation have informed workers of their rights, resulting in more than 40,000 public employees, many of them teachers, leaving their unions on the west coast. Teachers unions are responding with duplicitous and strong arm tactics, continuing to collect dues from many teachers without their consent, and seeking other means to expand their reach such as the strike effort in Los Angeles.

While pandering to unions seems like a no brainer for candidates in the Democratic primary, their strong alliance is in direct opposition to the preferences of much of the Democratic base. Urban and minority voters overwhelmingly support school choice, and charter school enrollment is on the rise. In many poor neighborhoods with failing schools, charter schools provide a lifeline for families. They are free and open to all, regardless of where students live. A recent study by the Federation for Children found that 66 percent of voters in metro areas, 73 percent of Latinos and 67 percent of African Americans support school choice.

Instead of proposing real solutions such as empowering parents and families, expanding school choice, and rewarding top teachers, Harris would rather throw federal dollars at teachers and help unions amass more power in Washington by giving them a federal say in salaries. This is misguided public policy at best and political pandering at worst. Harris should beware, however, because her plan could backfire once voters realize their proposal means more power for Uncle Sam and union bosses, less choice for parents, and continued inadequate results for students.

Harmeet Dhillon is a civil rights and business litigation attorney based in California. She is a partner at Dhillon Law Group and vice president of communications for the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Tags California Education Government Supreme Court Unions

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