The Customers in Public Education Are the Parents

Original Article

This has been quite a month for parents of students in our state.

First, our Supreme Court, on a Friday afternoon before a three-day weekend, decides our charter-school law is unconstitutional. The law was filed as an initiative, and then voters approved it.

Now, after the opening of eight charter schools, we find out the initiative was unconstitutional. Frankly, this smells more like politics than it does about the law. The losers here are the parents of children who both want and deserve a better educational opportunity than provided by their local schools.

Then came the Seattle teacher’s strike causing 53,000 children to remain on summer vacation for an extra week. There are many culprits to blame for this sorry state of affairs. First, it was the Legislature for failing to address the inequitable funding system we now have, wherein levies, in high property-value districts, can create very uneven funding for schools. The union knows this issue must eventually be dealt with and, when it is, some districts will lose funding and others will gain. Seattle may be one of the districts that loses funding. Thus, the union wanted to get as much as it could before those cutbacks occurred.

The second culprit was the Seattle school district. We have had five superintendents over the last decade; with that type of turnover, it is impossible to develop relationships with either the union or district employees. Thus, there is a lack of trust on both their parts. Stability of management is essential if we are to have harmonious relationships with both groups.

The district is also guilty of allowing the contract issue to get to September before serious negotiations occurred. The contract should have been negotiated long before and the public should have been kept informed of the progress or lack thereof. Also, the district did a poor job of public relations with regard to its own position and the rationale for it.

The third culprit is the union. Frankly, one has to give it credit for doing an excellent job of meeting its customers’ needs. The union’s mission is threefold:

  • Maximize member compensation
  • Improve member working conditions
  • Preserve member employment

The union has been extraordinarily successful at all three. However, you will note that all of those issues are adult-focused and none has anything to do with the education of children. As a consequence, when the union focuses on those three items, rather than maximizing the education of children, the people who suffer are the children and their parents. This has been the situation for decades.

During the strike, all the power was in the hands of the union. Parents, and even the Seattle City Council, ganged up on the Seattle School Board and the superintendent to get the strike settled as quickly as possible. No matter how long the strike had lasted, teachers would not lose any money, as the state requires students to go to class 180 days a year, regardless of when the school year commences. Ultimately, the union won much of what it had sought — and the kids have returned to school and the financial condition of the district will further deteriorate.

In each case, the loser is the parent. All that changed is that teachers make more money, but there will be little extra money for other needs. Academic achievement will not improve, schools will not get better and we will see the teacher’s union demand more money in three years when the contract comes up for renewal.

Isn’t it time to fix our education system to one that focuses on the needs of its customers? Those customers are the parents. When that occurs, not only would our children benefit, but so would school employees and the taxpayer.

Donald Nielsen

Senior Fellow and Chairman, American Center for Transforming Education
Donald P. Nielsen is a Senior Fellow of Discovery Institute and Chairman of the Institute's program on public education reform. For nearly 30 years, he has devoted his life work to transforming public education. For two years, he traveled the country studying America's public education system and authored, Every School: One Citizen’s Guide to Transforming Education. Mr. Nielsen was awarded the Harvard Business School's 2004 Alumni Achievement Award. In 2009, he received the Leadership Award from the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington.