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Alternative Schooling Emerges

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation

Major institutions, such as the public schools, do not change without external ideas and pressure, and anyone who tries to implement substantive change can expect to be attacked.

Jackie DuCote spent years trying to reform education in Louisiana, including gaining passage of more than 50 major education reform laws from 1977-87. She said those efforts were consistently "watered down, ignored, not implemented properly, taken to court by teacher unions or others, mired down in political turf battles, or not funded," even if the money was there.

She learned that those promoting serious educational change can expect:

1. To be cast as an adversary.
2.To have their credibility questioned and their involvement challenged
3. To have roadblocks thrown in their way, particularly by delaying tactics.
4. To be outnumbered at most forums at which they propose change.
5. To spend endless hours in meetings.
6. To become increasingly frustrated. and
7. To be involved in a long-term effort.

And, it might be added, to lose more times than they win. So, why try?

First, because the educational future of millions of youngsters depends on changing the system, and

Second, because in many instances reformers only have to win once. For example, school choice, once established, is not subsequently abolished. Charter school laws which led to alternative schools, of which here are now about 4,500, enrolling more than 1,300,000 students, give impetus for the movement to spread.

Former National Education Association (NEA) President Keith Geiger once told his troops they must win everywhere; they can't afford to lose anywhere. He's right. But, while he meant that as a goad to action on their part, it is, in fact, an admission of ultimate failure because no one wins everywhere every time, and teacher unions won't either.

Even among the union's ranks there is a growing interest in educational issues. The union's loss of credibility is leaving it out of the equation of change even where they might have something to offer. A classic, and still unusual example of this, came when a number of reforms were passed by the Kentucky legislature some years ago. State Senator Michael Moloney explained that this was possible because not only were all education lobbyists left out of the discussions but so were the members of the legislative education committees, except for the chairs. This was done because of a belief that you can't count on those who are part of a problem to be part of the solution.

The teacher unions may be following a classic pattern of destructive obstruction experienced by other unions.

There was a time, 50-60 years ago, when John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers could almost shut the nation down, a risk so real that then-President Harry Truman threatened to call out the army if the UMW called a nationwide strike. Certainly the miners had legitimate concerns. Coal mining was, and still is, dangerous work. But in misusing their power they brought about changes that worked to their own disadvantage. Today the UMW, and other major unions, such as the steelworkers and autoworkers are but shadows of their former selves.

The teacher unions may be headed in the same direction.

Occasionally, some totally unexpected event changes the outlook for change.

One such was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The loss of life and physical damage was horrendous. New Orleans in particular was devastated and both the city's school district and local teachers' union were largely destroyed. This necessitated almost starting from scratch and the removal of the union as an obstacle provided an opportunity to demonstrate what might be possible. As a result, reforms, in particular those involving choice and charter schools, have led to significant gains for students that exceed anything that Jackie DuCote and her colleagues perhaps even imagined in their Ten Years on the Road to Nowhere in school reform.

More than 30 years ago Thomas Hopkins wrote in the education journal Phi Delta Kappan, that

"History shows that in crises the people in power tend to refine and intensify the status quo system which eventually destroys them. This is the present movement in education."

Events in New Orleans and elsewhere show this need not be.
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