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David Kirkpatrick


The NEA and Vouchers

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

The National Education Association first condemned vouchers at its 1970 convention in San Francisco. The organization's leadership was concerned about a study done for the Office of Economic Opportunity. The project was authorized during the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson but was completed while Richard Nixon was President. Thus it, in effect, was backed by both a Democratic and Republican administration. Plus, Nixon was looking for a school district that would attempt a five-year project to test the idea. This happened in Alum Rock California.

As then-President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and chairman of its delegation to the convention (I gave a nominating speech for the successful candidate for the NEA presidency, as I did again in 1973), I thought opposing an education idea without being willing to try it was a mistake. Further, although it was a futile gesture in a voice vote by thousands of delegates, many members of my delegation joined me in opposition.

Upon returning to Pennsylvania, I put this concern in writing in a President's message in the Journal magazine which the Association published at that time. In subsequent travels around the state during the remaining months of my presidency, I frequently included in my remarks support for trying vouchers.

The idea was well ahead of its time, and it would be overstating the case to say there was a rallying to the cause. Even so, it is accurate to note that not one of the more than 100,000 members of PSEA, or members of the Board of directors, or staff, criticized my stand to me personally or in any public forum of which I am aware. To the contrary, there were teachers who agreed with me.

Another development at the time. was an anonymous personal opinion survey in Phi Delta Kappan which found that more than 40% of the teachers were favorably inclined to try a voucher program.

But after years of condemnation by virtually all of the educational establishment, hearing only one side of the story, being told the system will be destroyed and their jobs lost,, the majority of teachers have bought the party line—even though they may have never studied, and have little or no knowledge of, that which they oppose.

Most of those who feel otherwise can be kept quiet by peer pressure and other threats.

In my own case, as the author of Choice in Schooling in late 1990, subsequently a Featured Alternate of the Conservative Book Club in early 1991, and an ongoing outspoken proponent of school choice, I was officially condemned at a PSEA convention in December of 1991 — in my absence it might be noted. I was notified nearly three weeks later, by mail.

So much for academic freedom, due process, self-determination by teachers, and other good things which the union says it supports. Besides being a past state and local, president, I am a Life Member of the PSEA, the NEA, and the affiliate of each for retired members. It would seem that member rights don't matter very much where the union's interests are concerned.

An irony here, if my views are correct, is that school choice, which is almost universally supported on the basis of its value for students, would also be in the best interests of teachers. If, to cite one possibility, students who are unhappy or failing in their present schools, could transfer to settings more acceptable to them many pressures teachers presently face would be alleviated.

Furthermore, school choice opens opportunities for the teachers themselves to go elsewhere. The evidence that they might do so in significant numbers has become clear with the creation of charter schools in the past two decades. It has been a common experience for such schools to be swamped with applicants for teaching positions, most of whom were often public school teachers. As but one example, a prospective charter school in a major city, reported that it had some 1600 applicants for its 40 teaching positions.

It's been said there is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

234 years after Adam Smith proposed it in The Wealth of Nations, the time for school choice is arriving.

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