Restoring American Exceptionalism – Chicago Townhall

-By Warner Todd Huston

I just got back from a wonderful evening taking school choice at the Restoring American Exceptionalism, Chicago Townhall. In attendance were radio talk show host Michael Medved, Fox News contributor Juan Williams, and Dr. Paul Worfel, Director of Education of Trinity International University. The discussion was moderated by John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute.

The event was sponsored by National School Choice Week, an effort by Americans for Prosperity, and is one of many events being held across the country to encourage parents, legislators, and activists to work toward allowing parents a choice in their children's education. Co-sponsors were, Salem Radio Networks, and Chicago's WIND Radio, AM 560

Arriving at the sprawling campus of Trinity International University of Deerfield, Illinois, the biting cold outside was quickly forgotten by the warm reception all received by the event staff. The program started promptly with an introduction by local radio host Big John Howell of AM 560, WIND radio who turned the program over to John Tillman of the Illinois Policy Institute.

The night’s debate was nicely balanced from right, center and left with a panel featuring the conservative side of the debate on education represented by talk show host Michael Medved, the center represented by Fox News contributor Juan Williams, and the more traditional educrat's position taken by Dr. Worfel.

I won't repeat the whole discussion, but here are some of the more interesting (and some might say provocative) highlights.

Juan Williams was one of the first to reply to Mr. Tillman's prompting and in no uncertain terms he pointed out that unions and parents are basically at odds with "quite distinct missions" in mind for our American education system. The education establishment, Williams said, was separated between unions interested in their own needs and students and their parents that want a better education for kids.

This is all damaging education in America. "You'll find that American children are falling behind and in terms of the global economy our education system is failing children in both the inner cities and the suburbs," Williams lamented.

"One child in America drops out of school every 26 seconds. That is a national crisis," Williams said.

Worse, these kids that drop out are now at a severe disadvantage when starting out their lives. "What do these kids do," Williams asked. "They dream they are going to be a rapper, they dream they are going to be an NBA star." This is all unrealistic, Williams said. "It's criminal and I think its led to a crisis in American education."

Interview with Michael Medved on school choice

Mr. Tillman chimed in to note that because of unions, improving education is difficult at best "It's very difficult to hold bad teachers to account and difficult to reward good teachers. How do we wrest it from the teacher's unions?"

Williams went on to point out that one of the biggest problems is the preponderance of single parent families. "We need to talk about the achievement gaps based on the kids that come from single parent families compared to two parent families," he said.

Williams also pointed out that the black culture in America is detrimental to the success of minorities. How can black kids succeed when they are told to avoid looking or sounding intelligent? "How totally insulting is it when people say 'you're acting white' when you succeed," Williams said.

Michael Medved expanded on that by decrying the lack of Americanism in the classroom. "This is the only country in the history of the earth that was started based on a good idea," he said. "But today, kids don't learn the basic Americanism that is going to be crucial for their later success."

Mr. Tillman then went into more discussion of teachers unions saying that 9 of the top ten best schools for graduation rates in Illinois are charter schools, institutions that don’t have to worry much about union influence. Tillman also noted that public education did not start getting unionized until the mid 60s and that is exactly when results started to go downhill.

Dr. Worfel hastened to note that the influx of unions into education doesn't necessarily equate as cause and effect in the downturn in educational outcomes in America. Worfel reminded the audience that it was also in the1960s when students that weren't included in the past had flooded the system. Minority students that were offered a lesser standard of education previously were bound to cause results to fall once they were included in the whole system, he insisted.

Williams, however, was focused on the need to allow parents a larger part in their children's education. "The heart of education is power to the parents," he said. "Parents are interested in getting their children into the best schools. Choice is absolutely at the heat of the answer."

But Williams worried over the fact that too many parents are not as involved as they should be. "Why aren't parents up in arms? They should be leading this fight." But Williams was sure that given a choice, "parents will make the right decision."

Interview with Juan Williams on school choice

So where do we go from here? Medved offered an idea.

"How do you break the power of teachers unions so that they serve the students instead of the union? Here's the bargain: we will allow the tax increases that legislators and schools want IF as a corresponding benefit there is more choice in education. Some of that tax money needs to go back to the student. That would be our grand bargain."

Shortly afterward, the subject of the recall effort being launched by progressives in Wisconsin against Governor Scott Walker, an education reformer, was broached. Williams was disgusted at the whole scene.

"The recall in Wisconsin has just become a union-funded effort to oust the governor. But he was democratically elected. To me this is like the Empire Strikes Back, the unions are saying in terms of school reform it's not going to happen. But it's not about that, it's about making schools more accountable and giving parents power through school choice."

As the night neared its end during the questions and answer period one of the inevitable questions arose from a conservative audience of ending the federal Department of Education. Part of Williams' answer dwelled on the fact that various governors and mayors have been forced to take control of their own education systems and that government intervention is often quite necessary. Medved agreed but not to the extent that that involvement needed to go as high as the federal government.

"Sometimes Governors do have to step in and rescue failing schools. They do. But that doesn't mean that presidents do," Medved said.

"The problem with a Dept. of Education is, what sense does it make to take money from someone in Libertyville, send the money to Washington DC, and then for them to determine under what circumstances and in what amount that money will go back to Libertyville! Let the money stay home."

In all, it was a very uplifting and informative debate. If a National School Choice Week event is happening near you I urge you to attend. To see if there is an event in your area, check out the schedule of events.

After the event I was had the opportunity to discuss school choice with both Medved and Williams. Please take the few minutes to watch the videos I made of these encounters.

Finally, I’d like to say that it was fitting to see Mr. Tillman leading the discussion as moderator because the Illinois Policy Institute has been an education reform leader in the Land of Lincoln and has spent a lot of energy working to steer Illinois toward reform and school choice. On its webpage, the Institute laments the failure recent school choice legislation in Illinois, but notes some success regardless.

Illinois’ record on school choice improved last year but nowhere near as boldly as the other states. Following the defeat of a pilot program voucher bill for Chicago’s poorest students in May of 2010, the legislature retreated on the issue. However, they did begin to focus on altering the measurement and accountability of public schools. Through the new “Performance Counts” law, the practice of “Last in, First Out” was completely ended. Teachers are no longer hired and fired based solely on their seniority. For the first time, student outcomes can be taken into account when judging a teacher’s performance in the classroom. The Charter School Quality Act created an independent commission to approve requests for new downstate and suburban charter schools. These were key steps on the road to a true overhaul and reformation of the system.

More work needs to be done, of course, but at least the work of introducing the concept is fairly begun.

Join the fight for school choice.

Me and Michael Medved

Me and Juan Williams


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  • I'll join the fight for school choice when it doesn't involve the absurd notion that my tax dollars belong to me once I've remitted them and I am not entitled to earmark them for the school of my choice (vouchers). I already have the choice to send my kids to a private school.

    In what realm of public policy do vouchers currently exist? Can I choose my own fire department? Can I opt for ADP over my local police? Can I stop contributing to the park district if I already have a membership at the Y?

    The school choice movement, while well-intentioned, fails to see the long-term effects of public-private partnerships on educational outcomes.

    Here's a simple lesson in economics; school overhead exists whether it is owned by the taxpayers or a private institution. Buildings, heat, water, electric, insurance, maintenance, and repair are constant. Buses, gas, maintenance, insurance, depreciation and repair also remain constant. The only variable is the pay for administrators, teachers, and support staff.

    A charter school, run by a private corporation, will continue to receive the taxpayer subsidy for facilities and transportation while transferring savings in teacher salaries to management and shareholders. How will paying teachers less money attract the elusive "best and brightest" to enter and remain in the profession? Answer; it won't.

    School choice, as currently proposed, is yet another taxpayer rip-off, transferring tax dollars to for-profit corporations at the expense of the true service providers - experienced educators - without ever having to deliver a better product. There is not enough empirical data to show a track record of success for charter schools, particularly when you factor in their selective enrollment practices.

    If you honestly ask yourself why one school - not a school district, but a single school - outperforms another and there are any number of variables at play. Neighborhood demographics - income, # of stay-at-home moms, education level of parents, etc, - experience level of teaching staff, administrative philosophy, resources - the list goes on and on and is impossible to compare objectively from school to school.

    Parents that want a better education for their children already have a choice. They can choose to participate. They can take the time to get to know the teacher and the staff. Review homework with their children. Get involved in the PTA. And yes, they can choose to spend money out of their own pocket to send their children to private schools. Choice exists - it's the value people choose to put on it that is in question.

    Voucher systems, if allowed to be implemented, will take money from the poorest schools and transfer it to for-profit operations. The outcomes for the public school students will drop when drained of resources while taxpayer dollars will no longer flow to those "greedy union teachers" but to, wait for it "greedy education corporations". How, exactly, does this guarantee a better outcome for either the public or private school student?

    The dirty little secret in this bogus "school choice" argument is the fact that private schools and charter schools practice selective enrollment. Keeping out disruptive, below average students inflates their outcomes. If forced to take all students from a specified demographic area, results are not likely to improve significantly, if at all. Therein lies the real problem and challenge facing public schools - working with what they're given.

    At the end of the day, school choice is about breaking teachers unions and transferring taxpayer dollars to private corporations. Lower pay for teachers will not result in attracting better and brighter educators (where has that strategy ever worked?). But by the time the results are in for this, it will be too late. The education system will be broken further and the taxpayers will have been swindled yet again.

    Reform starts with parents getting involved locally and working within the system that exists in the area they chose to live in. There is only one person responsible for your child's education and that person is you.

    Beware the small government advocate railing against socialism that wants to take your tax dollars and give them to a corporation (or worse still, a religious institution)...

  • In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Apparently you CAN "choose" to make absurd apples and oranges comparisons, though. Police and fire services have NO correlation to education. Zip, zero, nada.

    The problem is unions. Period. They should be eliminated in public service.

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Ah, but then you ARE including police and fire as they are some of the strongest public unions that exist...

    Public unions exist because of the uncertainty of elected officials. The idea that any concerned citizen with no experience in law enforcement, fire science, education, infrastructure, health, etc can become chief administrator for any of the above is the reason these critical public services must be managed without interference by inexperienced politicians.

    I don't disagree that reform is needed, but focusing solely on teacher's unions as the problem is extremely myopic. My daughter teaches in a suburban district which consistently delivers "best in state" outcomes by its well-paid union teachers and well administered professional staff. How do you explain that? Is it an anomaly or could it be that there are many variables at play?

    Rather than continually vilify teacher's unions, why don't we take examples of ever individual school with successful outcomes and promote their best practices? Why aren't we asking people on the inside - the people that interact with our kids on a daily basis - what they think should be done?

    Dramatic reform from outsiders looking to get a piece of the taxpayer pie is every bit as suspect as the unwilling unions you build up as your straw man. Let's focus on the blocking and tackling that good teachers and administrators have proven to work and go from there.

  • In reply to Brent Cohrs:

    Great. So you are arguing the anti-American case that we need to be lorded over by "experts." Nice. I believe you just sent the founders spinning in their graves.

    As to your "best practices" idea, I agree. Guess what, though? Charter schools ARE the model. Guess what else? For the most part they are not weighed down by unions! Thank you for undermining your union case for me.

    Now we go right back to my point. Unions are death to education.

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Let's leave the founders out of this for a minute, as they lived in a different time with a much smaller population that only allowed landowners to vote.

    I rely on the continuity of my police department and wouldn't want a popularly elected mayor of either party to fire the police chief and replace him with his high school dropout son-in-law who is a big fan of the tv show Cops (extreme example, I know). But public sector unions protect competent administrators and dedicated public servants from being fired under these scenarios while admittedly protecting a few who should be fired.

    When you have all the data proving that the charter school model is superior, please share it with us. Right now, I just see corporations experimenting with the model using taxpayer assets (at below market value) while carefully selecting their student population. I'll put an elementary school in Schaumburg or Naperville up against a charter school any day of the week.

    As I mentioned, it's a number of variables and the outcome is delivered by dedicated professionals - whether they're part of a union or not is irrelevant to their capabilities.

  • Privatizing our school system is a perilously slippery slope.

  • In reply to Aquinas wired:

    Who said anything about "privatizing" the schools here?

  • In reply to publiusforum:

    Nobody said anything about "privatizing" the school system, but it should be said.

    The idea that the nation cannot get along without government schools is absurd. If fact, the US got along with out public schools in any type of critical mass for the first 150 years of its existence.

    The Monster that has been created can never be fixed or adjusted in a way that will be good for students. The factions at odds will eventually implode the entire system.

    Give up the idea that the government schools can do a better job than the private schools.

    Government schools distort the value of real estate in Illinois, because of "better" and "worse" school districts; they will by design always provide for the lowest common denominator; and the children attending don't realize the "value" of this type of education because it is "free" (them not getting the property tax bill). When something is provided "free" it loses any value.

    Scrap the government schools. I said it. I'll say it again and again. Privatize them. I'll say that again and again. Until there is change, these entire educational system in America will be sub-standard and bordering on criminal to what they do to children.

  • Have to admit, Warner knows how to wear a fedora.

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