Author Archive

The Union Routs Students in Chicago

November 1, 2019

Teachers end their strike after the mayor caves on choice and accountability.

Braving snow and cold temperatures, thousands marched through the streets near City Hall during an ongoing teachers strike in Chicago, Oct. 31. PHOTO: SCOTT HEINS/GETTY IMAGES

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the Chicago Teachers Union on Thursday struck an agreement to end an 11-day strike, and by the looks of it the union was bargaining with itself.

The mayor is touting the new contract as the most generous in Chicago history, and she’s right. Even before the strike, the city had given in to most of the union demands. The new contract includes a 16% raise over five years (not including raises based on longevity), a three-year freeze on health insurance premiums, lower copays, caps on class sizes, and more than 450 new social workers and nurses.

Estimated cost to follow, but you can bet it will be expensive. Last week the mayor proposed a slew of tax increases including levies on ride-hailing services and restaurant meals. This week her staff suggested that property taxes may have to increase . . . again. Michelle Obama the other day complained that white people were leaving the city to escape minorities who are moving in. No, they’re fleeing Chicago’s high taxes and lousy schools—and so are minorities.

The agreement also includes new job protections for substitute teachers who going forward may only be removed after conferring with the union about “performance deficiencies.” Chicago Public Schools will become a “sanctuary district,” meaning school officials won’t be allowed to cooperate with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement without a court order. Employees will also be allowed 10 unpaid days for personal immigration matters.

This social-justice dressing is intended to compensate for the deficits in accountability. Under the new contract, a joint union-school board committee will be convened to “mitigate or eliminate any disproportionate impacts of observations or student growth measures” on teacher evaluations. So instead of student performance, teachers will probably be rated on more subjective measures, perhaps congeniality in the lunchroom.

Chicago students are among the few to demonstrate improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress over the last several years, and one reason is reforms instituted by former Mayor Rahm Emanuel to hold teachers accountable. Another reason is an expansion of charter schools, which enroll about one in six students.

The new union contract caps the number of charter-school seats, so no new schools will be able to open without others closing. This was a top union demand, and Mayor Lightfoot didn’t even put up a fight. Maybe the union should anoint her its honorary president.

Denver’s Education Stakes

October 31, 2019

Unions want to kill Michael Bennet’s successful reforms.

Students in a combined beginner and concert band class work on their music at Skinner Middle School in Denver, Feb. 11. PHOTO: JOE AMON/THE DENVER POST VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

The school-reform movement is a victim of its own success as charters compete successfully with traditional public schools, prompting a political backlash from unions across the U.S. From New York to Boston to Houston to Los Angeles, school reformers have suffered political setbacks, and next week voters will decide the fate of reform in Denver, one of the cities where it has been most successful in lifting students.

Two years ago all seven members of Denver’s Board of Education were sympathetic to education reform. After the 2017 election that number fell to five as teachers unions took advantage of President Trump’s unpopularity to defeat moderates. With three seats on the ballot in the Nov. 5 election, control of the board could flip to members favored by unions.

Three issues dominate Denver’s education-reform debate. The first is merit pay. In 1999 the city introduced a version of its ProComp system, which gives teachers bonuses based partly on student performance. Teachers unions generally prefer that salaries be based solely on years worked and educational background though there is little evidence that this predicts teacher quality. Some Denver teachers say ProComp is confusing and the program triggered a rare strike in February.

The second issue is accountability. As superintendent of Denver schools, now-Senator (and presidential candidate) Michael Bennet introduced a rating system designed to help parents make more informed choices and steer more resources to underperforming schools—or close them if necessary. School closures are especially offensive to unions and district administrators who lose an iron rice bowl.

The most important issue is choice. Charter schools have flourished in Denver, now comprising more than a quarter of schools overall, according to Chalkbeat. Charters have more flexibility in hiring, compensation and curricular policies. That’s an existential threat to union control of education.

While some charter systems are better than others, there is wide agreement that Denver’s has been successful. A 2016 study from economists at MIT, Duke and Yale found “large achievement gains from charter school attendance” in Denver. Stanford’s City Studies project finds impressive test-score improvement in Denver relative to the rest of the state. One finding: “Denver black students from charter schools post greater learning gains in reading” than students at traditional public schools.

Why is Denver’s reform project threatened despite significant gains? One reason is the Democratic Party in the state is abandoning what used to be a bipartisan reform project. In 2018 the Colorado Democratic Party passed an amendment at its state convention condemning Colorado’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform, a national advocacy group. Delegates even demanded the chapter drop “Democrats” from its title.

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan this month endorsed Denver’s reform-minded school-board candidates saying they would advance the Obama administration’s education policies. But in a blue city in the middle of a state fast trending left, that may not be enough.

Chicago Teachers Strike Again

October 31, 2019

The union dictates terms of surrender to new Mayor Lightfoot.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot visits with children affected by the teachers’ strike at the McCormick YMCA in Chicago, Oct. 17. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

In a popular children’s book “Click, Clack, Moo,” the cows refuse to produce milk and persuade some hens to stop laying eggs until a farmer acquiesces to their demands. After he concedes, the ducks go on strike. Welcome to Chicago, where teachers and their labor allies went on strike Thursday.

Progressive Mayor Lori Lightfoot won election this spring on a campaign to fix the city, and her contract negotiation with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is a first test. Union leaders have issued sweeping demands that would drive up Chicago taxes without improving schools, and Ms. Lightfoot has been bending over backward to meet their demands.

The union wants to increase pay by 15% over three years, while Ms. Lightfoot has offered a 16% raise over five years. The union wants a three-year contract so it can threaten a strike during the next mayoral election to win more at the bargaining table. But Chicago teachers are well paid and earn on average $79,000, more than those in other large districts including New York and Los Angeles after adjusting for the local cost of living.

Under the district offer, a second-year teacher who now makes $53,000 would earn $72,000 during the last year of the contract including longevity pay increases. Most young Chicago workers in private industry would love a 35% raise over five years that comes with job security, inexpensive health benefits and a generous pension.

Ms. Lightfoot has offered to more than double the number of nurses and social workers in schools, but the union wants the district to hire thousands more support staff. Altogether its demands would cost $452 million next year, according to the Illinois Policy Institute, and drive the district deeper into fiscal distress.

The district’s pension shortfall has nearly quadrupled over the last decade. To pay for rising pension payments and raises, the district has borrowed—its junk-rated debt has increased by a third in two years—and raised property taxes to the tune of $477 million. The state is chipping in another $245 million annually from an income-tax hike.

The union claims its demands can be financed by soaking the wealthy. It supports an Illinois referendum to impose a progressive income tax and has pitched a financial transaction tax along with a 3.5% tax on household income above $100,000 a year. Yet the mayor has said that “we can’t keep taxing the hell out of all of our people who make substantial incomes.”

She is now trying to satisfy the union with a moratorium on charter schools, which will hurt children stuck in failing schools. Charter students are 20 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college. The union has responded by demanding affordable housing and “restorative justice” including fewer police in schools.

All of this affirms the Supreme Court’s holding last year in Janus v. Afscme that collective bargaining in government is political, which may be one reason the union lost 507 members last year even as the district workforce increased by 1,400. Many teachers apparently don’t want to subsidize the union’s progressive politics of extortion.

The teachers union has enlisted custodians, bus drivers and security guards to join its strike in solidarity. “We’re about to teach the new mayor a lesson,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten declared at a labor rally on Monday. For taxpayers and parents, the strike is a lesson in what happens when public unions run the government.


Charter Schools Ace Another Test

October 31, 2019

Minority students do better overall as charters gain market share.


A student works on a chemistry problem in class at Mission Achievement and Success Charter School in Albuquerque, NM, Feb. 20. PHOTO: JIM THOMPSON/ZUMA PRESS

Is the success of charter schools an illusion? Critics claim charters merely skim the best students, whose parents care enough to apply, while pushing out troublemakers. So it’s worth noting a new study showing that often test scores improve for all students when charters increase their market share.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute examined 21 urban school districts with at least 2,500 black students per grade from 2009-2015. As the “black charter market share” rises in the study to 50% from zero, the associated educational gain is 0.8 grade level in English and 0.7 in math. This bump is for all black students in the district, whether they attend a charter or not.

Results are similar for the 27 urban districts with at least 2,500 Hispanic students per grade. As the “Hispanic charter market share” rises to 35% from zero, it’s associated with a gain of 0.7 grade level in English and 0.7 in math. For comparison, the overall racial achievement gap is roughly “two to three grade levels,” the study says.

Other results in the paper aren’t as dramatic. After adding more than 200 smaller urban districts, those with at least 100 minority students per class, the gains are 0.3 or 0.4 grade level, although Hispanics show no bump in English. In large suburban districts, the data show mostly null results for minority pupils.

Also noteworthy: “There is no evidence that higher charter market share is associated with achievement gains for white students.” There are even some declines as charters build market share. The largest drop, about 0.4 grade level, is in white suburban math scores. The reasons aren’t obvious. Maybe suburban charters are more likely to be Montessori or Waldorf schools less focused on testing. In any case, most of these students turn out fine. But for students in poor urban districts, solid English and math scores can be a ticket to the middle class.

Charters tend to cluster in tougher areas, which may drag down the results. Seven years of data also can’t show the whole picture. Still, says the study, “In general, our results suggest that charters really are boosting the achievement of black and Hispanic students, rather than ‘creaming’ the best students in these communities.”

Tell that to the politicians in Manhattan, Boston and other areas that won’t let charters grow with demand. This year in New York City 47% of third through eighth graders passed the state English exam. At the city’s charter schools, the rate was 57%. For the Success Academy charter network, it was 90%.

Yet Success Academy is having to fight city hall for the space to set up a new middle school in Queens. The charter network has more graduating elementary students there than its facilities can handle. “Without a middle school location,” it says, “up to 200 fifth graders will be forced to leave Success Academy next year and return to zoned schools where less than half of students are able to read or do math.”

Last week thousands of Success parents and students held a rally in a public park, trying to get Mayor Bill de Blasio’s attention. “We are all here today,” one parent said, “to ask that the Mayor listen to his constituents and remind him that he has a responsibility to all kids.” The sad reality is that teachers unions run the public schools for themselves, not for the students.

Education Hell Revisited

October 31, 2019

Remember that report on Providence schools? Nothing has changed.

RI State Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green. PHOTO: RYAN T. CONATY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Rhode Island’s politicians this summer made a show of decrying the shameful condition of Providence public schools. But with the school year beginning again, the city’s progressive mayor has returned to keeping kids prisoners in the failing schools.

Readers may recall some of the ghastly details—peeling lead paint, vermin, brown water, leaking sewage—from a Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy 93-page report on Providence schools commissioned by the state. The physical disrepair seems to be a real-life metaphor for the degeneration in professional standards and student learning.

Examiners observed students during class chatting with friends, talking on the phone and watching YouTube videos. “Kindergartners punch each other in the face—with no consequences,” one teacher said. About a quarter of teachers were absent at least 10% of the school year. Student test scores are the worst in Rhode Island and lower than districts in other states with similar demographics. “Economically disadvantaged students experienced decreasing rates of proficiency as they progressed through school, with a low of only 6.2% proficiency by the 8th grade,” the report noted.

State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who was appointed by Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo in March, met with hundreds of parents and students. “I think the big takeaway is things are actually worse than the report indicates,” she concluded.

She added that “the district’s performance is continuing to decline despite increased interventions and funding.” Providence’s school budget has increased by nearly a quarter since 2011. Last month the commissioner proposed appointing a new superintendent and endorsed more charters. Good for her.

But now Mayor Elorza is threatening to block an expansion of Rhode Island’s top-performing Achievement First charter network. About four times as many students at Achievement First schools meet or exceed state English standards than at traditional Providence schools. Achievement First’s newest school last year ranked number one in the state—despite spending about $1,700 less per pupil than traditional schools.

The mayor says he worries that a new Achievement First charter could trigger a prison break by parents that drains money from traditional schools. Due to an oddity in state law, the mayor chairs the Achievement First board in Rhode Island and can stop its expansion. He wants to force a charter school in Providence to close before letting Achievement First add an additional school.

The mayor is holding the children and charter schools hostage while he tries to squeeze more money from the state for his failing schools. Ms. Infante-Green shouldn’t pay his blackmail. The Governor and Legislature can strip him of his power over charters before he does more harm to children.

Opinion: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Gives Up on Minority Kids

Opinion: New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio Gives Up on Minority Kids
Mayor de Blasio may identify as a progressive champion of the underprivileged, but the reality is that he’s blocking the surest path to the middle class by relegating the city’s poor to inferior schools. Image: Richard Drew / AP

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Parents Know Better Than Standardized Tests

October 30, 2019

New school-choice studies show that even the least advantaged find superior schools for their kids.


A classroom in Toribío, Colombia, Aug. 29, 2016. PHOTO: LUIS ROBAYO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


Thanks to private-school choice—vouchers, tax-credit scholarships and education savings accounts—this year nearly half a million children in 29 U.S. states and the District of Columbia will attend schools their parents selected.

Critics of school choice often argue that low-income families lack the knowledge or ability to choose meaningfully between schools. Worrying that parents will be taken advantage of or make poor decisions, they oppose choice programs or favor onerous testing requirements to prove they are effective.

New studies on school choice in Colombia and Barbados, however, suggest families know something that tests can’t detect. These two countries, with per capita incomes a quarter and a third of America’s, respectively, can teach us a lot about how the most economically disadvantaged families choose schools.

The positive effects on earnings were even larger for female students (11%) and students who applied to vocational schools (17%). For a single educational intervention, these are substantial increases. The researchers conclude that vouchers “greatly increased [a low-income child’s] chance of transitioning to the middle class.”

Likewise, a rigorous 2018 study revised a few months ago found school choice boosted social mobility in Barbados. Researchers Diether Beuermann and Kirabo Jackson compared the outcomes of more than 7,000 students who had scored right above and below an arbitrary cutoff that Barbados used to determine whether they could enroll in their parents’ preferred school. The study found that attending schools chosen by parents improved student well-being significantly, based on an index of educational attainment, occupational rank, earnings and health.

The results are mixed, however, when it comes to test scores. Two earlier evaluations of the same school-choice program in Colombia, published in the American Economic Review, found it increased test scores and educational attainment substantially. By contrast, the Barbados study found no effect of school choice on test scores, despite the long-run gains in real-life outcomes. This is the latest in a series of studies finding disconnects between effects on test scores and other outcomes—income, high-school graduation, college enrollment, college completion and more—for which tests are supposed to be a proxy.

If test scores aren’t reflecting the long-run outcomes that we care about most, then our thinking needs to change. As the Barbados study concludes, “parents may be rational to prefer schools that have no short-run test-score impacts.”

Parents see more than test scores. Several surveys of parents participating in school-choice programs find that instruction in religious values, morality and character is among the top reasons they select a given school. They want schools that teach their children how to be not only good students but good people. That means inculcating skills and behaviors such as impulse control, conscientiousness and grit—what used to be called “character education.” Unfortunately, character education is generally watered down or absent in traditional U.S. public schools.

Character education may help explain why studies of school-choice programs find they reduce teenage pregnancy and crime. In Colombia, female voucher students were 18% less likely to give birth as a teenager, and males were 32% less likely to father a child by a teenage partner. In Barbados, teenage girls were 59% less likely to give birth. Likewise, a 2019 study of Milwaukee’s voucher program found it reduced paternity suits by 38% and reduced convictions in drug-related crimes by 53% and property-damage crimes by 86%. Staying out of trouble and graduating from college don’t guarantee success in life, but they greatly increase the odds.

As parents know, kids are more than test scores. The evidence suggests that even the least advantaged families tend to do a better job than standardized tests at identifying schools that produce the outcomes that matter. Parents know better than do the critics who doubt they can choose the right schools for their children.

Mr. Bedrick is director of policy at EdChoice. Mr. DeAngelis is director of school choice at the Reason Foundation. Both are adjunct scholars at the Cato Institute.

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Teachers Strike to Kill Student Choice

February 20, 2019

 West Virginia’s GOP Governor surrenders

to another union walkout.

Readers who still think teachers are striking over money should look at what just happened in West Virginia. A year after the state’s 20,000 teachers struck to get a 5% pay raise and no reductions in rich benefits, they walked off the job Tuesday to kill an education reform bill that would have increased school choice and accountability.

The West Virginia Education Association gave the walkout order to defeat legislation that would have allowed all of seven charter schools in the state over the next three-and-a-half years. The bill would also have created educational savings accounts for private or online schools and removed seniority as the only criterion for teacher layoffs. Competition and judging teachers by student performance are mortal threats to the union K-12 monopoly.

Sorry to say, Republican Gov. Jim Justice surrendered so fast that West Virginians should start calling him the former Governor. On Tuesday he promised to veto the reform if it passed, and legislators in the state House of Delegates shelved the bill indefinitely. The de facto Governor now is teachers union chief Dale Lee. The losers are the state’s children, who score below the national average in test results.


A Mayor Seeks to Stymie His City’s Only Successful School

November 17, 2018


In struggling New Bedford, Mass., the Alma del Mar charter faces opposition to its expansion plan.

By Tunku Varadarajan
Nov. 16, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET

Ivyanna, Moises, Jenielys, Giselly. The names on the bulletin board of a kindergarten classroom reveal the notably Hispanic demographics of Alma del Mar, a K-8 charter public school in this blighted city that was once America’s foremost whaling port. In fact, the majority of the school’s kindergarten is comprised of students whose first language is Spanish. By the time they get to first or second grade, many will speak better English than their parents.

Housed in a sprawling new building, the school’s interior is a clean, hushed hive of industrious students and teachers. There is no obvious indiscipline, no unruly children bouncing off the walls. At the playground outside, students hop off monkey-bars and swings to greet the principal, who accompanies me on a tour of the school. She greets them back by name.

Alma del Mar (which means “soul of the sea”) is a success story in a city that badly needed one. Started in August 2011, it now has 446 children on its rolls—and even more than that on a waiting list, clamoring to be admitted. There is a lottery every year, explains Kaitlin Goldrick, the school’s 30-year-old principal. Every child at Alma del Mar “is here because their families want them here,” she says. “The lottery can be a heartbreaking night,” says Ms. Goldrick. “There are families that enter the lottery year after year, and never get in.”

Families are drawn to Alma del Mar’s record as well as its optimistic spirit. “They want their children to get a good, serious education, and they know they’ll get it here,” says Ms. Goldrick. That seriousness is evident in the almost obsessive insistence at the school that its students be referred to as “scholars.” On a three-hour visit there I heard a teacher say “students” only once—followed by a sheepish “Oops, I mean scholars.”

The majority of New Bedford’s students must endure dysfunctional district schools that are among the worst in terms of performance in all of Massachusetts. By contrast, says Will Gardner, Alma del Mar’s founder and executive director, “our third-graders performed last year at the same level as a third-grader in Wellesley on the state’s test in math.” (Wellesley is among the most affluent suburbs in Massachusetts.)

For all its success, Alma del Mar is embroiled in local controversy. In August, the school applied to the state to get 1,188 more seats for students, the entire quota for new charter seats for the school district of New Bedford. (Massachusetts, like many other states, puts caps on the numbers of students in charter schools.) The school aims to add two new campuses, one next year and another in 2020. Yet the city’s mayor, Jon Mitchell, has declared he will fight Alma del Mar’s expansion.

“I intend to oppose it,” the mayor said recently, “because I don’t believe that this is the right thing for the city.” He added, without supporting evidence, that Alma del Mar “has demonstrated itself not to be a constructive partner with the school district.” A recent article in CommonWealth magazine by supporters of the mayor and the teachers union criticized Alma del Mar for getting political support from “the think-tank crowd”—a reference to the Boston-based free-market Pioneer Institute, which has promoted the school.

At the root of the resistance, supporters believe, is a panic in the mayor’s office about relinquishing control over education in the city. Alma del Mar reports directly to the state, not to the city’s elected school committee. There are competing petitions online—one for and one against the school’s expansion.

The state will rule on Alma del Mar’s application in February, but the opposition to her school leaves Ms. Goldrick more perplexed than indignant. Speaking of opponents of the expansion, she says, “Their perspective is that they want all of the money to go to the district, because they feel, ‘How can we get better if we aren’t getting the money we deserve?’ They say they need time to get better, and that charter schools make it harder for that to happen.” (Each student at Alma del Mar brings state funding with him, subtracted from the district’s share of state aid. Massachusetts is required to compensate the district.)

“My response to this,” says Ms. Goldrick, “is, ‘Why should these families have to wait for things to get better?’ For our families, New Bedford is a failing school district. So if something doesn’t change, why should a child have to wait 10 or 15, or who knows how many, years? By then they’ll be out of school.

“Besides,” she adds, “isn’t it important that our families—and all the families in New Bedford—have a choice?”

Mr. Varadarajan is executive editor at the Hoover Institution.

‘How Schools Work’ Review: The Worm in the Apple

August 14, 2018

A former education secretary doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to teachers’ unions; still, the Obama administration didn’t take them on. Naomi Schaefer Riley reviews “How Schools Work” by Arne Duncan.

Striking Chicago public school teachers in 2012.
Striking Chicago public school teachers in 2012. PHOTO: SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES

Political memoirs are rarely tear-jerkers, but Arne Duncan’s look back at his time as secretary of education under Barack Obama may make school reformers want to cry. It’s not so much that Mr. Duncan, who served from 2009 to 2015 after a stint as head of the Chicago public schools, was bad at his job or in any way unprepared for its challenges. In fact, as “How Schools Work” makes clear, he understood a great deal about the problems plaguing American education. But that very understanding makes his cabinet tenure—recounted here alongside other tales from his public life—feel like a painful missed opportunity.

Mr. Duncan’s theme is that our education system is built on lies. He tells the story of volunteering, while he was in college, at his mother’s after-school tutoring program in Chicago, where she helped neighborhood kids with their schoolwork. His principal charge was a young African-American named Calvin, a rising high-school senior who had more than enough basketball talent to play for a Division I team. Mr. Duncan assumed that Calvin, a solid B-student from an intact, hard-working family, just needed some help studying for the ACT ahead of applying for college—until the first day that Mr. Duncan sat down with him and realized that he was reading at the level of a second-grader. Despite a summer of hard work, Calvin wasn’t going anywhere.

“The lies told to Calvin,” Mr. Duncan writes, “were not told to torture him. . . . More often than not they existed to protect resources, or to safeguard jobs, or to control what kids were taught and how or whether they were tested on what they knew.” Calvin was ill-served by a system that kept passing him along to the next grade level when he hadn’t mastered the basic skills of the one before.

‘How Schools Work’ Review: The Worm in the Apple


By Arne Duncan
Simon & Schuster, 243 pages, $26.99

When it comes to the role that teachers’ unions play in the problems of public education, Mr. Duncan doesn’t pull his punches. Upon taking charge of the public schools in Chicago in 2001, he discovered (with the help of the Chicago-based economist Steven Levitt ) that at least 5% of the city’s teachers were helping their students cheat on standardized tests. He was appalled but felt stymied: “If I’d asked Mayor [Richard] Daley to fire 5 percent of all Chicago teachers, then there would have been hell to pay.” The episode is emblematic beyond its particular circumstances: In what other profession is it acceptable to retain people who you know are falsifying results?

Mr. Duncan notes that for teachers’ unions it’s controversial to say—as Mr. Obama did during the 2008 campaign at the National Education Association’s annual meeting—that school districts should be able “to reward those who teach underserved areas or take on added responsibility. As teachers learn new skills or serve their students better or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well.” This statement in favor of merit pay, Mr. Duncan observes, got candidate Obama “treated to a round of boos.”

Mr. Duncan supports charter schools—though not as vocally as Betsy DeVos, the current education secretary—because, free of union contracts and bureaucratic burdens, they offer an alternative to underprivileged kids stuck in the classrooms of the lowest performing teachers. (He opposes school vouchers because he thinks they steal money from public schools; not surprisingly, the voucher program for poor children in Washington, D.C., repeatedly saw its funding cut during the Obama years.) In the end, the Obama administration either couldn’t buck the unions or didn’t want to.

Oddly, Mr. Duncan’s most publicized fights were with parents. In Chicago, they hounded him for closing failing schools. But he was right: There is sometimes no way to improve a terrible school short of shutting it down; keeping it open because it’s a fixture in the neighborhood does kids no favors.

In Washington, Mr. Duncan made the mistake of criticizing the “suburban moms” who were opting out of standardized testing for their kids, worried that test preparation would stress out their children and get in the way of more enriching classroom activities. But again he was right. If we don’t test kids across the full performance spectrum (including wealthy children on Long Island), Mr. Duncan argues, we won’t know how those at the bottom are really doing

Along the same lines, he defends No Child Left Behind—the George W. Bush-era program that required each state to create assessments at various grade levels—because it disaggregated student data by race, giving a fuller picture of where help was needed. At one point, a parent from a closing school accuses Mr. Duncan of being a racist. He replies: “If I were a racist, then I would leave this school exactly as it is.” As Mr. Duncan’s account makes clear, it would be hard to devise an educational system that is more harmful to racial minorities if we tried.

Mr. Duncan offers a lot of trivial solutions at the end of the book that he says could also improve things—universal pre-K programs, more after-school programs, more counselors to prevent gun violence—but most of these ideas would simply give more jobs to union employees and make it that much harder to achieve real reform. For the most part, though, Mr. Duncan does understand “how schools work.” The tragedy is that he and his boss didn’t have what it takes to make them work better.

Ms. Riley is the author, most recently, of “Be the Parent, Please: Stop Banning Seesaws and Start Banning Snapchat.”

Appeared in the August 14, 2018, print edition as ‘The Worm In the Apple.’

Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade

August 14, 2018

The bureaucracy defies a state law on selling vacant buildings

Teachers’ unions and their liberal allies are desperately trying to preserve the failing public school status quo. Witness how the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) system is defying a state mandate to sell vacant property to charter and private schools.

Milwaukee’s public schools are a mess. Merely 62% of students graduate from high school in four years, and proficiency rates are 15% in math and just over 20% in English. Families are escaping to charter and private schools, which has resulted in 11,000 vacant seats and a budget shortfall that’s expected to swell to $130 million within five years.

Milwaukee’s Public School Barricade

We wrote in 2015 about how MPS blocked charter and private school purchases of empty school buildings, which prevented high-performing schools like St. Marcus Lutheran from expanding. The state legislature then passed a law ordering the city and school district to sell vacant public school buildings.

Well, what do you know, the district still hasn’t sold a single vacant building to other schools despite 13 letters of interest from private and charter operators for 11 vacant buildings, according to the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. Following protests from the teachers’ union, a local zoning board denied a bid by Right Step, a private school for children expelled from Milwaukee public schools. The city hasn’t even classified many unused buildings as “vacant.”

Milwaukee’s recalcitrance is denying thousands of students a better education—St. Marcus Lutheran alone has 264 students on its wait list—while draining tax dollars. Annual utility bills for vacant buildings cost $1 million, and the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty calculates that the district could recover $5 million from selling its unoccupied real estate.

The legislature ought to punish Milwaukee for flouting the law by, say, snipping its share of state funding. But State Superintendent Tony Evers, the Democratic front-runner to challenge Gov. Scott Walker in November, would likely do the opposite. He wants to freeze and then phase out vouchers, which help nearly 28,000 low-income students across Milwaukee attend private schools.

If Democrats defeat Gov. Walker and take the statehouse in November, there will be nothing to stop Milwaukee or any other district from barricading students into lousy public schools.

Appeared in the August 14, 2018, print edition.