Posts Tagged ‘grassroots’

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on unions and the urgency of school choice.

May 15, 2011

Notable & Quotable

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaking at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, April 29:

It’s easy for the union members . . . sending their kids to some of the best schools in New Jersey to pontificate about how those [other] children should wait until the schools improve in their neighborhood. I have a daughter in the second grade right now, our youngest. She’s only got one year in the second grade. How long are we going to make her wait? To third or fourth or fifth? When she’s so far behind she has no hope of ever catching up? This is not a problem with an infinite time frame to fix. Every year we don’t fix it we’re losing more children. Irretrievable in many instances. So I’m for choice not as the solution to the problem in public schools but as a building block. I think we should forget about how a school starts and worry about how it performs.

Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Big Business Conspires With Labor to Kill Vouchers in TN

May 13, 2011
  • Tennessee’s Chamber Maids

Nothing is worse for freedom and opportunity than when big business conspires with big labor. Behold the spectacle in Tennessee, where the Chambers of Commerce in Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville have joined with the teachers unions to kill education vouchers.

That proposal, which has already passed the state senate, would give thousands of low- and middle-income parents in failing school districts private school options. The Tennessee Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act would provide vouchers of between $4,000 and $5,000 per child to families with an income up to roughly $42,000 a year and who live in one of the four largest school districts, including Memphis and Nashville.

In an April 27 letter repeating nearly every discredited voucher myth peddled by unions, the CEOs of the local chambers advise lawmakers to oppose the bill. The letter claims that private school funding “diverts resources away from public school improvement,” that “there is no empirical data demonstrating that vouchers improve student achievement,” and that private schools lack “accountability” and won’t be subject to “high academic standards.”

That last complaint is tragicomic given that Memphis schools typically rank among the nation’s five worst with fewer than half of black males graduating from high school. A 2010 progress report under the No Child Left Behind program found that 52% of Tennessee third graders flunked math and reading tests and 75% of eight graders failed math. How could private schools possibly be worse?

As for the “empirical data,” nearly a dozen studies have found high parental satisfaction with voucher schools or higher graduation rates. Perhaps the chamber CEOs should talk to the mostly minority parents in Milwaukee and Washington, D.C., where vouchers have been very popular. And no, the scholarship plan doesn’t rob public schools of scarce dollars. The vouchers are capped at 50% of the per-student costs of the public schools.

The Tennessee chambers aren’t nearly as opposed to public money going to private institutions when they receive the checks. A study by the Tennessee Center for Policy Research discovered that over the past several years the Chattanooga Chamber has received $450,000 in state and local funds. The Nashville Chamber has received nearly $3 million in taxpayer subsidies.

We doubt a single child of officials in these chambers of commerce attends a school in the poor parts of Memphis or other places where dreams die before high school. Yet these captains of industry are willing to deny that choice to others. Business executives who really want to make the U.S. more competitive ought to stop contributing to lobbies that want to preserve the dreadful status quo.

 Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Research Shows That Vouchers Work – Teacher Unions Keep Obama From Agreeing

May 4, 2011

Wall Street Journal

MAY 3, 2011

The Evidence Is In: School Vouchers Work

A study published last year found that D.C. voucher recipients had graduation rates of 91%. That’s significantly higher than the public school average of 56%.

By JASON L. RILEY

‘Private school vouchers are not an effective way to improve student achievement,” said the White House in a statement on March 29. “The Administration strongly opposes expanding the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program and opening it to new students.” But less than three weeks later, President Obama signed a budget deal with Republicans that includes a renewal and expansion of the popular D.C. program, which finances tuition vouchers for low-income kids to attend private schools.

School reformers cheered the administration’s about-face though fully aware that it was motivated by political expediency rather than any acknowledgment that vouchers work.

When Mr. Obama first moved to phase out the D.C. voucher program in 2009, his Education Department was in possession of a federal study showing that voucher recipients, who number more than 3,300, made gains in reading scores and didn’t decline in math. The administration claims that the reading gains were not large enough to be significant. Yet even smaller positive effects were championed by the administration as justification for expanding Head Start.

In any case, the program’s merits don’t rest on reading scores alone. In a study published last year, Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas found that voucher recipients had graduation rates of 91%. That’s significantly higher than the D.C. public school average (56%) and the graduation rate for students who applied for a D.C. voucher but didn’t win the lottery (70%). In testimony before a Senate subcommittee in February, Mr. Wolf said that “we can be more than 99% confident that access to school choice through the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and not mere statistical noise, was the reason why OSP students graduated at these higher rates.”

The administration downplays these findings. But the students who attend D.C. public schools are overwhelmingly black and poor, and the achievement gap has a particularly devastating impact on their communities. High school dropouts are eight times more likely than someone with a diploma to wind up behind bars. Some 60% of black male high school dropouts in their 30s have prison records. And nearly one in four young black male dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention.

Mr. Obama says he wants to help all students—not just the lucky few who receive vouchers. But that’s an argument for offering more vouchers to those in need, not for reducing school choice. Policies ought to be weighed against available alternatives, not some unattainable ideal. The alternative to a voucher for families in D.C. ghettos and elsewhere is too often a substandard public school.

The positive effects of the D.C. voucher program are not unique. A recent study of Milwaukee’s older and larger voucher program found that 94% of students who stayed in the program throughout high school graduated, versus just 75% of students in Milwaukee’s traditional public schools. And contrary to the claim that vouchers hurt public schools, the report found that students at Milwaukee public schools “are performing at somewhat higher levels as a result of competitive pressure from the school voucher program.” Thus can vouchers benefit even the children that don’t receive them.

Research gathered by Greg Forster of the Foundation for Educational Choice also calls into question the White House assertion that vouchers are ineffective. In a paper released in March, he says that “every empirical study ever conducted in Milwaukee, Florida, Ohio, Texas, Maine and Vermont finds that voucher programs in those places improved public schools.” Mr. Forster surveyed 10 empirical studies that use “random assignment, the gold standard of social science,” to assure that the groups being compared are as similar as possible. “Nine [of the 10] studies find that vouchers improve student outcomes, six that all students benefit and three that some benefit and some are not affected,” he writes. “One study finds no visible impact. None of these studies finds a negative impact.”

Such results might influence the thinking of an objective observer primarily interested in doing right by the nation’s poor children. But they are unlikely to sway a politician focused on getting re-elected with the help of teachers unions.

“I think Obama and Duncan really care about school reform,” says Terry Moe, who teaches at Stanford and is the author of a timely new book, “Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools.” “On the other hand they have to be sensitive to their Democratic coalition, which includes teachers unions. And one way they do that is by opposing school vouchers.”

The reality is that Mr. Obama’s opposition to school vouchers has to do with Democratic politics, not the available evidence on whether they improve outcomes for disadvantaged kids. They do—and he knows it.

Mr. Riley is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.

 Copyright 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Churches Start Getting Involved With School Choice

April 30, 2011

The Wall Street Journal
HOUSES OF WORSHIP
APRIL 29, 2011

Churches for School Choice

Education reform is becoming the civil rights movement of this century.

By MICHEAL FLAHERTY

Compton, Calif.

It is late on the Wednesday night of Holy Week. The choir at Compton’s Holy Redeemer Church is rehearsing a beautiful gospel song in the sanctuary for their Easter Sunday service. In a tiny office attached to the church, Linda Serrato and Christina Sanchez are welcoming a steady stream of parents carrying sleeping bags.

Among them is K.W. Tulloss, the pastor at Weller Street Baptist Church in Los Angeles. An avid sports fan, Mr. Tulloss has given up a seat at the Lakers playoff game for a seat on a bus making an eight-hour, overnight trek to Sacramento to lobby state legislators on education reform.

Mr. Tulloss is the chairman of Parent Revolution, a grass-roots organization that has shocked the education establishment in California with a simple premise: Parents should have more say in the fate of their neighborhood schools. That’s because they are the one group in the education debate without a conflict of interest—their interests are entirely aligned with their children’s.

Parent Revolution has made national news in its ongoing attempt to use California’s new “parent trigger” law, which allows parents to transform a failing school by, among other things, replacing it with a charter school. Parents have already filed a charter petition in the Compton Unified School District, where only 47% of students graduate and less than 2% go to college. It is this injustice that enrages Ms. Serrato and Ms. Sanchez, both 20-somethings who attended Los Angeles public schools and then graduated from Stanford and Yale, respectively.

People like Mr. Tulloss and Pastor Kerry Allison of the Church of the Redeemer see education reform as the civil rights movement of this century. Mr. Tulloss stresses to his congregation that the issues that are most important to them—jobs, poverty, public safety—are all linked to education. Mr. Allison explains it this way in his church’s statement of faith: “We believe that every child is a precious heritage of the Lord and we are committed to loving, learning and lifting each child one mind at a time.”

Support for California’s parent-trigger law is coming not just from the pulpit but from the pews as well. Mary Najera, the lead organizer for Parent Revolution, has just returned from screening the documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman'” to 70 parents at the Catholic Charities in Boyle Heights. A daughter of Mexican immigrants and mother of two, she plans on scheduling a number of other screenings at churches throughout Los Angeles as a primer on education reform for church-going parents.

Of course not all of the churches in Los Angeles are united in their support of parent trigger. But supporters refuse to sit on the sidelines. They are motivated by the words Martin Luther King wrote on scraps of paper in that Alabama jail cell: “Wait has almost always meant never. . . . Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

The support of many people of faith in Compton reflects a larger awakening among believers nationwide who see the disparity in educational options as one that can no longer be overlooked in light of the biblical mandate to fight for fairness and justice for all of God’s children. Tony Campolo, a leading evangelical author, has said that, “If Saint Francis were alive today, he would say each child in the public school system is sacramental. . . . To neglect them is to neglect Jesus Himself.”

Many of the people involved in Parent Revolution, regardless of their faith, credit one man of faith for changing the tide on education reform: Barack Obama. It was President Obama’s Race to the Top initiative that incentivized the California legislature to create the parent trigger. And many of the community organizers are veterans of his successful presidential campaign.

In “Dreams From My Father,” President Obama wrote about the obstacles to change for children in Chicago’s public schools: “The biggest source of resistance” to education reform, he wrote, “was rarely talked about. . . . Every one of our churches was filled with teachers, principals, and district superintendents. Few of these educators sent their own children to public schools; they knew too much for that. But they would defend the status quo with the same skill and vigor as their white counterparts of two decades before.”

As pastors like Messrs. Allison and Tulloss are telling their congregations, including teachers and school employees: You can’t profess one thing about equality for all God’s children on Sunday and then not practice it from Monday through Friday.

Mr. Flaherty is president and co-founder of Walden Media, which co-produced “Waiting for ‘Superman.'”

US Supreme Court: Scholarship Tax-Credits Are OK!

April 5, 2011

Supreme Court OKs Arizona’s Tax Break for Private Schools

Associated Press

WASHINGTON—A Supreme Court divided along ideological lines said Monday that ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge government programs that use tax breaks to direct money to religious activities.

The court ruled 5-4 in favor of an Arizona scholarship program for private schools that has mainly benefited religious schools in offering a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the income tax bill of people who participate.

The decision cheered supporters of school choice and dismayed civil libertarians who said it will be harder to use federal courts to claim violations of the Constitution’s prohibition on direct government aid to religion.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the court’s majority opinion that held that the Arizona taxpayers who challenged the program have no stake in the dispute that would allow them to take their case to federal court.

For more than 13 years, Arizona has allowed residents to send up to $500 to a tuition scholarship organization that they would have otherwise paid the state in taxes on their incomes. The state has passed up nearly $350 million in income tax payments over the life of the scholarship program, and the bulk of that money has gone to private religious schools.

But because the program operates as a tax credit, instead of a direct appropriation of government money, “contributions result from the decisions of private taxpayers regarding their own funds,” Justice Kennedy said in an opinion that was joined by the four conservative justices.

The taxpayers who object to the program have no connection to the money involved, Kennedy said. The Obama administration argued aggressively for the outcome the court reached Monday; it also took the view that the challengers had no standing to sue.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the distinction was meaningless. “Appropriations and tax subsidies are readily interchangeable,” Justice Kagan said in her first dissenting opinion since joining the court in August. “What is a cash grant today can be a tax break tomorrow.”

And she predicted that lawmakers elsewhere would adopt the “roadmap” Justice Kennedy provided to subsidize religion without facing judicial review. The court’s other three liberal justices signed on to her dissent.

Supporters of the Arizona program said they hope that Justice Kagan is right. Monday’s ruling and a 2002 decision that upheld the use of vouchers “should give state legislatures wide discretion in adopting school choice programs,” said Tim Keller, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Institute for Justice. The group represented both religious and secular scholarship organizations that receive the tax money.

“School choice programs are not about aiding religion. They’re aimed at helping individual families,” Mr. Keller said.

Monday’s ruling has no effect on the more common voucher programs. Arizona adopted its unusual arrangement because its state constitution prohibits direct aid to private schools, a lawyer for the state told the court during arguments in November.

The American Civil Liberties Union led the challenge to the program.

There is a general prohibition on taxpayer challenges to the government spending of tax revenue. But a 1968 Supreme Court decision created a narrow exception to allow for challenges to programs that promote religion.

In this case, the San Francisco-based federal appeals court agreed with the ACLU that the lawsuit could proceed under that high court ruling. Justice Kennedy’s opinion Monday said otherwise.

“It’s a very disappointing decision that ignores precedent, defies logic and undermines the role of the courts in preserving the core constitutional principle that government may not subsidize religion,” said Steven R. Shapiro, the ACLU’s legal director.

Mr. Shapiro said the only bright spot was that the court rejected a more significant outcome, overruling the 1968 decision.

Justice Antonin Scalia, in a brief opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, urged the court to “repudiate that misguided decision.”

The consolidated cases are Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, 09-987, and Garriott v. Winn, 09-991.

No Wonder It’s So Hard to Pass Ed Reform!

April 2, 2011

We’ve Become a Nation of Takers, Not Makers

More Americans work for the government than in manufacturing, farming, fishing, forestry, mining and utilities combined.

By STEPHEN MOORE

If you want to understand better why so many states—from New York to Wisconsin to California—are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, consider this depressing statistic: Today in America there are nearly twice as many people working for the government (22.5 million) than in all of manufacturing (11.5 million). This is an almost exact reversal of the situation in 1960, when there were 15 million workers in manufacturing and 8.7 million collecting a paycheck from the government.

It gets worse. More Americans work for the government than work in construction, farming, fishing, forestry, manufacturing, mining and utilities combined. We have moved decisively from a nation of makers to a nation of takers. Nearly half of the $2.2 trillion cost of state and local governments is the $1 trillion-a-year tab for pay and benefits of state and local employees. Is it any wonder that so many states and cities cannot pay their bills?

Every state in America today except for two—Indiana and Wisconsin—has more government workers on the payroll than people manufacturing industrial goods. Consider California, which has the highest budget deficit in the history of the states. The not-so Golden State now has an incredible 2.4 million government employees—twice as many as people at work in manufacturing. New Jersey has just under two-and-a-half as many government employees as manufacturers. Florida’s ratio is more than 3 to 1. So is New York’s.

Even Michigan, at one time the auto capital of the world, and Pennsylvania, once the steel capital, have more government bureaucrats than people making things. The leaders in government hiring are Wyoming and New Mexico, which have hired more than six government workers for every manufacturing worker.

Now it is certainly true that many states have not typically been home to traditional manufacturing operations. Iowa and Nebraska are farm states, for example. But in those states, there are at least five times more government workers than farmers. West Virginia is the mining capital of the world, yet it has at least three times more government workers than miners. New York is the financial capital of the world—at least for now. That sector employs roughly 670,000 New Yorkers. That’s less than half of the state’s 1.48 million government employees.

Don’t expect a reversal of this trend anytime soon. Surveys of college graduates are finding that more and more of our top minds want to work for the government. Why? Because in recent years only government agencies have been hiring, and because the offer of near lifetime security is highly valued in these times of economic turbulence. When 23-year-olds aren’t willing to take career risks, we have a real problem on our hands. Sadly, we could end up with a generation of Americans who want to work at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

The employment trends described here are explained in part by hugely beneficial productivity improvements in such traditional industries as farming, manufacturing, financial services and telecommunications. These produce far more output per worker than in the past. The typical farmer, for example, is today at least three times more productive than in 1950.

Where are the productivity gains in government? Consider a core function of state and local governments: schools. Over the period 1970-2005, school spending per pupil, adjusted for inflation, doubled, while standardized achievement test scores were flat. Over roughly that same time period, public-school employment doubled per student, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington. That is what economists call negative productivity.

But education is an industry where we measure performance backwards: We gauge school performance not by outputs, but by inputs. If quality falls, we say we didn’t pay teachers enough or we need smaller class sizes or newer schools. If education had undergone the same productivity revolution that manufacturing has, we would have half as many educators, smaller school budgets, and higher graduation rates and test scores.

The same is true of almost all other government services. Mass transit spends more and more every year and yet a much smaller share of Americans use trains and buses today than in past decades. One way that private companies spur productivity is by firing underperforming employees and rewarding excellence. In government employment, tenure for teachers and near lifetime employment for other civil servants shields workers from this basic system of reward and punishment. It is a system that breeds mediocrity, which is what we’ve gotten.

Most reasonable steps to restrain public-sector employment costs are smothered by the unions. Study after study has shown that states and cities could shave 20% to 40% off the cost of many services—fire fighting, public transportation, garbage collection, administrative functions, even prison operations—through competitive contracting to private providers. But unions have blocked many of those efforts. Public employees maintain that they are underpaid relative to equally qualified private-sector workers, yet they are deathly afraid of competitive bidding for government services.

President Obama says we have to retool our economy to “win the future.” The only way to do that is to grow the economy that makes things, not the sector that takes things.

Mr. Moore is senior economics writer for The Wall Street Journal editorial page.

WALL STREET JOURNAL OPINION APRIL 1, 2011

Democrats Versus Poor Kids-DC

April 1, 2011
  • APRIL 1, 2011
    Democrats and Poor Kids—II

The House GOP revives a D.C. voucher program that Obama opposes.

We hope the tea partiers don’t faint, but House Republicans this week voted 225-195 to restore $20 million in federal spending—for the District of Columbia’s school voucher program. This is the program, terminated by Democrats in 2009, that gave some 1,700 D.C. students (virtually all of them black or Hispanic) up to $7,500 per year to attend a private school.

Most District residents ardently supported the voucher program, while the teachers unions—locally and nationally—reviled it. This proved to be an embarrassment to professional Democrats—from the Presidency down to local school boards—who still claim to be the party of the poor but who have no clue how to win elections without prostrating themselves for union support.

Thus in 2009 we had the spectacle of Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, then head of a subcommittee that oversaw the program’s funding, stringing along its supporters with intimations of support if they jumped various hoops, such as getting the D.C. Council to support it. The Council did. Whereupon Senator Durbin ginned up a new hoop.

This week the Obama White House put out a statement that it “opposes targeting resources to help a small number of individuals attend private schools.” It continues to say there is no evidence of academic improvement. As we noted in a 2009 editorial, “Democrats and Poor Kids,” the Education Department was in possession then of a study showing gains in reading scores and no declines in math relative to public schools.

The President this week didn’t promise a veto, so if perchance it passed the Democratic Senate, he just might sign it. That’s the undying optimist in us. The cynical view would be that Mr. Obama will do what the unions say he must to win their re-election cash.

From the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page.

LA Parent Trigger (contd.)

March 30, 2011

A Good LA Weekly article of the continuing saga of Parents vs. Inept School Board. Highlights:

The last few months have been a painstaking uphill battle for Parent Revolution, the group of organizers and McKinley Elementary School parents trying to turn one vastly underperforming Compton campus into a charter school.

Now that the community battle has been transplanted to a house of law, things are going a little more smoothly. At this morning’s hearing, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge … Mohr, … told district officials that their method of verifying Parent Trigger signatures … was … unconstitutional, ….

When the judge’s deadline arrives, CUSD … [will] have … their verification process … “subject of strict scrutiny,” and — if found … un-thorough — could instead be handed off to a “neutral third party.”

Wow. Neutral third party. What a concept.

But the fight has just begun. We’ll see you back in court on April 11.

If You’re Looking for Some Humor…

March 29, 2011

You Might Enjoy “Anonymous’s” Comment and My Responses at this link.

Meet the Reluctant Star of “Waiting for Superman”

March 29, 2011
  • MARCH 26, 2011

Weingarten for the Union Defense

Teachers Union Chief Randi Weingarten on charter schools, reformers Michelle Rhee and Joel Klein, and her star turn in ‘Waiting for Superman.’

By JASON L. RILEY

New York

Teachers unions are on the defensive these days. The Obama administration is pushing various measures long opposed by the unions: charter school expansion, pay-for-performance, teacher evaluations and more. States and localities are looking to change collective-bargaining rules and scale back costly, bloated education work forces that have grown even when student enrollment was flat or declining. And Hollywood, in recent documentary films like “Waiting for ‘Superman,'” “The Lottery” and “The Cartel,” has highlighted how teachers unions block or stifle education reforms to the detriment of the low-income minority kids who populate the nation’s worst schools.

When I sit down for an interview with Randi Weingarten, who has been head of the American Federation of Teachers since 2008, my first question is whether those films are getting her recognized more in public these days.

“Actually, no,” she responds, not particularly amused by the query. “I’m used to the use of scapegoating and demonization and finger-pointing as a mechanism to divert or distract from problem-solving.”

“We want to improve public schools,” says Ms. Weingarten. “Ninety percent of the kids in the United States of America go to public schools, and it’s our responsibility to help them. I think every single child deserves a great education.” These films, she said, “are all made by people who have not ever once looked at a good public school.” She adds that what bothers her in particular about “Waiting for ‘Superman'” is that “there was not one public school teacher in a unionized setting who was acknowledged as a great teacher, and there are hundreds of thousands of them. . . . So you have a movie like ‘Waiting for “Superman,”‘ which is about one [charter] school, when so many other charter schools don’t do a good job.”

In fact, “Waiting for ‘Superman'” tracks five children who enter lotteries at four charter schools located in two states and the District of Columbia. It explicitly notes that not all charter schools are high-performing. And it features footage of the late Harriett Ball, the influential public school teacher in Houston who mentored Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, the two young teachers who would co-found KIPP, the most successful charter school network in the country.

winterriley

I ask Ms. Weingarten about union-backed laws in 14 states mandating that teachers be laid off by seniority instead of job performance, and whether they help improve public schools. Why can’t teachers who have been chronically absent from work be the first to go? Or the ones who have been convicted of crimes? Or the ones who are languishing—with full pay and benefits—in some “reserve pool” because no school will hire them? Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently said that “last in, first out” policies hit low-income kids hardest because the poor are more likely to attend schools where teachers have less seniority.

Says Ms. Weingarten: “It’s not the perfect mechanism but it’s the best mechanism we have. You have cronyism and corruption and discrimination issues. We’re saying let’s do things the right way. We don’t want to see people getting laid off based on who they know instead of what they know. We don’t want to see people get laid off based on how much they cost.” She praises New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for defending the state’s seniority system.

What about teacher-tenure rules that offer lifetime sinecures after two or three years in the classroom and compel principals to hire bad instructors? “If you eliminated due process, what we would get is we would lose innovation and risk-taking in schools,” she says.

And so it goes. Ms. Weingarten insists that teachers unions are agents of change, not defenders of the status quo. But in the next breath she shoots down suggestions for changes—vouchers, charter schools, differential teacher pay and so on—that have become important parts of the reform conversation. She seems to conceive of her job as the one William F. Buckley Jr. ascribed to conservatives in the 1950s: To stand athwart history yelling “Stop!”

“We’ve started some charter schools, but there are studies out there that say 80% of charter schools are no better [than traditional public schools] and 37% are worse.” she says. “We’ve tried merit pay in a few places [but] there’s a new study from Vanderbilt University that says it doesn’t work.” And school vouchers “have never been shown to be successful,” she insists, ignoring the results of a study last year by Patrick Wolf of the University of Arkansas, who found that “students in Washington, D.C., who used a federally funded voucher to attend a private school were more likely to graduate from high school.”

Ms. Weingarten is dismissive of some of the country’s leading public education reformers. Michelle Rhee, the celebrated former schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., who negotiated a teachers contract that has become a nationwide model, “had a record that is actually no better than the previous two chancellors.” And Joel Klein, the former education chief in New York City who closed 91 failing schools and sought to change the process for awarding tenure, is a reformer-come-lately who “just started talking about revamping teacher evaluations this past Sunday.”

The labor leader downplays differences with the Obama administration, despite its tough talk on holding teachers more accountable. “We’ve been generally supportive of what the president and the secretary of education have done,” she says. So either her union doesn’t take the rhetoric seriously, or Team Obama can say whatever it wants so long as the education spending spigot remains open.

Then there’s the matter of collective bargaining for public workers, which has caused so much controversy in Wisconsin and elsewhere—and which past labor leaders resisted. Former AFL-CIO President George Meany, for example, said that “it is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” And Franklin Roosevelt said that “all government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining cannot be transplanted into the public service” because “it has distinct and insurmountable limitations when applied to public personnel management.”

“If Meany and FDR were alive today, they’d have a very different view,” Ms. Weingarten says.

“What’s happening now is you see George Meany’s successors, Richard Trumka and others—you see FDR’s successors as governor of New York—all giving people collective-bargaining rights. What collective bargaining does in the public sphere is that it helps transform systems. It helps focus on equality. It helps create a check and balance that’s really important.”

The AFT and its larger sister organization, the National Education Association, may be the most powerful labor unions in the country. They have a combined membership of more that 4.5 million, and their policy influence reaches far beyond public schools. Political donations from these groups go overwhelmingly to Democrats, and the role that member dues play in the wider liberal movement can be seen in teachers union support for everything from abortion rights to single-payer health care to statehood for Washington, D.C.

But the real strength of the AFT, NEA and their state and local affiliates lies in their ability to obstruct. They have been particularly effective at blocking poor people from leaving bad public schools. They offer financial and logistical support to political candidates sympathetic to their agenda of curbing educational options, and they punish elected officials who don’t stay the course.

Teachers unions agitate for laws and regulations that ban means-tested voucher programs or cap the number of charter schools that can open in a state. To protect jobs for their members, they fight to keep the worst instructors from being fired and the worst schools from closing. All the while, they insist that their interests are aligned with those of the kids.

It is this skill set that has made Ms. Weingarten a documentary film star. And it is why education reformers, of all political stripes, focus so much of their attention on undermining the teachers unions and setting up public charter schools that can operate outside of their grip.

Mr. Riley is a member of The Journal’s editorial board.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal