No one can accuse Joe Williams of cen­sur­ing a par­tic­u­lar per­son or group of peo­ple for the per­ceived decline in pub­lic edu­ca­tion over the last sev­er­al decades.  In Cheating Our Kids:  How Politics and Greed Ruin Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), Mr. Williams asserts that there is plen­ty of blame to go around—from teach­ers unions to politi­cians to well inten­tioned philan­thropists.   In a book that strives to inspire, how­ev­er, he also writes how he believes parents—organized and committed—have the pow­er to bring last­ing improve­ment to pub­lic schools.

True to his title, in the first chap­ter Mr. Williams makes the argu­ment that as long as we spend tax dol­lars on pub­lic schools, edu­ca­tion will inher­ent­ly be a polit­i­cal oper­a­tion (it is worth not­ing here that it only takes him until page sev­en to bring up the Kansas City, Missouri School District’s deseg­re­ga­tion case and his­toric super­in­ten­dent turnover).  When it comes to pub­lic schools, Mr. Williams con­tends that the needs of chil­dren often take a back­seat while adults “stand in line look­ing for hand­outs”. He goes on to com­pare the pow­er­ful struc­ture of school sys­tems to car­tels.  In the busi­ness world, of course, car­tels are agree­ments between the pro­duc­ers of a prod­uct to either lim­it their pro­duc­tion or fix prices. According to Mr. Williams, one of the things that keeps the edu­ca­tion car­tel run­ning smooth­ly is its pow­er over vast sums of oth­er people’s cash.

Complicating the mat­ter is the fact that it is hard to hold any­one account­able. Early on, Mr. Williams argues that so many peo­ple and forces are involved in deliv­er­ing public edu­ca­tion that it is far too easy for bureau­crats and politi­cians to point fin­gers of blame at one anoth­er when things go wrong. He con­cludes that, in fact, mul­ti­ple groups and orga­ni­za­tions bear respon­si­bil­i­ty. Beginning with the teach­ers’ unions, he describes how the exist­ing pay struc­tures usu­al­ly reward teach­ers for senior­i­ty and have lit­tle if any regard for how effec­tive they are in the class­room. He also explains how teacher con­tracts often con­tain so many work rules—such as how much time they are required to work and what prin­ci­pals may and may not ask them to do—that it has become dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, for prin­ci­pals, super­in­ten­dents and oth­er school lead­ers to serve as effec­tive man­agers. And while he notes that there are many well-mean­ing, car­ing teach­ers in our nation’s pub­lic schools, he also points out that the pri­ma­ry pur­pose of the teach­ers’ unions is to pro­tect its dues pay­ing mem­bers, not to serve chil­dren.

Over the years, Mr. Williams writes, the unions have become a major polit­i­cal force to be reck­oned with.  From pro­vid­ing enor­mous amounts of mon­ey to run­ning phone banks in polit­i­cal cam­paigns, the teach­ers’ unions wield so much polit­i­cal clout that those seek­ing or cur­rent­ly in pub­lic office are often afraid to “rock the boat” with real edu­ca­tion reform efforts for fear of offend­ing this pow­er base. Parents, on the oth­er hand, have very lit­tle real pow­er when it comes to shap­ing edu­ca­tion­al agen­das.  Sadly, this seems to be some­thing the pub­lic has come to accept—at one point Mr. Williams ascer­tains that, when it comes to edu­ca­tion-relat­ed issues, politi­cians and the pub­lic alike have become so used to hear­ing teach­ers’ (or more accu­rate­ly, the unions’) opin­ion that they sel­dom won­der any­more what par­ents think about a par­tic­u­lar issue.

The unions, of course, are not the only cul­prit.  Vendors who ped­dle every­thing from text­books to com­put­ers often pro­vide trips, meals and oth­er perks to school admin­is­tra­tors who then pur­chase their prod­ucts.  Thus, admin­is­tra­tors often make pur­chas­ing deci­sions that are based more on rela­tion­ships than on putting the edu­ca­tion­al needs of chil­dren first.

Mr. Williams also dis­cuss­es pol­i­tics and school gov­er­nance.  He argues ear­ly on that when school boards are elect­ed by vot­ers, they are respon­si­ble to vot­ers.  This account­abil­i­ty arrange­ment would work just fine, he states, if all vot­ers were par­ents with chil­dren in the school sys­tem.  Unfortunately, many par­ents, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in urban areas, do not vote in school board elec­tions.  Partially because these elec­tions are typ­i­cal­ly held in off years, vot­er turnout tends to be low (it has his­tor­i­cal­ly aver­aged around 8% in Kansas City).  Additionally, the needs of par­ents are often pushed aside by the wants of oth­er vot­ers who may have dif­fer­ent agen­das, from retirees who don’t want to spend any more mon­ey on schools to orga­nized employ­ee groups with­in the sys­tem who stand to ben­e­fit through the elec­tion of a cer­tain team. But Mr. Williams does not lim­it his dis­cus­sion to local pol­i­tics.  He devotes an entire chap­ter to nation­al politi­cians (many of whom claim to sup­port pub­lic edu­ca­tion but send their own chil­dren to pri­vate schools), argu­ing that Democ­rats and Republicans alike give lip ser­vice to the sub­ject of edu­ca­tion reform but sel­dom enact any mean­ing­ful change.  Democrats, he main­tains, are espe­cial­ly at the mer­cy of the teach­ers unions. This, he rea­sons, has made it easy for Republicans to refrain from hav­ing to come up with their own creative plans for edu­ca­tion reform.  Mr. Williams con­cludes this chap­ter by suggest­ing that the fed­er­al “No Child Left Behind” pro­gram had the “right idea but lame imple­men­ta­tion.”

Business lead­ers, Mr. Williams main­tains, also give lip ser­vice to the sub­ject of edu­ca­tion but sel­dom do any more than that. Even edu­ca­tion phil­an­thropists who pro­vide enor­mous sums of mon­ey for schools receive their share of crit­i­cism. Mr. Williams rais­es the ques­tion of why cer­tain reforms favored by what he describes as “friends with deep pock­ets” are often imple­ment­ed regard­less of whether there is any evi­dence that they actu­al­ly work or whether they pro­vide the ser­vices that par­ents and admin­is­tra­tors actu­al­ly want.

In the lat­ter part of his book, Mr. Williams talks about how it is pos­si­ble—and necessary—to put kids first.  As an edu­ca­tion reporter who worked for both the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the New York Daily News, he uses many exam­ples from these two cities.  He talks in great length about the move to pro­vide vouch­ers to low income chil­dren in the Milwaukee pub­lic schools. He also gives a fair amount of dis­cus­sion to the move­ment in New York City to give con­trol of the pub­lic school sys­tem to the may­or.

In the end, though, Mr. Williams asserts that it is par­ents who must take charge.  Parents, he argues, are the only indi­vid­u­als who tru­ly want what is best for their chil­dren, and he urges them to act more like the con­sumers when it comes to their children’s edu­ca­tion. In his list of 12 Rules to Help Parents Take Back Their Public Schools, he makes some good points.  For exam­ple, he urges par­ents to remem­ber that “no one in the school sys­tem deserves a job more than your child deserves an edu­ca­tion, and he push­es par­ents to under­stand that basic prob­lems (such as unsan­i­tary bath­rooms and teach­ers park­ing in children’s out­door play areas) are often sym­bol­ic of larg­er prob­lems.  He also gives exam­ples of par­ents uti­liz­ing tech­niques often employed by the unions.  For instance, in El Sobrante, California, par­ents orga­nized a mass “sick out” of stu­dents when their chil­dren were not giv­en a per­ma­nent teacher (the sit­u­a­tion was quick­ly reme­died); in Benton, Illinois, par­ents formed their own pick­et lines to pick­et strik­ing teach­ers when some­one not­ed that the aver­age teacher salary was $56,000 while the aver­age res­i­dent earned just $27,000.  While Mr. Williams con­cedes that teach­ers’ unions have every right to pick­et, he main­tains that par­ents also have every right to protest and pick­et about their issues.

But while Mr. Williams speaks of par­ent empow­er­ment, in this reviewer’s opin­ion he fails to ade­quate­ly address the irony of how par­ents are sup­posed to act like con­sumers when many of them real­ly don’t have a choice about where their chil­dren attend school.  Those who do have a choice often exer­cise it by either send­ing their chil­dren to pri­vate schools or mov­ing to a bet­ter school dis­trict. That leaves most­ly poor par­ents in fail­ing urban dis­tricts; par­ents who may have received an inad­e­quate edu­ca­tion them­selves and who often lack the con­fi­dence or abil­i­ty to fight for reform.  Monopolies and car­tels are hard to break, even for the most high­ly edu­cat­ed, accom­plished and moti­vat­ed indi­vid­u­als.  One can’t help won­der­ing if these par­ents are real­ly up to the task, and whether his 12 Rules to Help Parents are enough to over­come the pow­er­ful “edu­ca­tion car­tel”.  While Mr. William’s pro­posed solu­tions may leave some read­ers feel­ing a lit­tle skep­ti­cal, this does not inval­i­date his theme of putting chil­dren first.  He is right in stat­ing that children’s’ issues should not be put on the table only after the needs of school employ­ees, ven­dors, phil­an­thropists and politi­cians have been met. In the final chap­ter, he pos­es the ques­tion:  “Are we seri­ous about putting kids first, and if so, what are we going to do about it?”

It’s a good ques­tion.  In Kansas City, as the dis­trict con­tin­ues to shrink and test scores remain dis­mal, it is also a ques­tion we can’t afford to take too long to answer.

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