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Next On The Federal Agenda: Redistributing Teachers

Mandates and court cases that intend to get poor children good teachers are far more likely to deprive all children of the good teachers.

Just this week, while teachers, schoolchildren, and families frolic in the summer sun, blessedly free of government supervision at least for these few months, the Obama administration resurfaced an old rule from President Bush’s tenure that may have states redistributing teachers like so many cattle.

It attempted the same last September, far more directly, but in the meantime has had its hands busy juggling its many new interpretations of education law to suit the shifting fancies of National Superintendent, er, Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

But a big lawsuit win in California last month, in the Vergara case where a judge ruled that union-backed tenure rules cause poor and minority kids to get the worst teachers, brought teacher quality back into the limelight. So Duncan—never one to shy from any facet of education lest the public forget everyone else’s business interests him deeply and cannot be conducted well without his guidance—issued a new demand that states explain how they will solve this problem by next April. To please their federal masters, state departments of education must “describe the steps [they] will take to ensure that poor and minority children are not taught at higher rates than other children by inexperienced, unqualified, or out-of-field teachers,” Duncan wrote these departments Monday. You can bet they won’t suggest outlawing teacher tenure as a solution, although that would be the most direct approach, and the one most in line with the evidence.

Probably Duncan will get paperwork-heavy proposals of the kind he likes best, such as this forerunning one from Rhode Island in 2010. It was part of a larger package requesting a federal grant, which ran 332 pages. That was just the appetizer. Great bedtime reading. But although Duncan seems to think otherwise, usually the paperwork-to-results ratio is an inverse relationship. That’s certainly been the history in education policy, where for more than a decade now the feds have blithely promised that they could provide America’s 50 million schoolchildren “highly qualified” teachers. Except the research shows that what the feds call a “highly qualified” teacher is just the same teachers as before, who now have paid more money to our nation’s ineffective education schools to get—you guessed it—more paperwork on their walls. Effects on the kids? Zero.

Back to Rhode Island. They aren’t calling their plan “teacher redistribution” (just “teacher distribution”), but it calls for using the state’s education “data-management system to monitor the distribution of highly effective, effective, developing, and ineffective educators and will use these data to hold local districts accountable for achieving an equitable distribution across schools…” That sounds like redistribution to me, except it’s delegated redistribution. Hey, school district: Distribute your teachers “equitably.” Or we’ll “hold you accountable.” (Back to mafia government, I see.)

‘Educator Equity’ Doesn’t Sound Statist…

Duncan’s calling what he wants “comprehensive educator equity” programs, and as usual, he feels the federal government is best suited to tell everyone else what to do, so he’s using your tax dollars to sponsor some federal “models” for states, even though the feds have never proven they can raise student achievement.

Leftists see Vergara, and its terrible legal precedent, as a strategy to take nationwide. Courts have long been receptive to giving themselves the power to decide whether school finances are equitably redistributed, and many lawyers have made their careers from compelling taxpayers in rich towns to send their money, not to their own kids, but to the poor town down the street, regardless of how well that town manages education money, whether it’s right to take money from some people and give it to others, or whether the ability to generate good property tax revenues has a relationship to residents’ behavior. Now, one of the attorneys for the Vergara plaintiffs said in the Wall Street Journal today, the next gameplan is to ask courts to demand “teacher equity” everywhere: “Vergara provides a road map for future education litigation in other states, including two New York cases that are already moving forward.”

The Vergara lawyer, Joshua Lipshutz, wants courts deciding on whether kids get equal-enough outcomes from schools: “courts should scrutinize the equality of educational outcomes, using test scores, literacy rates, graduation rates, college-attendance rates and other direct measures of student learning…” Yes, that’s exactly what we need. Courts deciding whether kids are getting equal inputs and equal outcomes from public schools. Nothing could possibly go wrong there.

Teachers Aren’t Humans, They’re Inputs

But put aside these arcane arguments. How is it appropriate to treat teachers like objects? If the reward for being considered a “highly effective” teacher is that you get thrown into whatever classroom your overlords deem it necessary, how many “highly effective” teachers are likely to stand for that? It’s (in some ways) a free country. Teachers can become lawyers, accountants, chemists—heck, I’d take a janitor’s position I chose over a teacher’s position someone else shoehorned me into. So mandates that intend to get poor children good teachers are far more likely to deprive all children of the good teachers.

Further, it’s an absolute affront to treat human beings like objects. Andrew Coulson points out that randomly distributing teachers every year, or every semester, even, would make the teacher distribution “more equitable,” if equity is one’s goal. There’s a technocrat’s solution for you: Something that sounds utterly insane to normal people but palatable to those who think they have the right to “order” society. This is how talk of “human capital” and “human resources” comes home to roost. It’s been going on for some time in education, despite the highly relational nature of cultivating children’s minds and souls. Quantifying teacher quality through student test scores is the latest craze, and high student test scores are how teachers are to earn the “highly effective” moniker.

Using this measurement tool is likely to increase the churn in low-performing schools if states and school districts redistribute teachers in response to Duncan’s orders, because the latest research shows that using student test scores to judge teachers is biased against the teachers who teach in low-performing schools. In other words, if you take the same teacher, and put her in a low-performing school, she gets worse ratings than if you put that same teacher in a high-performing school. So there will be more low-rated teachers in low-performing schools, necessitating more teacher rotations in and out to constantly even out the percentages. What madness. As if one of the deepest needs of kids in struggling communities isn’t stability.

Technocrats come to believe they have the right to treat humans like widgets. After all, that’s how they talk about us. But humans, quite clearly, are in our most important respects not anything like capital or a resource. We transcend such materialist labels. It’s utterly inappropriate and shameful to say that because one human has a skill that is useful to society—and, make no mistake, good teachers can work social and economic magic, such as reducing teen pregnancies and increasing students’ lifetime earnings by hundreds of thousands of dollars—that society has a right to decide how, when, and where this person must wield that skill.

This is why free markets are so important to human happiness. Perhaps the greatest foibles of education stem from the lack of freedom in our education system. When parents are free to choose any school, they can put their kids in one with good teachers, without having to force either teachers or kids to show up there. Schools with more challenging students can offer teachers more pay for harder work if they’re not constrained by union pay schedules. Freedom functions on attracting people to do things, not forcing them, which ends up making everyone happy and prosperous. When people trade, both parties end up happy, rather than the zero-sum game that occurs when government forces one person to give up something so another can have it. These are simple, time-proven concepts, that don’t involve coercion, or treating people like pawns in someone else’s chess game. Why can’t we use them, instead?

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