Sunday, October 17, 2010

(Un)civil Servants?

In 2007, Michelle Rhee was appointed superintendent of Washington D.C.'s dismal public school system. It's per pupil expenditures ($14,594) was the 4th highest in the nation, yet its students scored at the bottom among the 11 major city school systems. This was not simply a reflection of the socio-economic status of its student body, because "even when poor children are compared only with other poor children. Thirty-three percent of poor fourth-graders across the nation lacked basic skills in math, but in the District, the figure was 62 percent. It was 74 percent for D.C. eighth-graders, compared with 49 percent nationally."

In her three years at the post, student achievement significantly improved. Secondary schools raised the test pass rates in standardized tests by 14% in reading and 17% in math, while elementary school pass rates have improved 6% in reading and 15% in math. System wide graduation rates also improved by 3%, up to 72%. Rhee's reform program involved a 20% pay raise for high performing teachers. And perhaps more importantly, the regimen of teacher tenure was weakened, allowing Rhee to fire 241 teachers for poor evaluations and grant other low performing teachers a year to improve their performance. These much needed reforms outraged D.C.'s power teacher unions and their allies, which led to her resignation.

This demonstrates a flaw in the progressive narrative that tends to present public sector workers and their unions in a favorable manner. Such groups are said to pursue broad, public interests, in contrast to the private sector which pursues their "narrow self interests." While there are many outstanding teachers and civil servants, as a whole public sector unions guard their self interest and defend the status quo, even to the detriment of the public. And only the most uncivil of civil servants can deny the need to grant schools greater leeway in firing incompetent teachers, especially in schools that are miserably failing underprivileged students.

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