Don’t ‘Feel the Bern’

March 2, 2016 by James Sawyers

Anyone who listens to Bernie Sanders for any length of time learns three things: the “system is rigged,” we need more government programs and Hillary Clinton can’t be trusted. Sanders hammers Clinton over and over again using loaded language. “People aren’t dumb,” he insists. “Why in God’s name does Wall Street make huge campaign contributions?” The obvious take–away is that Clinton has been corrupted. Implicit is the assumption that politicians are incapable of regulating groups that give them significant campaign contributions.

This line of reasoning leads me to my own question: If Clinton can’t be trusted to regulate Wall Street because of its donations to her campaigns, how can we possibly trust Sanders to regulate public sector unions and fix our broken K-12 education system?

Nine out of 10 of Sanders’ top donors are unions. One of his biggest donors is the National Education Association (NEA), the country’s largest union, which represents K-12 public school teachers as well as employees and professors at colleges and universities. Given the sources of his funding, is it any surprise that Sanders votes in near lockstep with the interests of these unions?

The NEA has consistently awarded Sanders “A” ratings on his congressional report cards for his voting record and overall support of the NEA’s goals. His education “plan” revolves around his proposal for “tuition-free public college,” carefully sidestepping the more critical issue of our failing K-12 education system. This allows him to avoid angering his union benefactors. Sanders’s plan is a massive giveaway to public universities and to his base of predominantly young, white, liberal college students, who would enjoy an even more subsidized education. Touting plans that benefit your favored constituencies and political allies isn’t a political revolution; it’s politics as usual.

The main education problem in the United States is not our colleges and universities. Eight of the top 10 universities in the world are American. The United States ranks first in tertiary education, well ahead of countries like Germany, Australia and the United Kingdom. Our higher education system isn’t perfect by any means, but it is one of the things of which we can be justifiably proud. Our K-12 system, on the other hand, is a disgrace.

In 2012, the United States placed an abysmal 35th in math and 27th in science (out of 64 countries), putting us behind academic powerhouses like Slovakia and Latvia. Moreover, race plays a huge role in determining the quality of one’s education in the United States. Studies show that public schools serving people of color disproportionately underperform and employ worse and/or less dedicated teachers. The black male graduation rate is 59 percent compared with 80 percent for white males, and seven in 10 inner-city fourth graders can’t read at grade level.

The U.S. public education system is not adequately preparing our citizens to be successful and productive members of society. The only way to lift people permanently out of poverty is to ensure that they have access to the base level of education necessary to participate in the economy. In the face of this crisis, Sanders has no plans for true reform. In fact, his policies would affirmatively harm many in poverty to appeal to both his donors and his base. Following the example of the NEA, he opposes school vouchers and wants to restrict access to charter schools, ensuring that some of the few approaches proven to help low-income students obtain quality education will not be implemented. Sanders opposes new teaching accountability measures and wants to continue the ridiculous “tenure” system currently in place for public school teachers, thus preventing any meaningful improvement in the most important component of public education: teachers.

Thomas Kane, director of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard, argues that the greatest possible positive change in K-12 education would be increasing the time and rigor required for a U.S. public school teacher to obtain “tenure.” Kane cites examples such as the California system, where teachers gain “tenure” after only 18 months and then become practically un-removable. In the last 10 years, only 19 teachers (out of 300,000) have been fired for incompetence in California. In New York, the government spends tens of millions of dollars paying teachers who are either accused of sexual misconduct or monumental incompetence to spend all day in so called “rubber rooms” because the price and effort required to fire a teacher ($500,000+) is so onerous. It is cheaper and more politically expedient to pay them to do nothing than to attempt to fire them.

Yet any policy capable of meaningfully improving K-12 education is dead on arrival because the unions care more about protecting the worst teachers than they do about the success of students. There is a reason Sanders embraces policies like increasing the minimum wage and free college. These policies directly appeal to his base, even at the expense of the poor who would be priced out of $15/hour jobs and who are not prepared for college (free or otherwise) because our K-12 system has failed them.

If Sanders really believes the economy should “work for everyone,” then he should refocus his efforts on ensuring that no student is denied a good education. If Sanders refuses to embrace meaningful change to improve our K-12 educational system, then he is something worse than the “establishment politicians” he so ardently decries: a hypocrite.

James R. Sawyers ’18 is from Mill Valley, Calif. He lives in Thompson. 

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