California: In Defeat, Unsavory Glory

Yesterday, I posted about the ratings released by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, awarding letter grades to states based on the reform efforts they had made in public education. As was noted there, 11 states received Fs, California unsurprisingly among them. The Golden State was probably the only one to generate this kind of reaction, however. From an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal:

… Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent for California, … says a negative critique of the Golden State’s policies is a “badge of honor.” …

Mr. Zeiger claimed to be elated by the failure. He called StudentsFirst “an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing,” adding to the New York Times that “I would have been surprised if we had got anything else.”

Let’s assume for a minute that Zeiger’s criticisms of StudentsFirst are accurate (they’re not — StudentsFirst is far from the first organization to rank California as one of the worst states in the nation for public education. Unless the criteria is pay and benefits, you’ll usually find California towards the bottom of any such list). What kind of public official responds this way? Who glories in being criticized by “the right people” rather than addressing explicit concerns about the health of the state’s schools? Well, a hack, that’s who.

Last year, I wrote a piece for City Journal that garnered a fair amount of attention (and earned me a tremendous amount of hate mail) for its portrayal of the systematic corruption that’s resulted from the power of the California Teachers Association, easily the most powerful teachers union in the nation. Every time that I did an event around the piece, I would get the same question: “How do these people defend what’s happened to the schools?” My answer: They don’t. Because they don’t have to. Since there’s no consequence for failure, why bother justifying your behavior when you can just pound the table and berate your critics? When you have monopoly power, moral suasion is a frivolity.

An example: At one point during the early 90s, the union actually had members physically intimidating people who were signing petitions to put a school choice initiative on the state ballot, as well as forging signatures to throw the whole process into chaos. When the CTA president at the time was called on it, his response was “there are some proposals so evil they should never go before the voters.”

This is why the efforts of education reform organizations like Rhee’s — and policy leaders like Bobby Jindal — are so important. Without them, the system is all too often left in the hands of people who only value the kids insofar as they are a mechanism for acquiring more political power.