It’s rare when the New York Times has an oped that takes on the liberal establishment, but this piece by Nicolas D. Kristoff offers a damning assessment of the teachers unions, which consistently impede education reform and stiffle educational opportunities for poor kids.  He writes:

Good schools constitute a far more potent weapon against poverty than welfare, food stamps or housing subsidies. Yet, cowed by teachers’ unions, Democrats have too often resisted reform and stood by as generations of disadvantaged children have been cemented into an underclass by third-rate schools….

It’s difficult to improve failing schools when you can’t create alternatives such as charter schools and can’t remove inept or abusive teachers. In New York City, for example, unions ordinarily prevent teachers from being dismissed for incompetence – so the schools must pay failed teachers their full salaries to sit year after year doing nothing in centers called “rubber rooms.”

A devastating article in The New Yorker by Steven Brill examined how New York City tried to dismiss a fifth-grade teacher for failing to correct student work, follow the curriculum, manage the class or even fill out report cards. The teacher claimed that she was being punished for union activity, but an independent observer approved by the union confirmed the allegations and declared the teacher incompetent. The school system’s lawyer put it best: “These children were abused in stealth.”

The effort to remove the teacher is expected to cost about $400,000, and the outcome is uncertain. In New York City, with its 80,000 teachers, arbiters have removed only two for incompetence alone in the last couple of years. We tolerate failed teachers – and failed arbiters – as long as it’s not our own kids who suffer.

Kristoff suggests that President Obama and Secretary Duncan are committed to changing the status quo and encouraging real reform.  Let’s hope he has reason for such optimism.  It seems blindingly obvious that the current system, which protects our worst teacher at the expense of students, desperately needs masive change.  Yet few Democrat leaders have had the stomach to actually push reform.  It’s good news, though, that articles like this seem increasingly frequent — at some point the public is going to demand better.