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Schools Are Not Social Service Centers

The latest gambit by teachers' unions would expand their numbers and influence.

by
Greg Forster

Bio

August 22, 2008 - 12:39 am

Imagine you got a lousy haircut and complained about it, and you got this response:

“Well, of course your haircut looks bad. What do you expect? You only paid us for a haircut. You didn’t also give us enough money to provide you with all the other services you need to look your best. Next time, pay us triple the price, and we won’t just give you a haircut, we’ll also give you a manicure and a new set of clothes. Then your haircut will look great!”

Would you go back to that shop?

Believe it or not, that more or less sums up the big new marketing campaign the teachers’ unions are using to try to lure you into giving them more money. It’s actually called “Broader, Bolder.” If you’ve ever seen a title that sounded more like a gimmick to sucker people out of their money, you’ve seen more marketing gimmicks than I have.

The argument runs like this: kids do better in school when they’re well fed, healthy, and so forth. Therefore schools should be transformed into social-service centers that will not only teach students, but also provide health care and lots of other services. Schools would be open all day and provide a wide variety of community programs.

This will, of course, cost a ton of money and entail a huge expansion of the government educational bureaucracy. Which has nothing to do with why the unions want it.

My friends Matt Ladner and Jay Greene call this education reform by dorm-room bull session. They imagine the meetings to develop it sounded something like this:

“Like, kids need so much. We should totally provide them with everything they need.”

“Yeah, like, there should be a health thing and a poverty thing and a food thing.”

Some of the dreamy rhetoric being used to push this idea does suggest that kind of thinking (Randi Weingarten, teacher union president: “Imagine schools that are open all day …”). But I think the meeting at teacher-union headquarters probably sounded more like this:

“School spending has been rising much faster than inflation for over fifty years. Historically, we’ve done a great job getting state legislatures to direct enormous geysers of money into the government school system, especially by hiring too many teachers, which puts lots of money into our pockets. And in the past, when people asked why our results were so lousy, we just told them we needed more money. But now that spending is over $10,000 per student, they’re not swallowing that as much as they used to. Options?”

“We definitely need to do more to shift the blame for educational failure to something that’s outside of schools’ control.”

“Agreed. But how can we do that in a way that continues to increase our budgets?”

“Well, we’ve always said we can’t be expected to teach kids if they’re poor, or sick, or have anything at all wrong with them, right? So let’s tell them all social services should be brought into schools.”

“Hey! Great idea! That way we can bring social workers, nurses, nutritionists, counselors and tons of other people into the teachers’ union. We’ll start calling ourselves the ‘community school services union.’ We could triple the size of our membership overnight. I can buy that new boat I’ve had my eye on!”

For the record, yes, poverty and ill health and similar problems do make it harder for kids to learn. But the issue is not whether poverty or ill health is a bad thing. Everyone agrees that if we have an effective way to reduce these social problems, we should do it — and not only because it will help kids learn more in school.

The issue isn’t even whether another big new expansion of the welfare state can be expected to alleviate these problems any better than all the previous big expansions of the welfare state have done. Some of us may well be skeptical. But even if we had some reason to think that this big expansion of the welfare state would be different from all the previous ones, the proposal still wouldn’t make any sense.

And the issue isn’t even whether schools are capable of providing social services effectively, although that isn’t their core mission and they’re currently failing to perform even their core mission (that’s education, in case you forgot) effectively. Even if we had some reason to believe schools could effectively perform these services, the proposal would still be a loser.

The issue is, are schools the best institutions for providing these services? Even if schools could provide them, it still makes no sense to provide them through schools if other institutions could provide the same services better. Like, say, institutions whose core mission is to provide those services.

Even if we stipulate everything the unions might ask us to stipulate — that these services are needed, and that they can be provided effectively by a big new spending program, and that schools can provide them effectively — the idea that a bunch of non-educational services should be handed over to schools makes no sense. Unless, of course, the real goal is to build up the government school bureaucracy and its attendant gravy train — such as the unions who are making this proposal.

The really funny thing is, we’ve tried bringing social services into schools before. Fifty years ago, schools didn’t serve breakfast and provide teams of guidance counselors. Providing these and other social services in schools was originally justified on grounds that the kids needed these services to do well in school. How has that worked out?

Well, after all the empirical research that’s been done on schools, there’s no serious evidence that educational outcomes have improved as a result of these services. When the unions were challenged to come up with some evidence, they responded that “teachers know” these policies work.

But if the real purpose of providing these services in schools was to enlarge the government education blob, mission accomplished.

On the other hand, a large body of empirical evidence demonstrates that changes in education policy can make a difference. Vouchers, accountability testing, and other programs have an empirically proven track record in producing better teaching (yes, even with kids who have high levels of poverty, etc.). Other policies, like merit pay, haven’t been tried much, but based on what we do know they’re much more promising than yet another big spending program.

If we want better learning, we should try better teaching. Just a thought.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Educational Choice.
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