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Outside view: The Amtrak option

By LORI YAKLIN, Special to United Press International   |   Feb. 16, 2002 at 7:30 AM
FLINT, Mich., Feb. 15 (UPI) -- A congressional advisory panel recommended that the cure for the national passenger-carrying Amtrak corporation's woes is competition. The panel stated that private profit-seeking companies should be allowed to compete for train routes and that Amtrak should wean itself from federal money. Currently, Amtrak has a government-granted monopoly over U.S. long-distance rail passenger service and continues to lose money despite massive federal subsidies.

Amtrak, of course, disagrees. Its solution: The government should give Amtrak more money.

It sounds familiar. A government monopoly tries to fend off criticism, asks for more money and protection, and pleads that it offers a unique service essential to the public good.

As the legendary New York Yankees baseball catcher Yogi Berra would say, "It sounds like déjà vu all over again." Did Amtrak read out of the play book of government schools?

If they didn't perhaps they should, because public schools and their labor unions have done an excellent job of protecting themselves from competition despite the fact polls show that parents want to be able to choose the best and safest schools for their children. And despite the fact that, generally speaking, private/independent schools outperform government schools, while being more cost efficient.

Schools and school employee labor unions, fend off criticism in a myriad of ways. They shy away from objective testing and accountability measures, preferring subjective measures that are easily manipulated in their favor.

Poor test results are amazingly never the fault of a poor curriculum, inadequate teaching methods, or administrative problems. When public school superintendents in my state spoke to Michigan officials about poor performing schools, they placed the blame on: dumb parents (whom I noted were probably products of government schools); uninvolved parents; poor parents; lack of funding; transient students; inadequate facilities and technology (due to inadequate funding)

I heard one public school board member speak the truth. He had the nerve to say that at his school: inefficiencies resulting from bad collective bargaining agreements and fiscal mismanagement drained money away from the classroom; it was difficult to terminate ineffective teachers because of the union; and many parents are not involved because the education community sends them a message: "Don't ask questions; just get the kids on the bus and then leave it to the experts."

Government school funding requests make Amtrak's requests look like pocket change. For instance, Michigan has increased the amount schools receive from the state at twice the rate of inflation since 1995. Thanks to Michigan's Proposal A school finance reform, it outspends 43 states in per-pupil funding. Yet the mantra is still, "We can't improve until you give us more money."

I once asked a school official, "How much is enough? When will you have enough to teach these kids to read and do math?" He looked incredulous. Apparently, to admit to adequate funding, is to lose an excellent excuse.

Government school associations and unions spend millions of dollars lobbying legislators to protect their turf. They even fight against charter schools, which are also public schools. Why? They believe that if parents are given the freedom to choose, children will leave to attend independent or charter schools, and take their government funding with them.

The argument itself is an indictment of government schools and their ability to keep customers that are not captives. If they admit that opening the marketplace will lead to a mass exodus, then they have admitted that they are not satisfying their true customers.

To further address the similarities between Amtrak and government schools, consider that the only dissenting vote in the advisory panel's recommendation to break up the monopoly, was a representative of rail labor.

With millions of dollars extracted from teachers annually, school employee unions are the most militant defenders of the monopoly. Union soft money and PAC contributions support candidates that shoot down every attempt at educational freedom.

Interestingly, while the labor unions are taking teachers' money to fight school choice, when teachers get to choose they often spend their money on private school tuition. Urban teachers nationwide send their children to private schools at a rate more than double that of the general public.

We see similar hypocrisy on the part of some elected officials who oppose school choice. Twenty-six percent of U.S. Representatives and 41 percent of U.S. senators send their children to private schools. Clearly some of the opponents of education are exercising the choices that they enjoy because of their prosperity, while they are ensuring that there are no poor children sitting next to their children at school.

We can only hope that someday the hypocrisy will end and Congress will agree with the advisory council that they created to address Amtrak: "The council believes that, as is the case throughout our free-market economy, competition would drive down costs and improve service quality and customer satisfaction."

This is the cure. Will state and federal legislators ever have the guts to write the prescription?

(Lori Yaklin is the executive director of the Michigan School Board Leader's Association.)

Topics: Yogi Berra
© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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