Are public school teacher unions hurting real learning?

Opinion piece By Jeanne Allen originally appearing on

For years, measures like the Nation’s Report Card have assessed educational opportunity in America. Long story short: Our scores are abysmal, and our children are falling further and further behind both national and international norms.

Now enter covid-19. The pandemic has put this ugly truth on display for all to see. Parents, grandparents and concerned adults are seeing for themselves, on a daily basis, what passes for “education” in the United States. More and more, they’re realizing that their ability to educate their kids depends on a limited, finite and often deficient set of offerings. The light bulbs above their heads are turning on as they discover that educational opportunities are dictated by ZIP code.

But the fact is, great schools come about only when parents have power. That is, when states give parents enough information and the discretion to exercise control over their children’s schooling. Sadly, in far too many places across the country, parents have precious little power.

What accounts for this devastating paradox? A new study of state education laws, conducted by my organization, the Center for Education Reform, ranked all 50 states, plus Washington, D.C. Our conclusion: The education establishment views parent power as an infringement on its turf, instead of the right of every parent or guardian.

Consider Massachusetts. Simply put, the legislature here thwarts any effort to expand educational opportunity. A similar story prevails in Maine. The only state whose name has one syllable has only one option for kids: A charter program that’s both tiny and capped.

In New Hampshire, the Granite State’s attitude about parent power, like its namesake, is usually set in stone against action that provides more and better learning opportunities for students. Students fare even worse in neighboring states such as VermontConnecticut and New Jersey.

Happily, the Northeast has Pennsylvania. Despite a governor who opposes parent power, the birthplace of liberty has significantly expanded educational opportunities for kids. For example, since 2018, the Keystone State has seen a 20% increase in participation in the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program. Similarly, Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program helps low- and middle-income families receive private school and pre-kindergarten scholarships. No other state in the region comes close to matching these lifelines.

Yet Pennsylvania aside, the Northeast remains hostile to parent power. The powers that be guard the status quo with a smug elitism derived from the belief that they — not father or mother — know best. Indeed, much of the education establishment gives parents what is commonly known as “the mushroom treatment” — which in polite company can best be described as keeping parents in the dark and every so often throwing fertilizer on them.

2020 will be looked back on as a year of challenges, conflict and chaos. Hopefully, it will also mark the time when education’s real stakeholders — students and caregivers — grasp their power and use it to ensure that education is one aspect of American life that doesn’t go back to normal.

Jeanne Allen is the founder and chief executive of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that advocates educational opportunities.