Of the 5 million black and Hispanic students who enter U.S. public high schools each year, approximately 2.2 million will drop out before earning a diploma. Of the 2.8 million who manage to graduate, at least 2.4 million are unable to perform proficiently in mathematics, and at least 2.56 million are unable to read proficiently.
In America's public high schools, 45% of black students and 43% of Hispanics (as compared to 22% of whites) drop out before their classes graduate. Dropout rates are especially high in urban areas with large minority populations, including such academic basket cases as the District of Columbia (57%), Trenton (59%), Camden (61.4%), Baltimore (65.4%), Cleveland (65.9%), and Detroit (75.1%).
Of those black and Hispanic students who do manage to earn a diploma, a large percentage are functionally illiterate. Black high-school graduates perform, on average, at a level that is four academic years below that of their white counterparts. Of all graduates in the class of 2011, only 11% of blacks and 15% of Hispanics were proficient in math, as compared to 42% of whites. Similarly, just 13% of blacks and 4% of Hispanics were proficient in reading, versus 40% of whites. As political science professor Lydia Segal notes in her book, Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools: “It is in cities such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Philadelphia where the largest numbers of children cannot read, write, and compute at acceptable levels and where racial gaps between whites and blacks and Latinos are widest. It is in large cities that minority boys in particular, trapped in poor schools, have the greatest chance of flunking out and getting sucked into the downward spiral of crime and prison.”
These failed schools are run entirely by Democrats and progressives who, as author Jonah Goldberg points out, have “controlled the large inner-city school systems for generations.” Indeed, the powerful teachers unions overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party and its left-wing agendas; the bureaucrats at the Department of Education overwhelmingly hold progressive political and social views; and the ideological orientation of America's teacher-training colleges is decidedly leftist. All of these factors have combined to create the proverbial train wreck that is public education in the United States today.
Progressives claim that the major problem afflicting U.S. public schools is a lack of funding. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for one, calls for greater “investment” in education at every level. Congressional Progressive Caucus member Maxine Waters laments that “educational systems ... are failing” because “we don't really invest” in them. Children's Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman suggests that increased spending on education today would relieve society of the much greater burden of having to pay the costs associated with incarcerating uneducated prisoners later on: “It's better to invest up front than to invest more as a result of our neglect … Our states at the moment are spending on average three times more per prisoner than per public school pupil. That's about the dumbest investment policy I can think of.” Barack Obama, pledging to “continue to make education a national mission,” likewise called for increased education expenditures in his presidential budgets. The highly influential Center for American Progress urges “continued investment in education in order to grow our economy and rebuild the middle class.” And the Economic Policy Institute has derided policymakers at federal, state, and local levels “for not devoting more resources to education.” Not surprisingly, this rhetoric has filtered its way into the public mind; polls indicate that many Americans view a lack of resources as one of the chief problems facing public schools.
But expenditures are far from niggardly and are rising steeply at the same time that student achievement-test scores have dropped. American taxpayers already spend some $600 billion per year on public elementary and secondary schools, with average per-pupil expenditures nationwide currently at an all-time high of $10,905—the latter figure representing a nearly fourfold increase (in constant present-day dollars) since 1961. Further, the federal government in recent decades has poured hundreds of billions of extra dollars into Title I schools targeting mostly poor minority children, with no positive results to show for those financial outlays.
Between 1973 and 2008, the performance of 17-year-old high-schoolers on the math and reading portions of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (a massive, federally mandated initiative that seeks to quantify the academic competence of fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-grade students) were essentially unchanged. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) reading scores for the high-school class of 2011 were the lowest on record; the combined reading and math scores of that same class declined to their lowest point since 1995. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an evaluation of 15-year-old students in 34 countries which belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. today ranks 25th in math literacy, 17th in scientific literacy, and 14th in reading proficiency. African-Americans have been particularly shortchanged by the public-education system's inadequacies. If black and Hispanic students in the U.S. were counted as self-contained “national” groups, their average PISA reading scores would rank them 31st and 33rd, respectively, among the 34 OECD nations.
Clearly, dismal academic failure is not a problem that can be solved by merely throwing money at it. Consider, for instance, that the per-pupil cost of a public elementary and high-school education in Washington, DC is an astronomical $16,408—among the highest figures for any city in America and far above the national average—yet DC's public schools are the worst in the country; the city's high-school students score lower on the SAT than do their counterparts anywhere else in the United States.
Another academic disaster area, Detroit, spends about $15,945 per public-school pupil. In the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a U.S. Department of Education standardized test, fourth- and eighth-graders at Detroit Public Schools read at a level that is 73% below the national average and register reading scores lower than those of students in any other urban school district in the country. Similarly, the reading skills of Detroit's eighth-graders are 60% below the national average, and their math scores in 2011 were the lowest ever recorded in the 40-year history of the exam.
The news is no better in New Jersey's capital city of Trenton, whose population is more than 80% black and Hispanic. With expenditures of $20,663 per public-school pupil, the citywide high-school graduation rate is a mere 41%. And Camden, New Jersey, where nearly 90% of all residents are black or Hispanic, spends an astounding $23,356 per pupil, but only 38.6% of them ever obtain a high-school diploma. These enormous expenditures on the education of nonwhite minorities are by no means unusual. The per-pupil spending on black public-school students nationwide is actually 5% higher than the corresponding figure for white students, while the figure for Hispanic students is 1% higher than for whites.
There is compelling evidence at the state level, as well, that public spending on education is not correlated with student achievement. Indeed, numerous states in the Northeast spend between $14,000 and $19,000 on the education of each public-school student, yet those pupils invariably register SAT scores that are below—and in some cases far below—the national median.
The failure of public schools to properly educate American students—particularly nonwhite minorities—can be attributed largely to the policies and priorities of the teachers unions. Most significant are the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA) and the 1.5 million-member member American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Devoted to promoting all manner of left-wing political agendas, these unions rank among the most powerful political forces in the United States. Fortune magazine routinely ranks the NEA among the top 15 in its “Washington's Power 25” list of organizations that wield the greatest political influence in the American legislative system.
The NEA derives most of its operating funds from the member dues that, in almost every U.S. state, are deducted automatically from teachers' salaries. In 2010, these dues accounted for $357.5 million of the union's $376.5 million in total revenues. Because member dues constitute the very lifeblood of the teachers unions, the unions have made it enormously expensive and time-consuming to get a tenured teacher fired for incompetence. In New York City, for instance, the process of eliminating a single bad teacher costs taxpayers, on average, $163,142. In New York State overall, the average is $128,941. In Illinois, a school district must spend an average of $219,504 in legal fees alone to move a termination case beyond all the union-created obstacles. Ultimately, the unions strive to keep as many teachers as possible on the payroll—including those who are wholly ineffective—so as to continue to collect their union dues which, in turn, can be applied to political ends. Even in school districts where students perform far below the academic norm for their grade levels, and where dropout rates are astronomically high, scarcely one in a thousand teachers is ever dismissed in any given year.
In most states, teachers are automatically awarded tenure after only a few years on the job. The Los Angeles Times, for example, reports that fewer than 2% of that city's schoolteachers are denied tenure during the two-year probationary period after they are hired. Once tenured, even the most ineffective and incompetent instructors can have long and relatively lucrative careers in the classroom if they wish to stay in the field of education. As one Los Angeles union representative said in 2003: “If I’m representing them [tenured teachers], it’s impossible to get them out. It’s impossible. Unless they commit a lewd act.” This was not hyperbole; between 1995 and 2005, just 112 of the 43,000 tenured teachers in Los Angeles lost their jobs, even though 49% of the students in their school district failed to graduate from high school.
The story has been much the same elsewhere. In the 2006-2007 school year, New York City fired only 10 of its 55,000 tenured teachers, even though a mere 19% of the city's eighth graders could read with proficiency. Between 2005 and 2008 in Chicago, where only 28.5% of 11th graders demonstrated academic competency on Illinois' standardized tests, a mere 0.1% of teachers were dismissed for performance-related reasons. And during a ten-year period in Newark, New Jersey, where the high-school graduation rate was just 30.6%, only one out of every 3,000 tenured teachers in the city was terminated in any given year.
The teachers unions' selfish priorities made bold headlines in 2010, when it was reported that New York City had established a number of so-called “rubber rooms,” formally called Temporary Reassignment Centers, where hundreds of public-school teachers who had been accused of gross incompetence or misconduct sat idly each day, drawing their full salaries (and thus paying their full union dues) while waiting for their cases to be reviewed. Some teachers had been there for several years. The city not only spent between $35 million and $65 million annually on their salaries and benefits, but also had to bear the additional costs of hiring substitutes to teach the classes once taught by the idle instructors, renting space wherein the reassignment centers could be housed, and employing security guards to monitor those facilities. Under the heat of public outcry, these “rubber rooms”—whose name derived from the notion that it would be difficult not to go mad after spending day after day in a spartan, windowless room where there was nothing to do—were finally shut down in the fall of 2010.
The closure of the rubber rooms, however, did nothing to address the even costlier Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR) pool which, to this day, consists of some 1,800 New York City teachers who lost their jobs not because they were accused of incompetence or wrongdoing, but because of budget cuts and school closures. Though these instructors are mostly inactive, they can be called upon periodically to substitute or do other jobs in local schools. In the meantime, they continue to draw their full salaries (averaging $82,000 per year) and collectively cost the city more than $100 million annually—generally while making very little effort to seek full-time employment. According to the Department of Education (DOE), 59% of the teachers in the ATR pool have neither applied for any jobs through the DOE's job-recruitment system nor attended any job fairs. Some of them have been in the pool for several years.
In addition to aggressively defending the rights of incompetent instructors, the teachers unions have likewise objected to merit-pay proposals that would reward good teachers and punish bad ones. When Florida legislators in 2009 called for a merit-pay system, the head of the state teachers union accused the lawmakers of “punishing and scapegoating teachers ... and creating more chaos in Florida public schools.” When Governor Chris Christie suggested a similar arrangement for his state in 2010, New Jersey teachers unions asserted that “his effort is intentionally designed to demean and defund public education.” In Chicago, union officials have argued that “merit-pay programs can [undesirably] narrow curricula by encouraging teachers to focus on testing.” And after Florida passed a merit-pay law in 2011, the Florida teachers union filed suit against the state, contending that the new legislation violated the right to collectively bargain for wages, contracts, and promotions that was guaranteed in the state constitution.
The teachers unions likewise oppose voucher programs that would enable the parents of children who attend failing, inner-city public schools, to send their youngsters instead to private schools where they might actually succeed academically. Progressive Democratic politicians, who derive so much financial support from the teachers unions, oppose voucher programs as well.
While millions of impoverished black and Hispanic youngsters are herded into substandard urban classrooms where they learn little or nothing, and where their tragic destinies of poverty and underachievement are set in motion, the 266,000 people who work in public elementary and secondary school administrative posts are very well compensated for their efforts. These individuals earn, on average, some $84,000 apiece in annual salaries (not including healthcare and pension benefits). School superintendents are the highest paid of all administrators, earning an average of $161,992 per year; deputy and associate superintendents earn $138,061. Classroom teachers, by contrast, are paid an average of $54,220.
Unfortunately for American taxpayers, public-school administrators' ride aboard the gravy train does not come to an end when they stop working. Indeed, many thousands of former administrators collect more money during retirement than most people earn during their entire working careers. In California alone, the number of education professionals receiving $100,000-plus annual pensions rose by 650% (from 700 to 5,400) between 2005 and 2011.
 Lydia G. Segal, Battling Corruption in America’s Public Schools (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. xix
 The NEA, for instance, employs a larger number of political organizers than the Republican and Democratic National Committees combined. Key among those organizers is a corps of directors, known collectively as UniServ, who assist local teachers unions with collective bargaining and the dissemination of the NEA's political messages. UniServ has consistently been the NEA's most expensive budget item.
 The NEA has earned that rating, in large measure, by making almost $31 million in campaign contributions to political candidates since the early 1990s. The AFT, for its part, has given more than $28 million to its own favored candidates. And these figures do not include expenditures on such politically oriented initiatives as television ads or get-out-the-vote efforts. Of the $59 million in combined NEA and AFT campaign donations, more than $56 million (i.e., 95%) has gone to Democrats. This imbalance reflects only the political leanings of the union leaders, not the rank-and-file schoolteachers. Indeed, just 45% of public-school teachers are registered Democrats, and more NEA members identify themselves as conservatives (27%) than as liberals (21%).
 That opposition, however, does not prevent leftist Democrats from sending their own children to expensive private schools. When former Vice President Al Gore, for example, was asked why he opposed school vouchers for black children while sending his own son to a private school, he said: “If I had a child in an inner-city school, I would probably be for vouchers too.” Barack Obama, another longtime opponent of voucher programs, has likewise sent his two daughters to elite private schools.