Base is an interesting word. Lots of definitions. It can refer to the ground level, the bottommost part of a structure. It can be used to refer to where an organ attaches to the body. You round the bases after hitting a home run; you work on a base when you’re in the military.
Base can also mean “morally low; without estimable personal qualities; dishonorable; meanspirited; selfish; cowardly.” When New York Times Magazine author Steven Brill referred to teacher’s unions as “the base of the base” of the Democratic party in his story on “Race to the Top” and teachers unions, you can probably guess which definition I was thinking of.
Brill’s story is simultaneously heartening and infuriating. Heartening because it is apparent that after decades in the pocket of teachers unions some Democrats are truly committed to change. Infuriating because even more are still in the pockets of their union paymasters. Consider what men like Bill Perkins, a NYC councilman who has fought tooth and nail against expanding charters, consigns students to. The following is a Tale of Two Schools. Housed within the same building, one is a charter and the other a regular public school:
On the charter side, the children are quiet, dressed in uniforms, hard at work — and typically performing at or above grade level. Their progress in a variety of areas is tracked every six weeks, and teachers are held accountable for it. They are paid about 5 to 10 percent more than union teachers with their levels of experience. The teachers work longer than those represented by the union: school starts at 7:45 a.m., ends at 4:30 to 5:30 and begins in August. The teachers have three periods for lesson preparation, and they must be available by cellphone (supplied by the school) for parent consultations, as must the principal. They are reimbursed for taking a car service home if they stay late into the evening to work with students. There are special instruction sessions on Saturday mornings. The assumption that every child will succeed is so ingrained that (in a flourish borrowed from the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, a national charter network) each classroom is labeled with the college name of its teacher and the year these children are expected to graduate (as in “Yale 2026” for one kindergarten class I recently visited). The charter side of the building spends $18,378 per student per year. This includes actual cash outlays for everything from salaries to the car service, plus what the city says (and the charter disputes) are the value of services that the city contributes to the charter for utilities, building maintenance and even “debt service” for its share of the building.
On the other side of the fire door, I encounter about a hundred children at 9:00 a.m. watching a video in an auditorium, having begun their school day at about 8:30. Others wander the halls. Instead of the matching pension contributions paid to the charter teachers that cost the school $193 per student on the public-school side, the union contract provides a pension plan that is now costing the city $2,605 per year per pupil. All fringe benefits, including pensions and health insurance, cost $1,341 per student on the charter side, but $5,316 on this side. For the public-school teachers to attend a group meeting after hours with the principal (as happens at least once a week on the charter side) would cost $41.98 extra per hour for each attendee, and attendance would still be voluntary. Teachers are not obligated to receive phone calls from students or parents at home. Although the city’s records on spending per student generally and in any particular school are difficult to pin down because of all of the accounting intricacies, the best estimate is that it costs at least $19,358 per year to educate each student on the public side of the building, or $980 more than on the charter side.
But while the public side spends more, it produces less. P.S. 149 is rated by the city as doing comparatively well in terms of student achievement and has improved since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over the city’s schools in 2002 and appointed Joel Klein as chancellor. Nonetheless, its students are performing significantly behind the charter kids on the other side of the wall. To take one representative example, 51 percent of the third-grade students in the public school last year were reading at grade level, 49 percent were reading below grade level and none were reading above. In the charter, 72 percent were at grade level, 5 percent were reading below level and 23 percent were reading above level. In math, the charter third graders tied for top performing school in the state, surpassing such high-end public school districts as Scarsdale.
You should read the whole story. It’s a fascinating piece of work. The only way to defeat the “base of the base” is to fight against their protectors in the establishment. As long as they’re manning the ship it’s full steam ahead toward the iceberg.
Photo via Doug Blane