Break the Monopoly of Mediocrity in Education

November 14, 2012

By Tom Donohue

When unionized teachers in Chicago took to the picket lines in September, leaving classrooms empty in the first weeks of the new school year, it caught America’s attention. Now that the debate over education has been reignited, let’s put the focus back where it belongs—on the students.

Many Americans are deeply concerned about the state of public K–12 education—and others are downright mad. A new Hollywood film features the fight of one mother and one teacher who are fed up with the low standards, union control, and bureaucratic bungling that contribute to chronically failing schools. Won’t Back Down is inspired by a true story and illustrates how a community can impact critical issues like teacher quality, teacher tenure, and school choice. It should shock no one that union leaders don’t want Americans to see this movie. Moreover, they’re intensifying efforts to fight education reforms being undertaken in states and cities.

Fed up parents, educators, and students have a ready ally in business. Business is often the first to see the end result of a poor education when potential workers apply for a job. Studies show that most 4th graders and 8th graders aren’t proficient in reading and math. Thirty percent of U.S. students don’t complete high school in four years, and the dropout rate is more than 50% for African-Americans and Hispanics. And half of U.S. students who do graduate lack the advanced literacy and math skills necessary for college or skilled employment.

Lack of skills and training is why roughly 3.5 million American jobs sit vacant—workers don’t have the right tools and education. It’s why businesses spend billions annually on remediation training for new hires. And it’s why business leaders—through individual effort or by working with local chambers of commerce, foundations, or public education funds—are supporting effective school board governance at the local level.

To bring the reform debate to cities across the nation and get local businesses more involved, the Chamber’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce will launch the Breaking the Monopoly of Mediocrity in Public Education tour on October 10. It will address communities’ specific education challenges and the importance of reform to local economies. To learn more, visit

Parents want their children to learn and grow, teachers want to set students on a path to achievement, and employers want to hire them. All parties need to be engaged and find consensus on commonsense reforms that put students first. Such reforms can help shape our students’ education, sharpen our workforce, and secure our economic future.

Tom Donohue is President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

This article appears in ICW's October 2012 newsletter.