This should come as no surprise if you remember that public education in the United States is a government monopoly. Don't like your public school? Tough. The school is terrible? Tough. Your taxes fund that school regardless of whether it's good or bad. That's why government monopolies routinely fail their customers. Union-dominated monopolies are even worse.
In New York City, it's "just about impossible" to fire a bad teacher, says Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The new union contract offers some relief, but it's still about 200 pages of bureaucracy. "We tolerate mediocrity," said Klein, because "people get paid the same, whether they're outstanding, average or way below average."
Here's just one example from New York City: It took years to fire a teacher who sent sexually oriented e-mails to "Cutie 101," a 16-year-old student. Klein said, "He hasn't taught, but we have had to pay him, because that's what's required under the contract."
Only after six years of litigation were they able to fire him. In the meantime, they paid the teacher more than $300,000. Klein said he employs dozens of teachers who he's afraid to let near the kids, so he has them sit in what are called rubber rooms. This year he will spend $20 million dollars to warehouse teachers in five rubber rooms. It's an alternative to firing them. In the last four years, only two teachers out of 80,000 were fired for incompetence. Klein's office says the new contract will make it easier to get rid of sex offenders, but it will still be difficult to fire incompetent teachers.
When I confronted Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, she said, "They [the NYC school board] just don't want to do the work that's entailed." But the "work that's entailed" is so onerous that most principals just have just given up, or gotten bad teachers to transfer to another school. They even have a name for it: "the dance of the lemons."
I talked with 18-year-old Dorian Cain in South Carolina, who was still struggling to read a single sentence in a first-grade level book when I met him. Although his public schools had spent nearly $100,000 on him over 12 years, he still couldn't read.
So "20/20" sent Dorian to a private learning center, Sylvan, to see if teachers there could teach Dorian to read when the South Carolina public schools failed to.
Using computers and workbooks, Dorian's reading went up two grade levels -- after just 72 hours of instruction.
His mother, Gena Cain, is thrilled with Dorian's progress but disappointed with his public schools. "With Sylvan, it's a huge improvement. And they're doing what they're supposed to do. They're on point. But I can't say the same for the public schools," she said.
Gena Cain, like most parents, doesn't have a choice which public school her kids attend. She followed the rules, and her son paid the price.
In San Jose, Calif., some parents break the rules to get their kids into Fremont Union schools. They're so much better than neighboring schools that parents sometimes cheat to get their kids in by pretending to live in the school district.
"We have maybe hundreds of kids who are here illegally, under false pretenses," said District Superintendent Steve Rowley.