Lessons for Legislators from Margaret Thatcher
Principles from the “Iron Lady” apply to Louisiana education reform
The recent death of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invites reflection on the career of this remarkable figure. Naturally, this period of reflection includes speculation on where a great leader like Thatcher would stand on contemporary issues. While such speculation is often futile, Margaret Thatcher’s legacy of clear thinking and direct speaking leaves little doubt about where she would stand on many of today’s challenges. With the Louisiana legislature now in session, this is an opportune time to apply some lessons from Margaret Thatcher to what may be the most important public policy issue facing our state: education reform.
Lesson 1: Real Change Requires a Challenge to Union Hegemony
Margaret Thatcher’s signature moment may be her defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in 1984-1985. The miner’s union was a national powerhouse that had helped bring down a prior government, so politicians were reluctant to take them on. But Thatcher recognized that union dominance was doing harm to the national economy. The greater good required her to take action.
Thatcher eventually won this fight and the unions were forced to come to terms. The victory was important, but Thatcher’s courage in taking on this fight is noteworthy in itself. Miners are heroic figures in England. The image of the brave miner, risking death to support his family, is understandably potent. No politician wants to be seen as an enemy of the miners, but Thatcher understood that the nation could not prosper unless the union’s stranglehold on the economy was broken.
Likewise, public school teachers are popular – even beloved – figures in our communities. Legislators who oppose teacher unions are certain to experience grief. It comes as no surprise that many policymakers who begin their career demonstrating some commitment to education reform eventually wear down and find ways to placate the unions.
This phenomenon is particularly acute among Louisiana Republicans. While many Democrats make no bones about their fealty to the teachers’ unions, most Republicans claim to understand that union power has made it almost impossible to replace underperforming teachers and incorporate a more sensible form of governance in our public schools. But Republicans have sponsored an alarming number of bills that reflect union goals, a sure sign that the education establishment holds sway in our state.
Louisiana has taken strides in recent years, but these gains will be undone in short order if legislators do not demonstrate a Thatcher-like willingness to stand up to the unions.
Lesson 2: Market Power Must Be Unleashed
While critics of Ronald Reagan trafficked in the inaccurate image of Reagan as the “amiable dunce”, nobody doubted the sharp intellect of Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher was a formidable thinker, with a sophisticated understanding of economics married to a gift for clear explanation. She was well versed in the works of scholars like Friedrich Hayek and understood the importance of markets in a free society.
Thatcher knew that government monopolies were not an effective way to deliver goods and services to the British people. This observation applies to government-run schools. While Louisianans support publicly funded education, this does not mean that government needs to operate all of our schools. Further, a regulatory regime that stifles innovation and competition denies our children the benefits of progress that we enjoy in so many other areas of our lives.
Louisiana now offers a broader range of education options than most other states – charter schools, vouchers, online learning and homeschooling are options for a growing number of children across the state. This introduction of market principles is long overdue.
Margaret Thatcher would agree that putting these choices in the hands of parents rather than bureaucrats will lead to better outcomes. Now Louisiana legislators need to demonstrate their understanding of this principle by making sure none of these options is constrained or eliminated by union-sponsored changes that seek to cripple the competition.
Lesson 3: No U-Turns
Margaret Thatcher’s famous “U-Turn” speech is brief, but it illustrates the dogged determination that was required to put Britain on the right course after decades of socialist drift. The popularity of this speech also demonstrates the respect that is ultimately accorded to leaders who stick to their guns rather than caving in to special interests. Leaders who take a bold position but then seek to mollify those on the other side lose respect without gaining any loyalty.
Thatcher knew the path of least resistance would not suffice. She identified goals and held firm, never letting the vitriol of her opponents weaken her resolve. While the reformers suffer the enmity of those who benefit from the status quo in the short run, in the long run it is the reformers who are remembered – and honored.
In Louisiana, there has been a familiar pattern of good education reforms being passed by the legislature, but slowly undone by compromise and collaboration. Our legislators can repeat this pattern or they can hold firm and recommit themselves to ensuring that common sense and freedom are not diminished by union intransigence.
Legislators face an environment that is in some respects unpredictable. Pending court decisions, bills to reinstate reforms undone by legal action, and a plethora of union-sponsored bills create a fluid setting for decision makers. But at the end of the day it is our legislators who will ultimately decide whether Louisiana remains mired in the past or we continue to incorporate common sense principles into our education system.
Great leaders do not fold, buckle or backtrack. Louisiana legislators have been on the right track for several years in their approach to education. This is no time to “go wobbly” in a futile attempt to win friends among the beneficiaries of the status quo.