Despite some recent improvements, New York City’s public schools continue to do poorly. Only one-quarter of eighth-graders read or compute proficiently, well below the national average. Less than a quarter—23 percent—are college-ready by the time they graduate, one reason City University’s community colleges are spending $33 million yearly in remedial instruction. And too many students drop out.

The main obstacle in the way of better schools, argues Daniel DiSalvo in “The Union That Devoured Education Reform,” is the United Federation of Teachers, one of the mightiest public-sector labor organizations in America. As DiSalvo’s history of the union’s rise to power shows, the UFT has been putting the narrow interests of teachers ahead of those of students for decades. The union has made it head-bangingly hard to fire lousy teachers; secured rules that let instructors, if they want to do the minimum, work just 179 days per year—and only six hours and 57.5 minutes a day, with 50-minute lunches; and ferociously resisted accountability measures and other needed reforms. To get the UFT to sign off on a handful of reforms, including an expansion of nonunion charter schools and an end to automatic teacher tenure after three years, former mayor Michael Bloomberg had to offer up an unprecedented boost in school funding. Now, with union-friendly Bill de Blasio as mayor, the prospects for greater educational choice and accountability have dimmed, while the UFT’s rolls will expand, thanks to the mayor’s universal prekindergarten initiative. Until public opposition reins in the UFT, warns DiSalvo, New York’s schoolkids will lose out. And many of those kids already show up at school saddled with challenges from difficult home lives—a disadvantage that, as Kay S. Hymowitz shows in “Culture and Achievement,” is tough to surmount even with the best teachers.

It can be hard to satirize universities these days, as Heather Mac Donald’s “The Microaggression Farce” proves. Mac Donald reports on UCLA officials’ disastrous embrace of this newest campus fad, in which minority students detect racism in a friendly touch on the arm or in a teacher’s demand for proper grammar. Instead of helping prepare minority students to succeed, Mac Donald charges, the university’s adults are taking the students’ most ludicrous racism charges seriously: launching investigations of blameless professors; constructing racially “safe” zones on campus; and hiring the obligatory diversity administrators, dedicated to stamping out bigotry, even when it doesn’t exist. The end result will harm the intended beneficiaries, says Mac Donald, by transforming them into “preternaturally fragile individuals injured by the slightest collisions with life” and do further damage to the already tarnished ideal of higher education.

America’s patent system is becoming dysfunctional, says Steven Malanga in “Smotherers of Invention.” Patent trolls—firms that produce nothing but hold suspect patents and use them to shake down firms for licensing fees—are getting ever more aggressive. Fighting them in court is expensive, so many firms just give in, though that adds up to real money, too. Worse, universities are abetting the trolls by selling them, for fat sums, commercially unused patents developed in their labs. And big tech firms are increasingly weaponizing their intellectual property, unleashing swarms of confusing patent claims against competitors. Malanga details just how much these practices are damaging prosperity and sets forth an agenda for reform.

Nobel-winning economist Gary Becker’s death at 85 earlier this year made the world a less brilliant place. Guy Sorman’s “Markets Everywhere” looks at Becker’s striking influence on policing, transportation, and other policy areas where economists once feared to tread. He was a myth-breaker, Sorman shows. Adam Freedman also shatters some myths in “The Truth About States’ Rights,” in which everything you thought you knew about state sovereignty and the Civil War gets turned on its head. It was federal power, Freedman argues, that the South had long embraced to protect slavery; the antislavery cause was born and initially advanced among the states. Something to keep in mind the next time the liberal press equates states’ rights—an ideal advocated by many conservative constitutionalists—with racism.

—Brian C. Anderson


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