Public Unions’ Attack on Education

Contrary to popular belief, public unions actually do more harm to teachers and students then they help, and in a myriad of ways. While I have the deepest respect for teachers themselves, I have very different thoughts concerning their unions. I believe the way most Americans are familiar with the downside of teacher’s unions is the difficulty in removing bad teachers from the classrooms. There could hardly be a better example than Ohio science teacher John Freshwater, who introduced religion into his science lessons, and burned students with a Tesla coil. From the Columbus Dispatch:

When the Mount Vernon school board decided to fire eighth-grade science teacher John Freshwater for teaching creationism, a 70-year-old state law allowed him to demand an administrative hearing.

Last week, almost two years and 6,500 pages of hearing transcripts later, Freshwater still got fired, but the hearing cost the district more than $900,000.

Now, key state lawmakers say that some provisions in the 1941 law – the Ohio Teacher Tenure Act – need a second look.

The teachers, parents and students of Ohio can rest assured the unions will not allow any changes that will “strip” teachers of their union rights, the governor has caved to their pressure, and the John Freshwaters of Ohio can keep taking $900,000 from the needs of the classrooms. By the way – Freshwater is appealing. I guess he’ll take a little more of that money.

The Economist points out how difficult it is for schools to keep  good teachers as much as it is for them to get rid of the bad:

Union rules make it extremely hard to fire teachers who turn out to be bad at their jobs. Younger teachers are usually the first to be let go, even though seniority does not necessarily ensure quality. In 2009 Indiana and Florida fired young staff who had been nominated for “teacher of the year”.

But the debate over bad teachers ignores an equally big problem: there has been little effort to identify good ones, let alone reward them. A survey by the New Teacher Project, a non-profit organisation, found that school districts labelled more than 99% of their teachers “satisfactory”.

Most difficult, however, is finding ways to evaluate teachers, rewarding the good and dismissing the bad. In 2009 Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s education secretary, outlined his reforms in a speech to the National Education Association (NEA), America’s biggest union. “When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules that we designed put adults ahead of children,” Mr Duncan insisted, “then we are not only putting kids at risk, we’re also putting the entire education system at risk.” Some members of the audience booed.

I guess the booing teachers think they come first…? But this is hardly an exclusively American problem, as teacher’s unions the world over seem to likewise be placing themselves before the children, as another piece from The Economist shows:

At the same time, benefits are generous in the public sector. Governments tend to give their workers light workloads and generous pensions in lieu of higher wages (which have to come out of the current budget). In America teachers teach for a mere 180 days a year. In Brazil they have the right to take 40 days off a year—out of 200 working days—without giving an explanation or losing a centavo of pay. The defined-benefits revolution that has swept through the private sector has hardly touched the public one: 90% of American state- and local-government workers have defined-benefit plans, compared with 20% of private-sector workers.

Unions have also made it almost impossible to sack incompetent workers. In Greece there is a law against sacking government workers solely on grounds of poor performance. In other countries there might as well be. Mary Jo McGrath, a Californian lawyer, says that “getting rid of a problem teacher can make the O.J. [Simpson] trial look like a cakewalk.” In 2000-10 the Los Angeles school district spent $3.5m trying to get rid of seven of its 33,000 teachers, and succeeded with only five. The problem extends across the country (see article).

Incompetence is so endemic that several countries have invented phrases to deal with it. Brazilians joke that public-sector workers turn up on the first day, hang their jackets on the back of the chair, and are never seen again. The Greeks talk about putting incompetents “in the fridge”—giving them pretend jobs. In France it is the cupboard. Americans refer to “the dance of the lemons”—the practice of reassigning bad teachers to new schools rather than getting rid of them. They also refer to the “rubber room” where incompetent or criminal teachers bounce around, often for years, while administrators and unions haggle over what is to be done with them.

I don’t find this a fair “bargain” to the tax payer, for one, nor is it fair to competent teachers and children who need that money. More on the unintended consequences of public unions:

The teachers’ unions have an impressive record of terminating reformers. When Marietta Giannakou, the education minister in the last New Democracy government in Greece, insisted on teacher accountability, she lost her seat at the next election. Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of the awful school system in Washington, DC, closed failing schools, fired more than 200 ineffective teachers and principals, and advocated merit pay. But the unions fought her every step of the way, using their muscle first to get rid of her patron, the city’s mayor, and then to bring about her own resignation.

It is impossible to calculate the cost of the unions’ inflexibility. But several recent studies provide some indications. Policy Exchange, a conservative think-tank, calculates that people in the British private sector work 23% more hours than their public-sector counterparts over their lifetimes, thanks to public-sector strikes, sick days and early retirement. Barry Bluestone, a left-wing economist, calculates that the price of America’s public services increased by 41% in 2000-08, while that of private services rose by 27%. Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University, argues that replacing the bottom 5-8% of American teachers with merely average performers could move the United States from near the bottom to near the top of the international maths and science rankings.

So it seems that Biblical Literalists are not the only ones wreaking havoc on America’s scientific standing. And now the unions are squeezing the college students too. First, higher education benefits are increasing tuition rates across the country, in both public and private schools. But it’s not just the teachers unions. Law enforcement unions are even worse:

From 1987 to 1998 state spending on corrections increased by 30% while spending on higher education decreased by 18.2%.

State prison budgets are growing twice as fast as spending on public colleges and universities.

The law enforcement unions have manipulated their power to see that they are the ones to get state funding, as Daniel DiSalvo points out in The Trouble with Public Sector Unions:

For a case study in how public-sector unions manipulate both supply and demand, consider the example of the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the CCPOA lobbied the state government to increase California’s prison facilities — since more prisons would obviously mean more jobs for corrections officers. And between 1980 and 2000, the Golden State constructed 22 new prisons for adults (before 1980, California had only 12 such facilities). The CCPOA also pushed for the 1994 “three strikes” sentencing law, which imposed stiff penalties on repeat offenders. The prison population exploded — and, as intended, the new prisoners required more guards. The CCPOA has been no less successful in increasing members’ compensation: In 2006, the average union member made $70,000 a year, and more than $100,000 with overtime. Corrections officers can also retire with 90% of their salaries as early as age 50. Today, an amazing 11% of the state budget — more than what is spent on higher education — goes to the penal system. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger now proposes privatizing portions of the prison system to escape the unions’ grip — though his proposal has so far met with predictable (union supported) political opposition.

Where has most of our prison population come from? The drug war:

Who keeps our prisons full? Drug offenders (Source):

So where did the California law enforcement unions stand when they had a chance to shift funding back towards higher education? Quite predictably, with their own interests:

Proposition 19, the California marijuana legalization initiative, picked up endorsements from organized labor and a national group representing black police officers last week, while the deep-pocketed California prison guards’ union has indicated it may sit out this campaign.

Should it be any wonder Prop 19 lost due to a rapidly shrinking support base in the last few days of the campaign, and after Obama administration officials threatened retaliation?

For me, the most egregious example comes from the debate in Wisconsin itself, as I previously reported:

Currently many school districts participate in WEA trust because WEAC collectively bargains to get as many school districts across the state to participate in this union run health insurance plan as possible. Union leadership benefits from members participating in this plan. If school districts enrolled in the state employee health plan, it would save school districts up to $68 million per year. Beyond that if school districts had the flexibility to look for health insurance coverage outside of WEA trust or the state plan, additional savings would likely be realized.

Here I simply have to draw the line. It is not the obligation of tax payers to enrich union bosses. It is, however, our obligation to provide for our children’s education. Our children need good teachers and classrooms with up-to-date books and equipment. What our children don’t need is a future tax obligation that will leave them economically crippled.

As Time Magazine’s Joe Kline recently said, “Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed…of the public?” Indeed. The union argument suggest The People are a tyrannical employer, but reality is Americans want our teachers to have good pay. But neither the teachers nor the public are the problem here. The problem is the might of the public unions to force more wasteful spending. Instead of harming America’s education system, dissolving public unions might just be the best way to strengthen it.

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3 Responses to Public Unions’ Attack on Education

  1. Kevin says:

    Unions, especially public unions, have definitely outlived their usefulness. Every time I read a story like this it makes me mad.

  2. 71LesPaul says:

    Excellent post Drae, and don’t forget to include the public school building maintenance unions in that discussion. Their stranglehold on district finances is practically as strong as the teachers unions’. And my observation from this area is that they are more likely than the teachers to have support and votes in the local school board elections.

    One example.. My wife is a teacher in the Taylor MI school district and over the last 4 years they have lost about 250 teachers due to lower enrollment, but only a dozen or so building maintenance and secretaries district-wide. In her district there are about 450 educators in the MFT, but over 600 janitors and secretaries in their separate union.

    Their wages are lower but the benefit packages are nearly identical. There is huge opportunities in school districts to cut operating costs by outsourcing these types of services, but don’t hold your breath. Not as long as yahoos on the local school board get to negotiate the contracts.

    • Drae says:

      Great points, LP. It’s true public-sector janitors make more than private-sector janitors. Same for all lower level public employees vs their private sector counterparts. It’s once you move into more upper white collar public-private sector comparisons. A public DA isn’t making as much as a private law firm junior associate. But why the janitor should have a better deal than a public defender is a question for the unions. It just seems the unions are not doing a very good job for their clients, who are now going to pay for the abuses their union reps and elected bosses created.

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