March 12 2010

IWF in the News: Biting the Hand that Bites Unions Back

Vicki E. Alger

Rigid contracts, uniform pay schedules, and teacher-union dues ultimately protect poor teachers and mediocre performance. When even America's education newspaper of record, Education Week, admits that newer teachers' commitment to the union is "tentative at best" in large part because of these policies, it is clear that union leadership is out of touch with economic and educational reality.

One reason is that the teaching profession has changed. Schools do not have the captive labor pool they once did, one which depended on unions to secure jobs, pay, and good working conditions. Teachers have any number of career options open to them today. In fact, almost twice as many incoming teachers have worked in other careers as their predecessors. Absent union rigidity schools would have more incentive to compete for their talent.

Thus, it is especially galling that the majority of teachers must pay dues for services and political activities they don't want to protect a minority of teachers who are hurting the profession and students. With a national unemployment rate around 10 percent, only about 4 percent of teachers lose their jobs annually, prompting USA Today to quip, "At this time of high unemployment, one group of professionals has no shortage of job security: bad teachers." But this statistic is no joke.

In fiscally tough times if teachers must be laid off, it's better to let go of poor performers, not the latest hired. Students with talented teachers learn 50 percent more than students with ineffective ones, and the impact of effective teachers is 10 to 20 times stronger than class-size variations. Union leaders see things differently.

Former chief legal counsel for the National Education Association, the country's largest teachers union, Robert Chanin once called the prospect of getting teachers' permission to use their dues for political activities "a royal pain in the [expletive]." Given this option, called paycheck protection, teachers overwhelmingly opt out. After paycheck protection passed, teachers union membership in Utah dropped from 68 percent to 6.8 percent, and from 82 percent to 6 percent in Washington State.

Labor unions in general are also increasingly out of touch given the economic sector they dominate. Nationwide, government-sector union membership exceeds 43 percent, compared to just 7 percent in the private sector.  As of last year-for the first time ever-more than half of American union members worked for the government, so public cash "is a lifeline," as the Economist explains. But this cash isn't created ex nihilo.

A diverse economy generates the wealth that primes the public-sector pump, which in turn keeps unions afloat. Private-sector taxpayers, as well as newer teachers at risk of being laid off because of arcane seniority rules, understand this. Living in the closed- economy world of the public sector, labor unions prefer to raise taxes and oppose common-sense, cost-cutting reforms such as merit-based hiring and firing, performance pay, and outsourcing non-instructional services.

Such opposition is turning public opinion against union leadership-especially given recent revelations that cash-strapped school districts in Los Angeles, New York, and elsewhere are spending tens of millions of dollars annually defending a relative handful of teachers accused of incompetence and criminal activities instead of protecting the jobs of tens of thousands of hard-working, talented teachers.

California unions, for example, failed to block a new law empowering parents with children in select failing schools to pick other public schools for their children, or petition to have new management take over their current schools. The California Federation of Teachers ignited national outrage by equating such parental control with a "lynch mob." Reform-minded school leaders are also fighting back.

Frances Gallo, superintendent in Central Falls, Rhode Island, haggled for months with the local teachers union to fix the town's failing high school. Union representatives objected to a plan requiring teachers, who earn up to $80,000, to work 25 extra minutes a day and eat lunch with students once a week. Dr. Gallo offered $30 extra an hour. When the union demanded $90, she fired the entire staff. Supporters rented a billboard in the middle of town hailing Dr. Gallo, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded her for "doing the right thing for kids."

Labor unions' alternative to reform is raising taxes. But that won't fix budgets or fund education, and it could backfire on labor unions. Shortfalls in states' public-sector retiree pension and benefits plans, which reached $1 trillion in 2008 according to the Pew Charitable Trusts Center on the States, could bankrupt states absent reform. California's long-term education-related retirement liabilities, for instance, stand at $100 to $135 billion. Meanwhile, more that 3,000 retired teachers and administrators receive annual pensions in excess of $100,000 according to the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility. Another 6,100 retired California government workers also receive six-figure pensions.

Private-sector taxpayers struggling to preserve their own retirement cannot bankroll such lavish deals-even as teachers unions try to distract public attention with pleas about "the children" and pink slips. Letting labor-union extravagances bankrupt state coffers is a luxury private-sector taxpayers cannot afford. As long as unions block common-sense budget and education reforms, they will become increasingly irrelevant.

Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow and Women for School Choice Project Director at the Independent Women's Forum in Washington, D.C.

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