The case(s) against teacher unions

Earlier this month, the Ripon Commonwealth Press published this letter to the editor:

Don’t hate teachers

TO THE EDITOR:

Why do people hate our teachers?

I think back to when I was in school and how much I learned from my teachers.

My band teacher was one of the most influential people to me. His influence helped me land a job in the music business working with the world’s top artists and was one of the greatest things that I have ever experienced.

If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t have had this great opportunity to work for the Berlin School District as their AV coordinator/IT specialists.

My point to this is to not be angry at teachers over our current budget situation. They didn’t personally create the problem.

Everyone created the problem. Everyone drives on public roads, enjoys publicly funded parks, uses critical public services and yes even public schools.

If you ever learned anything in school from your teachers is that everyone should have to fix the problem together. …

We all understand that the budget needs to be fixed and have agreed to Walker’s request to pay more for retirement and insurance.

Taking away our right to collective bargaining is wrong! Please don’t support his agenda that hurts many people’s families.

Let’s find a way to fix this without hurting anyone. Don’t let hate ruin our wonderful schools.

A first read might make the reader wonder what is being taught in the Berlin schools. “Everyone created the problem”? How many readers agreed to spend $86 million per year to take land off permanently off the tax rolls? How many readers agreed to a tax and spending structure that has resulted in this state’s lagging the nation in per capita personal  income growth for the past three decades? How many readers agreed to pay government employees Rolls-Royce benefits, pay both employer and employee contributions to pensions, and allow government employees to retire after 30 years?

Moreover, unless the letter-writer is referring only to the Berlin teacher union when he wrote that “We all understand that the budget needs to be fixed and have agreed to Walker’s request to pay more for retirement and insurance,” that statement is false. Each school district’s teacher union has to agree to contract concessions, since there is no state teacher contract; the writer has no idea whether teacher union members in other school districts agreed to concessions or not. (Unless, that is, he blindly believes anything the Wisconsin Education Association Council tells him.) And as for his assertion about “our wonderful schools,” the fact that the students in schools in this country underperform the students of other countries in the industrialized world does not meet my definition of “wonderful.”

Having written that, neither I nor anyone I know hates teachers. To hate teachers as a class would be stupid. I had some very good teachers, and my wife and my children have had very good teachers during our years in school.

The problem with the letter-writer’s assertion is that he has committed the error of equating teachers and teacher unions. The former have chosen as their life’s calling expanding the knowledge and reasoning ability of their students. The latter have institutionalized not just self-preservation at the expense of those paying their salaries, but the concept that all their members should be treated the same regardless of their abilities and their performance. (The qualifier to “treated the same” is that the Last In First Out layoff concept shows that some teacher union members are more equal than others.)

Following is a list of examples I personally witnessed that demonstrate the pernicious power of teacher unions in Wisconsin. (To paraphrase “Dragnet,” the names are omitted to protect the innocent, but I believe none of the people mentioned are still employed by Wisconsin school districts.)

First period: the 1976 Madison teachers strike, the last in the state. (For now.) At the beginning of the strike, a mother of two grade-school-aged children went to their school to pick up some supplementary materials so that their children would not regress in schoolwork during a strike of unknowable duration. (The strike occurred right after winter vacation, so over four weeks Madison students had 30 minutes in the classroom.)

At the door to the school, the mother was accosted by the children’s art teacher, who loudly demanded to know what she was doing here, and how dare she cross a picket line, etc. The resulting exchange between the children’s mother and one of the children’s teachers could not be described as pleasant. (The teacher, however, was lucky that the exchange involved the children’s mother and not their father.)

Second period: During a presidential election year, a middle school decided to hold a class presidential election and create a class student council. Not all the classrooms in the grade participated, which offended the non-participants to the point where they embarked on a campaign to overthrow the class president, complete with posters that were displayed in school hallways for months. None of the teachers in this particular class, nor the school’s principal, nor the school’s assistant principal thought that what would now be considered bullying was enough reason to intervene. (The teacher who did intervene was a teacher who had been absent recovering from a heart attack; the coup d’etat campaign originated in his class with the approval of his long-term substitute.)

Third period: A high school journalism teacher refused to take his students, some of which were considering journalism as a profession, to tour the local daily newspaper, one of  the largest newspapers in the state. The reason: During a strike by its union, the newspaper hired replacement workers, effectively breaking the union.

Fourth period: A popular high school band teacher left just before the school year began for a job at a college. The band teacher had been at the high school two years, replacing a teacher who had changed jobs and then left teaching. The previous teacher, having decided his alternative profession wasn’t the answer either, returned to his old high school thanks to his union rights. The band students’ experience was nowhere near what it had been in the previous two school years.

Fifth period: A high school senior was accepted to one of the state’s private colleges. The college had a scholarship that would have paid for most of that student’s tuition expenses. The scholarship’s provisions required the student’s guidance counselor to fill in and submit the scholarship application. When the student asked her guidance counselor what happened to the application, the guidance counselor replied that he hadn’t sent it in. The student ended up incurring tens of thousands of dollars of student debt because her guidance counselor was too busy eating sweet rolls made in the high school kitchen to do his job.

Sixth period: A school district embarks on a campaign to build a new high school. At a public forum, one of the school district residents whose increased property taxes would have paid for the new high school asks the head of the school district’s teacher union whether the school district’s teachers would agree to a salary freeze of one or two years as their contribution to paying for the new high school. The teacher union president refuses.

These incidents are all examples where the teacher union triumphed over people who should matter more — students, school administrators (since management is there to manage, after all) and/or taxpayers. (And teachers, given that few Wisconsin school districts have merit pay for their best teachers.) Most of these incidents might reasonably be described as misconduct on the part of the aforementioned teacher-union members. Had comparable incidents occurred in the private sector, the people involved may have been disciplined or even fired. In none of these cases did the teacher union members suffer any professional consequences. (Except in the last case: the school district voters rejected the high school project.)

The final example, I suppose,  would be the teachers who have fled into retirement instead of making their own pension contributions and paying higher health insurance costs, as those who pay their salaries have had to do for several years. Few taxpayers get to retire after 30 years of work, but someone who has the financial wherewithal to retire after 30 years in the workplace has the right to do so. Teachers who retire early instead of taking the opportunity to teach new generations of students would seem, however, to forfeit the self-description as selfless public servants.

Teacher union sympathizers claim that teacher unions are a necessary counterweight against school district administration. I would be the last person to claim that every school district administrator is an example of enlightened leadership. (Many Wisconsin school districts employ too many administrators — taxpayers should be wary of any administrator who doesn’t have the word “superintendent” or “principal” in his or her title — and the choice of paying one administrator or paying two teachers is a self-evident choice.) Poor school leadership, however, is a problem for school boards to deal with, and if school boards are hiring the wrong administrators and principals, or insufficiently supervising school district leaders, well, that’s one reason we have elections. For that matter, I’ve seen instances where school boards were nothing more than the puppets of school district administrators, but that is ultimately the fault of the voters for not voting wisely in elections. The teachers ultimately have the last word because they have the ability to work elsewhere.

So if you think I’m sympathetic to the public-sector employees who lost their collective bargaining rights thanks to Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision … you’re wrong. I suspect readers can come up with more examples of teacher unions protecting bad teachers than benefiting their employers, the taxpayers.

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