Teacher unions vs. taxpayers: “The Bad Old Days”

For an organization that started in Michigan, the Education Action Group certainly nailed the state of Wisconsin in its The Bad Old Days of Collective Bargaining: Why Act 10 Was Necessary for Wisconsin Public Schools:

Not so long ago, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), the state’s largest teachers union, sported the motto, “Every child deserves a great school.”

The irony of that motto was not lost on school administrators, particularly in more recent years, as they struggled to balance budgets while local WEAC unions refused to accept financial concessions that would have helped maintain quality programming for students.

In school district after school district, layoffs have occurred, class sizes have increased and student programs have been cut, partially because many unions refused to accept temporary pay freezes, or pay a bit more toward their own health insurance or pension costs. …

The problem is not difficult to understand. Most public school administrators tell us they spend between 75-85 percent of their total budgets on labor costs, mostly for salaries and benefits for union teachers. If a budget crisis hits and spending cuts are needed, school boards will logically look at the biggest part of the budget.

But under the old collective bargaining system, local teachers unions had broad legal power to reject cuts in labor costs, and frequently did so. With 80 percent of the budget often untouchable, school boards had little choice but to cut from the 20 percent that has the most profound effect on students.

Of course, teacher unions find no friends in this blog. But The Bad Old Days shows more teacher union selfishness than most taxpayers probably realized:
Janesville: When the teacher union refused to negotiate its contract in the face of a budget deficit of $6 million to $9 million, the school district was forced to cut 70 teaching positions and lay off 30 more school district employees.
Kenosha: 40 teachers were laid off because the teacher union refused to change insurance carriers from WEA Trust after it raised rates 20 percent.
An insurance change agreed to by the school board and the teacher union to save money was vetoed by the regional Uniserv.
Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Schools laid off 200 teachers after the union refused to agree to its members’ paying some of their pension costs. (That is the same union that sued the school district to get it to pay for Viagra.) Teachers in the state’s worst school district make about $100,000 in salaries and benefits.
New Berlin: When the school board asked for concessions from the teacher union to prevent 27 layoffs, teacher union president Dianne Lazewski said,  “Should the taxpayers never have their taxes raised? Why should the teachers shoulder the entire burden?” Lazewski’s Marie Antoinette act backfired when the school district enacted changes authorized under Act 10 (the teacher union had been working without a contract since 2009), eliminating a $2.1 million deficit, saving $1.2 million per year in pension costs and $1.5 million per year in health insurance, and reducing its unfunded pension liability by almost $14 million.

Contrary to what teacher unions assert, Wisconsin teachers are not poorly paid. According to the Department of Public Instruction, the average teacher salary in Wisconsin increased from $37,897 in 1988 (the  year I entered the workforce) to $50,627 in 2011. That is slightly more than the median household income of $51,598, and nearly double the average per capita money income of $27,334, according to the U.S. Census.

No one with any sense of the value of education begrudges good teachers the money they make. The Bad Old Days notes that while average teacher salaries have increased by one-third from 1988 to 2011, fringe benefit costs have more than doubled over that time. The Qualified Economic Offer restricted salary and benefit increases from 1993 to 2009, when Gov. James Doyle and the Democratic-controlled Legislature not only ended the QEO, but banned arbitrators in mediation–arbitration from considering local economic conditions in mandating contract settlements. The Bad Old Days quotes the MacIver Institute’s listing of school district savings through Act 10 ranging from $49,000 (Mequon–Thiensville) to $19.2 million (Racine), including $1 million in the Ripon Area School District.

The Bad Old Days is not about the abuses of taxpayers that take place every time a bad teacher collects a paycheck. (I’ve chronicled some of them.) It does briefly allude to what’s known in unionland as Last In First Out, or as school  district administrators put it, unions’ “eating their young” — allowing young teachers to be laid off to protect the positions of older (and more expensive) teachers. It also reports that some school districts that enacted the Act 10 reforms included performance-based compensation instead of the usual system of automatically paying teachers for more years in the classroom and more education without bothering to find out if the teachers are any good at all. (Or, to put it in two words, “real world.”)

The Bad Old Days provides a valuable service in listing teacher union financial abuses in one place. It will take someone else’s work to chronicle the other teacher union abuses, which will make the reader wonder why teacher unions are allowed to exist at all.


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