What Lessons Are Being Taught By The Chicago Teachers’ Strike?

I have a lot of respect for teachers — what educated person doesn’t? — but I think the strike in Chicago is doing nothing except harming the public image of teachers and public employee unions.

Years ago, people used to compare what a professional baseball player was being paid to the average salary of teacher, and then ask, rhetorically, what the huge difference said about our society and its values.  Since those days, there has been a concerted effort to increase salaries, and teachers have been successful in bargaining for all kinds of benefits and rights, arguing that they are doing so “for the sake of the children.”  Eventually, people started to wonder whether teacher demands weren’t really more about benefiting teachers rather than benefiting students.

The Chicago Teachers Union strike will continue that trend.  In a time of high unemployment, the median salary for Chicago teachers is $67,974, and the union went on strike even after receiving an offer that would have produced average salary increases of 16 percent over four years.  The offer also would have frozen health benefit cost increases for two-thirds of union members.  The principal sticking points apparently are evaluations — the district wants a process that is based on student standardized test scores, the teachers call that approach unacceptable — and what happens to teachers who are laid off.  As the teachers walk picket lines, thousands of students are left without a school to attend, and parents are scrambling for alternative child-care arrangements.

Richard worked in the Chicago Public School system as a tutor; I’d be interested in his thoughts on this issue.  In the meantime, I would guess that the strike is unlikely to find a very receptive audience anywhere.  Chicago teachers already make more than most people do.  How many people are going to be sympathetic when the strike is primarily about how those teachers are evaluated and their job security — and the strikes leaves the kids teachers profess to speak for in the without schools to attend?

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Weirdness In Wisconsin

Wisconsin — home to the Green Bay Packers and their cheesehead fans, different varieties of beer, and countless solid Midwestern burghers of Germanic lineage — has a long and storied tradition of political ferment and dissent.  With the bizarre happenings in Madison over the past month or so, Wisconsin is living up to its rich political and cultural reputation.

Three weeks ago, Wisconsin Senate Democrats fled the state, hoping that last-ditch tactic would prevent a quorum and therefore a vote on a bill to change collective bargaining rules for government employees.  They believed their procedural “Hail Mary” — coupled with constant protests by teacher and public employee unions and union supporters in the Wisconsin state capitol — would exert pressure on Governor Scott Walker and Republicans who supported the bill.  The Republicans held firm, however, and the parties were at an impasse.

Now the Republicans have made the Democrats pay for their high-risk tactic.  Yesterday, while the Democrat Senators remained out-of-state, Republicans stripped the collective bargaining bill of the budgeting provisions that presented the quorum problems and then passed it through the Wisconsin Senate.  Because they chose to absent themselves from the state, no Democrats were present for the final vote or to raise objections to the procedure.  The bill now goes to the state assembly.  In the meantime, protesters flooded, once again, into the Wisconsin state capitol.

In the linked article, the leader of Wisconsin Senate Democrats accuses Republicans of showing “disrespect for the people of Wisconsin” and conspiring to “take government away from the people.”  We’ll have to see whether that spin has any resonance with Wisconsin voters — but it is hard to see how Republicans who stayed on the job in the face of public protest, waited for weeks for petulant Democrats to return to the governmental process, and then enacted legislation in a public forum in the Democrats’ absence, showed more “disrespect for the people of Wisconsin” than the Democrats who tried to take their ball and go home.

Protest, And Response, In Wisconsin

We are learning a lot about a changing America, and a changing political landscape, from watching the ongoing story in Wisconsin about legislation that would affect collective bargaining rules for public employees.  The story began with public employee unions flexing their muscle.  They prevailed upon their members — many of whom apparently called in “sick” — to flood the state capitol in protest.  They also prevailed upon Democratic state senators to flee the state and bring the legislative process to a halt due to lack of a quorum.

But then something surprising happened.  Yesterday, a counter-demonstration occurred, as thousands of “Tea Party” activists and other citizens came to the state capitol to support Wisconsin’s Republican Governor in his budget-cutting efforts.  In all, police estimated that 68,000 people came to the state capitol to either support or oppose the collective bargaining bill, and they did so peacefully.  Even more interesting, police report that there were heated arguments between the opposing sides, but no violence.

It is not surprising that teachers and public employees would turn out to protest; their pay and benefits will be directly affected by the outcome.  What I think is extraordinary, however, is that thousands of citizens whose interests are not directly affected were motivated to spend a Saturday outside, advocating in support of the budget-cutting efforts of Wisconsin’s governor.  It says a lot about the deep level of alarm about out-of-control spending that thousands of people would spend their precious weekend hours at a counter-protest.  Wisconsin’s governor, and his Republican allies in the state legislature, must have been encouraged by the strong show of support — which probably is the tip of a much larger iceberg.

It also says something that thousands of people could turn out to support competing sides of a hotly debated issue without violence.  The teachers, public employees, and citizens who went to the state capitol to exercise their rights to free speech and assembly look a lot more adult than the Wisconsin Democratic Senators who turned tail and ran out of state rather than participate in the political process as they were elected to do.

Hey, Big Spender!

We all hear a lot about the enormous sums spent by outside groups on the 2010 elections.  Most of the complaints aired in the media have been about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the conservative issue advocacy groups that are supporting Republican candidates.  I therefore was surprised to learn that the biggest spender in this election, other than the two political parties themselves, is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (“AFSCME”), a union that represents governmental employees.

It turns out that three of the five biggest spenders this election cycle are unions.  According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, AFSCME is the biggest spender by a considerable margin, having shelled out $87.5 million to support Democratic candidates.  That is $12.5 million more than the second place finisher, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has spent $75 million.  American Crossroads and Crossroads GOP, two groups that have attracted a lot of media attention because of their affiliation with Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie, have collectively spent $65 million.  Rounding out the top five are the Service Employees International Union, which has spent $44 million, and the National Education Association, a teachers union that has spent $40 million.

When we hear people complaining about the glut of money in politics, we need to remember that the money flows in from both sides.  If Republicans are supposedly in the pockets of business interests because of the political activities of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where does that leave Democrats who have received enormous support from government employees and teachers who directly benefited from the federal “stimulus” legislation and the special “stimulus” spending specifically designed to help teachers keep their jobs?

If you are convinced, as I am, about the need to cut government spending as part of the effort to bring the budget into balance — which inevitably will mean cutting the federal spending that helps to support the jobs and benefits of government employees and teachers — you need to be concerned about how much money is being funneled into political campaigns by government employee and teachers unions.  Only the hopelessly naive would believe that Democratic politicians who get elected thanks to large-scale union spending are going to take a hard look at government spending cuts that will eliminate union jobs.

The Bloom On The Education Rose

In Ohio, at least, a common charge by Democratic candidates is that their Republican opponents would cut spending on education, resulting in the layoff of thousands of teachers.  Governor Strickland’s supporters have made such arguments about John Kasich, and similar charges have been made against the Republican candidate for the Ohio House District that includes New Albany.  I expect that, at some point, focus group testing indicated that, if you wanted to oppose spending cuts, a safe way to do so was to claim that the cuts would hurt teachers and education.

I wonder whether that perception still holds true.  We know that teachers are highly unionized and very active politically.  We know that, at least in some areas, teachers receive subsidized health care benefits and pension benefits far beyond what is available to most employees in the private sector.  We know that, for the most part, adding more teachers apparently hasn’t resulted in any meaningful improvement in how the children who are the product of public schools perform in science and math.  We have heard about incompetent and disinterested teachers, and we’ve read about the so-called “rubber rooms” in New York City where teachers who have been accused of misconduct draw paychecks while doing nothing.  (More recently, the bad publicity about the “rubber rooms” has caused the teachers to be assigned to menial clerical work, for which they will nevertheless be paid their full salaries.)

I wonder whether these kinds of stories, coupled with the crushing budget deficits that are looming in Ohio and many other states, have taken a bit of the bloom off the education rose.  When significant cuts must be made to bring the state budget into balance, why shouldn’t education and teacher positions be on the table just like every other budget item?  And given the oppressive budget reality, is it really advisable to elect candidates who are so beholden to teachers’ unions that they won’t even consider such cuts?

 

 

Union Versus Union

While I was on the road today I heard a curious story on NPR:  the 109 non-management employees of the Ohio Education Association, which is Ohio’s largest teachers union, may go on strike if they don’t get a new contract to replace the contract that is expiring.  The OEA’s non-management employees are members of the Professional Staff Union.  The Professional Staff Union’s president says the possibility of a strike against a fellow union is embarrassing, but the OEA is “behaving as badly as the worst school boards and school administrators in negotiations with teachers.”

When one union guy says that about another union guy, that’s got to hurt — but at least he didn’t call him a “scab.”

Our Apple-Polishing Congress And President

On Friday the Washington Post carried a good editorial about the latest “stimulus” bill to wend its way through Congress.  This one allocates $10 billion to avoid teacher layoffs.  The “stimulus” argument, of course, is that the teachers who would otherwise be laid off will now have money to spend, and their spending will stimulate the economy.  That bogus argument has already been disproved by the utter failure of the earlier, larger stimulus to deliver the job creation that was promised.  What’s more, that argument could be used to justify subsidizing every industry facing layoffs and using federal dollars to prop up every job.  Has our country’s economic policy really reached that point?

The Post clearly is correct in characterizing this latest stimulus bill as a sop to teachers unions.  The President and congressional Democrats want to leave a big polished apple on the teacher’s desk — and they hope to get campaign cash and votes in return.

The eye-popping statistic in the editorial is that, in the last school year, more than five percent of the funding for primary and secondary education jobs came from the federal government.  The threshold question that people should be asking is:  why is the federal government involved in funding local education in the first place?  Education historically has been, and should remain, a local issue decided by the voters in municipalities and states.  We should not be using federal dollars to prop up school districts that are overstaffed or underfunded due to the choices of the local voters in those districts.

No one wants to see anyone laid off, but it happens in every industry.  Education should not be immune.  Indeed, given the stories about teachers twiddling their thumbs in “rubber rooms” while drawing full paychecks, it seems likely that school districts have room to make cuts.  If school administrators have to make tough choices because that is what local voters have decided, then they should make those tough decisions — without a toadying Congress throwing money their way.