Teacher Union Blues

My colleague, Bob Costrell, and I each had a piece published last week about problems with teacher unions.  Bob’s appeared in the Wall Street Journal and focused on the fiscal dangers of public sector collective bargaining, especially over benefits and especially at the local level.  My piece appeared in Education Next as part of a forum with Richard Kahlenberg and focused mostly on the harms to students and their families posed by unchecked teacher collective bargaining over working conditions, hiring, and termination procedures.

I don’t want to repeat what I wrote in Ed Next and I don’t want to speak for Bob, so I would just urge you to read these pieces for yourself.  But just to anticipate objections, let me emphasize that I have no problem with unionization and collective bargaining in a competitive private market.  People should be free to associate and free to negotiate the terms of providing their labor.

The problem with teacher unions and public sector collective bargaining is that the checks and balances provided by market competition are absent.  So, public sector unions can get “management” to increase revenue for the industry and for union members without having to improve productivity.  They can just increase taxes or shift spending from other public purposes.  Private sector collective bargaining is constrained by the reality that they cannot just print their own money and must agree on productivity improvements so that there is more revenue to split.

In addition to the lack of incentives to improve productivity in public sector collective bargaining, we have the additional political distortions that unions, as a more concentrated and well-organized interest, have enormous political influence.  So, the unions are essentially sitting on both sides of the bargaining table.  This problem is more severe at the local level, since local political contests are less salient and more easily captured by well-organized interests.  At least in the private sector management usually tries to represent the interests of shareholders, but in the public sector the diffused interests of taxpayers are much less likely to be represented.

And in case any of you have idealized visions of teacher unions protecting the worker dancing in your head, a little snippet from the Education Intelligence Agency should awake you from your slumber:

In August, the American Federation of Teachers began an audit of the Broward Teachers Union’s (BTU) finances. Who at BTU asked for the audit is a matter of contention, but AFT uncovered several anomalies in the course of its two-month investigation.

Among them was the apparent reimbursement out of union dues for campaign contributions made by 26 ”employees, board members and their relatives.” This is, needless to say, illegal. The Broward State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Elections Commission were notified, and both agencies opened an official investigation.

Members of BTU’s executive board accused union president Pat Santeramo of not only being complicit in the reimbursement, but also covering up a $3.8 million budget shortfall and accepting salary overpayments….

Whatever Santeramo has done, he is actually the least reprehensible recent BTU president. He took over the position in 2001 after his predecessor was charged and plead guilty to attempting to entice a minor into a sex act and sending child pornography over the Internet. He was sentenced to 48 months in prison. And Santeramo’s actions are small potatoes when placed aside those of Pat Tornillo.

2 Responses to Teacher Union Blues

  1. allen says:

    Where to begin? With reference to the article at Education Next, there are other factors, both tied into the existence of unions and their collective bargaining privilege, besides those Jay noted.

    First, there’s the asymmetry of interest which is part of the asymmetry in the ability of groups to organize. A penny out of the pocket of a tax payer is a dollar in the pocket of a teacher. A teacher has a much more compelling interest in acquiring collective bargaining privileges then the tax payer has in denying them and a teacher sees much more in the way of individual results then a tax payer sees in the way of individual costs.

    Second, there’s a natural inclination to blind one’s self to unpleasant realities.

    The teacher’s unions not only have worked hard to convince the public that their members “love our children almost as much as the parents do” but the parents of those kids are compelled to believe that fabrication as well. If they don’t decide to believe teachers are special, elevated individuals then they’re confronted with the distinctly uncomfortable reality that teachers are just pulling a paycheck. A little tougher to hand the apple of your eye over to the tender mercies of someone who knows, to the minute, how long it is until they retire then it is to hand the tyke over to Mary Poppins.

    The third factor relates to my first factor but it’s an important enough element in this equation to merit drawing out to examine.

    Unmentioned in the observation that teacher’s unions have no hesitation or impediment in packing school boards with teachers is the fact that, as a political entity, the school board elections are always going to be the sport of the most influential interest group. If collective bargaining for municipal employees is rescinded teachers can still band together to influence elections. Given the thin attendance of most school board elections even without the power of state and national unions board elections could still very easily be captured by teachers. Collective bargaining law, and the psuedo-property right conferred, certainly makes influencing the school board easier but now that the path to power has been demonstrated teachers aren’t likely to forgo that power voluntarily.

    As to the proper mechanism for improving compensation and job security, along with an education system that gets better over time, that won’t happen with the current structure.

    The district system is the pivot about which all these complaints revolve. Teachers are never going to be treated and paid well as long as their ultimate bosses, the school board, can ignore the importance of teaching skill. Charters, and private and parochial schools, can’t ignore teaching skill while school districts are, as best I can determine, structurally indifferent to teaching skill; you can graft a legal requirement that districts pay attention to teaching skill but it’s like a coat of paint. What’s underneath hasn’t changed and will ultimately determine how long and how well the coat of paint sticks.

    If teaching skill’s going to matter it’s got to matter because ignoring it results in organizational death and the only way to achieve that goal is to put an end to school districts with their geographical monopoly.

  2. Ann In L.A. says:

    One of the strongest points against unions is that they insist that bad teachers be retained and treated in the same manner as good teachers–only seniority matters. When we have studies showing that two bad teachers in a row doom students permanently, and other studies showing that a school system can improve tremendously by simply removing the bottom 5-10% of teachers, this position is disastrous. Schools need the ability to select the best teachers, to reward them for their abilities, to remove ineffective teachers and build a teaching team with strength and dedication. I can not imaging how soul-deadening it must be to be a good teacher, and see a pathetic teacher earn more and get better class assignments simply because they were hired first. How can a good teacher maintain their enthusiasm in a system which refuses to reward them for that enthusiasm and their effort?

    In a nearby public, LAUSD school, there is a teacher with enough seniority that they are in the position of choosing which classroom they want to teach in. Of course, they chose the one with the brightest, least troublesome kids. In the LAUSD system, her seniority is the only factor in her placement. The fact that she is a terrible teacher and that those bright kids will learn nothing from her all year is irrelevant. She gets that classroom because she is senior enough to ask for it. That is not a system designed to teach kids, but make the lives of their teachers easy.

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