Teacher Union Blues

November 28, 2011

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.

A Teacher’s Comment

March 3, 2011

I’ve pasted below, in full, the comment that a teacher wrote in response to Bob Costrell’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the expense of teacher health and retirement benefits in Milwaukee.

Before you read it, I just want to make a few points.  First, this type of comment is not nearly as rare as you might hope.  I’ve written on teacher pay myself and let me tell you that a non-trivial number of teachers react like this.  Second, when I read comments like this I wonder why their authors are still teaching.  They seem to hate their job, hate the kids, and are filled with rage.  If things are that awful perhaps they should look for other lines of work.  Third, comments like this make me worried about how bright these teachers are.  This guy clearly has difficulty with written English.  He also has a hard time rationally processing the argument raised by Bob Costrell’s piece.  The op-ed was about how Milwaukee teachers are paid 74.2 cents in benefits for every 1 dollar in salary.  That rate is unsustainable and lacks transparency because fringe rates are less visible than salary.  The comment does not rationally respond to any part of that argument.  How can this person teach anything if he can’t read and understand an argument?

Let me be clear, I do not think all or even most teachers are like this guy.  But a non-trivial number of them are.  All of us, especially the good teachers, should be focused on how we can get people like this out of the classroom as quickly as possible.

Here’s the comment:

Mr. Costrell (and anybody who agrees with Bob),

You obviously have never experienced “teaching” to its fullest.

Teachers are not typical workers.

You obviously haven’t made a life-long career of “teaching” which cannot be expressed/explained in one word “teaching” let alone a discussion blog: You stand in a room for 7 hours a day 25-35 kids, unmotivated, sometimes you[‘re the best they’ve got, many with broken homes and social issues, baggage. A teacher enters the profession to make a positive difference in the world, then a kid in the class tells you “F U, I’m not doing this…”

Why don’t you take a Special Ed Teacher’s place for one day, and get SPIT on, kicked, smacked, get your hair pulled, get called names, and I dare you to come back the next day, and do it all over again.

Why don’t you stand in a teacher’s place, and put in your 7-3 with barely a lunch, cramming it down your throat in 10 minutes, because you spend your “LUNCH” calling parents, helping kids, tutoring, and planning awesome lessons.

Why don’t you, after your 7-4 shift, continue to coach until 6pm, and then continue to coach at the game, so the bus can return to the school at 10pm, and you can get home by 11pm, just to wake up at 5am and do it again the next day…I dare you. (and you wonder where our extra pay comes from).

I dare you to try to eat your lunch after a kid tells you sick stories, stories that would make you sick for weeks, where DCFS gets involved, that I can’t even share due to confidentiality and legality.

Why don’t you give it 150% everyday, all of the above, in addition to accepting constructive criticism from administrative and government demands for higher test scores, while balancing trying to teach your kids “critical thinking” skills, in addition to solely passing a standardized test, just to meet NCLB.

I dare you to step in a teacher’s footsteps for a day, and then standing up for what you believe in, and trying to keep your basic bargaining rights, and then losing your rights, and go back and give it 75% or more….do you seriously think a teacher would give it their all from that point on.

Why don’t you call all your teachers and thank them for everything they taught you: the ability to write what you believe, even though what you believe is a bunch of B S.

I dare you to send your kids to a school now, after posting your opinion.

Actually, good luck to anybody sending their kids to Wisconsin public schools after insulting the Wisconsin teachers like that. Teachers are more than just “teachers”. Don’t you forget it.

Mr Costrell, why don’t you walk in a teacher’s footsteps, and make a lifelong career out of it, before you open your stupid mouth.

FYI-you’re not a teacher, you’re a Harvard professor. Get off your high horse.


February 25, 2011

My colleague, Bob Costrell, has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal that tells you the one number you need to know to understand the dispute over collective bargaining and public employee compensation in Wisconsin.  It is 74.2.  That is how many cents the public pays Milwaukee Public School (MPS) employees for retirement and health benefits  for each dollar of salary.  The comparable figure for private sector employees is 24.3.

Bob explains exactly how benefits in Milwaukee could cost nearly as much as salary.  In short, it has to do with the fact that the public pays the employee as well as the employer contributions to the pension.  Teachers actually were given a second, additional pension by MPS.  And the public pays for the entire cost of a gold-plated health plan for current and retired employees.  All of this was obtained in collective bargaining negotiations.

The Chart That Launched a Conference

February 24, 2009


The Quick and the Ed has additional comment on the teacher pension conference I discussed yesterday.  Rather than focusing on the financial sustainability of teacher pensions, Chad Aldeman at QATE focuses on how the odd accrual of pension wealth distorts teacher labor market decisions.  This is also an incredibly important issue.

In particular, he focuses on the work done by my colleagues Bob Costrell and Mike Podgusrky that finds that the convoluted design teacher pensions encourages some teachers to continue working to receive a large increase in the value of their pensions at a particular age, while it pushes other teachers out the door because they would lose an enormous amount of pension wealth if they continued working.

These “peaks and valleys” in pension wealth can have profound effects on teacher quality, by possibly keeping some teachers in the profession too long and by cutting the careers of others too short.  The chart above should give you a feeling for how convoluted teacher pension designs are.  Aldeman calls it “the chart that launched a conference” because the publication of these findings in Education Next sparked a flurry of new research on teacher pensions, much of which was presented last week.

Paying the Pension Piper

October 27, 2008

According to an analysis of public (including teacher) pensions by Northern Trust reported in the Washington Post, those pensions lost 14.8% of their value for the year ended September 30.  They have almost certainly lost more during October in line with the continuing drop in stock prices. 

The decline only compounds a serious problem.  Even before this year’s market fall many teacher pension plans were under-funded.  According to the Post, the GAO concluded that 27 out of 65 large public pensions were inadequately funded as of 2006.

The problem, according to pension administrators cited in the article, stems in part from “an increase in pension benefits.”  That is, when the market is doing great and pension funds are flush, state policymakers are tempted to accede to teacher demands to raise benefits.  But when the market drops, the pension benefits cannot be cut.  It’s a one-way street.  Pension benefits may be increased but it is illegal to decrease them.

So, guess who is going to have to pay the pension piper?  Taxpayers.

UPDATE:  Teacher pensions also distort the labor market for teachers by having “spikes” and “valleys” in benefits.  That is, teachers leave a large amount of money on the table if they leave their positions too early and they actually begin to lose pension benefits if they remain in their job too long.  The net effect is to keep some teachers who have lost their fire for teaching in the profession too long and to drive effective and experienced teachers out of the profession too early.  See a great piece on this by my colleagues Bob Costrell and Mike Podgursky in Education Next.

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