Article published In The New York Times
Several months ago, the Newark Teachers Union put up signs across the city about Newark’s escalating murder rate. “Help Wanted,” the signs implored. “Stop the Killings in Newark Now!”
Business owners have complained that the signs are hurting Newark’s image, and Mayor Cory Booker has described them as counterproductive. “If I had tens of thousands of dollars, I wouldn’t use them on billboards,” he told The Star-Ledger last month. “I would use them for after school programs. I would use them to help teachers get supplies.”
Joseph Del Grosso, president of the union, won’t say how much the signs cost. He has, however, said that the “cost has no bearing on anything.”
But it does. Union leaders are spending substantial amounts of money advancing a political agenda that has nothing to do with education. And this is a growing problem throughout the country. All too often, America’s teachers’ unions claim to be championing education when, in fact, they’re pursuing unrelated political agendas.
The American Federation of Teachers, the Newark union’s parent organization, is leading the charge. The federation has spent considerable sums endorsing all kinds of issues unrelated to education, including an immediate and total withdrawal from Iraq and a tax-supported, single-payer health care plan.
The federation has also called on Congress to “grant Medicare the right to negotiate prescription drug prices,” and urged its members to “protest Wal-Mart’s presence across the country.”
An even bigger problem related to the union political activity is the source of the money. Where, exactly, does it come from?
Mostly through dues that union leaders deduct from teachers’ paychecks. But many teachers’ unions, including the Newark one, have also managed to secure taxpayer subsidies and other unfair benefits through collective bargaining agreements.
If, for example, a Newark teacher decides against joining the local union, he’s still contractually required to pay 85 percent of the standard union fee – money that is automatically withheld from his paycheck.
The union has also negotiated paid leave for teachers to conduct union business. Newark’s contract allows as many as 10 Newark teachers to serve as delegates to any A.F.L.-C.I.O. meeting for up to five days. These teachers receive full salaries and benefits, and the union doesn’t reimburse the school for the substitute teachers it is forced to hire.
Union members elsewhere might enjoy similar perks, but taxpayers don’t foot the bill. And that bill isn’t cheap. According to the state Department of Education, Newark spent $17,502 per pupil in the 2005-06 school year, or more than twice the national average. To put this figure in perspective, a full year at Rutgers University – including tuition, fees and room and board – totals $19,000 for New Jersey residents.
So what are Newark taxpayers and schoolchildren getting for all this money?
Well, last year, only 38.8 percent of Newark seniors graduated with a normal high school diploma.
In other words, Newark’s schools are in serious need of repair. But instead of worrying about Newark’s schoolchildren, the union’s leadership has used its resources to lease billboards. Meanwhile, the union has waged a very public battle against Mayor Booker over school vouchers, and many think the billboard campaign is part of this effort.
Why the fight? Because the mayor supports school vouchers. He believes that vouchers would allow students who are trapped in underperforming schools to transfer somewhere better. The union has stood against school vouchers from the very beginning.
In the interest of scaring voters, for example, the union’s parent organization has claimed that there is no evidence that vouchers will improve achievement. But this is false. Study after study has demonstrated that voucher systems improve student achievement, regardless of socioeconomic background. Indeed, the National Research Council issued a report during the Clinton administration recommending that the government finance a large-scale school choice experiment.
Quite simply, union leaders are against vouchers because they fear such efforts will divert money into less unionized, or non-union, schools.
The union claims to have Newark’s best interests at heart. But instead, it has chosen to aggressively oppose the measure most likely to improve Newark’s schools while wasting its resources on billboards that will do little but drive business out of the city.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute, a public policy research group.
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