Article published in The Washington Times
Steve Jobs, the co-founder and CEO of Apple, just lost any friends he had in the executive offices of the nation’s teacher unions. Speaking recently at an education reform conference in Austin, Mr. Jobs blamed the unionization of America’s public schools for much of what’s wrong with today’s public education system.
“What kind of person could you get to run a small business,” he asked, comparing school principals to CEOs, “if you told them that when they came in they couldn’t get rid of people that they thought weren’t any good?” Unfortunately for America’s schoolchildren, Mr. Jobs’ criticisms are just scraping the surface.
Across America, there are more than 3 million public-school teachers. Organized through the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — the nation’s two largest labor unions — they wield enormous political influence and aren’t afraid to use it. Much of this power comes through the dues that union leaders deduct from teachers’ paychecks, supposedly to improve the working conditions of the teachers they represent. In California, for example, the state teachers’ association represents 340,000 workers and collects more than $150 million each year in mandatory dues.
But in reality, the unions often promote an agenda that doesn’t reflect the interests of their members. Performance-based pay for teachers is a prime example of how the unions work directly against their members’ own best interests. In inner-city schools, the best teachers often leave after just a year or two for better salaries, nicer neighborhoods and less stressful work. Merit pay, however, makes it possible for these schools to retain effective teachers by paying them more. But the unions usually fight tooth and nail against such measures.
By standing against proven reform, the union agenda also harms the nation’s schoolchildren.
Using member dues, unions regularly lobby against efforts to allow students trapped in underperforming schools to transfer to better schools by using vouchers. Never mind the fact that study after study has demonstrated that voucher systems boost student achievement in both public and private schools, regardless of socioeconomic background.
Further, when using their collective-bargaining powers, teacher-union leaders often rely on tough, confrontational tactics to win concessions from local school boards. Across the country, they’ve negotiated generous taxpayer subsidies and other unfair benefits.
In cities like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Philadelphia, a teacher who decides against joining the local union is required by contract to pay a fee to that union.
Most large school districts also offer paid leave for teachers to conduct union business. For example, San Diego’s contract gives union members an “unlimited number of workdays per fiscal year of leave to use for association business.” And in Providence, teachers selected by their union to serve as delegates to any AFL-CIO meeting are eligible for five paid days of leave. This places a double cost burden on schools. In addition to paying the absent teachers their full salary, many districts are also responsible for finding and paying substitute teachers.
Shockingly, in some cities, teachers on paid leave can be hired as substitute teachers without terminating their leave. In other words, a teacher could take time off but continue working as a substitute teacher — collecting two paychecks, at the same time, from the same school. In many districts, schools must give unions free use of equipment like copy machines, telephones and computers. Some districts are even contractually obligated to provide union presidents with free office space and time at faculty meetings.
Further, if city and state governments simply eliminated the taxpayer subsidies that are being used to support union activities each year, they could channel that money back to providing a high-quality education to every student, using the funds to raise teacher pay to attract the best and brightest.
Steve Jobs has started an important conversation about the impact of America’s teachers unions. Those who seek to improve the quality of our nation’s public schools — parents, teachers and local school-board members — would be wise to take part.
David White is an adjunct scholar at the Lexington Institute.
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