David Laska: Teachers Unions Put Profits Over People

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Members of the Chicago Teachers Union.  (AP)

With the nation’s eyes focused on the latest poll, gaffe or unearthed video footage having to do with the Presidential election, the great civil rights issue of our time has received almost no attention.

The Unites States was the first nation in history to declare that public education is a right for every citizen.  Today we recognize that access to a quality education is the foundation upon which upward social mobility is built.  

Yet a quarter of students fail to graduate high school within four years. Half of African-American and Hispanic American students drop out entirely.  These young people are more likely to go on welfare, become divorced and serve time in prison.

This is a human tragedy that, absent systemic reforms, will drag down our economy, national security apparatus and standard of living.

But intransigent teachers’ unions and their Democratic allies continue to resist the reforms that would best serve underprivileged communities, fighting instead for policies that benefit union coffers.

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It’s almost axiomatic that smaller class sizes lead to a better education, but that statement isn’t supported by any empirical data.  In fact, McKinsey & Company conducted 112 studies evaluating the relationship between class size and student performance.  In 103 of those studies, there was either no correlation between the two variables or student performance actually decreased with smaller class sizes. In the remaining studies, the positive relationship between smaller classes and student performance was not statistically significant.

Teachers unions push for smaller class sizes because they mean more teachers, and more teachers mean more dues-paying union members.  It’s that simple.

This is the same logic behind the unions’ push for bilingual classrooms: more students in bilingual classrooms means teachers that would otherwise lose their jobs keep receiving paychecks, and the unions keep receiving their cut.  Nobody seems to mind that for immigrant students, a bilingual education will leave them less fluent in English.

When the Chicago teachers’ union recently went on strike, hidden behind their ostensibly noble demands of expanding art and music programs in some poorly funded schools were self-serving demands for smaller class sizes and paid preparation time.

The practice of “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) for teacher layoffs mandates that the newest teachers are laid off first, even if they’re “Teacher of the Year” award winners.

LIFO is demonstrably detrimental to lower-income schools, yet is ferociously defended by teachers unions.

In 14 states, it is actually illegal for schools to consider factors other than length of service when laying off teachers.  

These 14 states include population centers like California, Illinois and New Jersey, and employ 40% - some 1.25 million - of America’s teachers.

A recent University of Washington study revealed that 80% of teachers cut during seniority-based layoffs were more effective than the lowest-performing teachers who remained on the job.

And since teacher salary is linked to seniority, LIFO layoffs mean that more teachers need to be fired in order to meet a particular budget shortfall.

Schools in low-income areas are likely to have many first-year teachers, so LIFO hurts lower-income students, those who need public education the most, particularly hard.

Our education system should reward excellence in teachers, not service length.  Those who fail should be removed from the classroom.  But in New Jersey for example, unions have made it so difficult to fire teachers that only twenty have been removed over the last decade.

In New York City, teachers deemed unfit for the classroom aren’t fired – they’re sent to so-called “rubber rooms,” where they show up every school day, sometimes for years, doing no work and drawing full salaries.  In many cases, these include teachers accused of physically or sexually assaulting a student.

Barack Obama has largely ignored education reform over the last four years.  Race to the Top, his signature education legislation, pays lip service to merit-based evaluations for teachers, but studies from both the American Enterprise Institute and the Economic Policy Institute have concluded that decisions made on which states received federal funding were “subjective and arbitrary,” and had more to do with political circumstances than actual performance.

Mitt Romney’s record in Massachusetts speaks for itself.  As governor, Romney incentivized student success by rewarding scholarships to any of Massachusetts’ public colleges to students who scored in the top 25% on their graduation exams.

By his third year in office, Massachusetts 4th graders were ranked first in English and first in math.  The same was true of 8th graders.

The equality of opportunity that derives from an adequate public education is the civil rights issue of our time.   But America’s teachers unions are subjugating the quality of education to increasing aggregate union dues - that’s truly putting profits over people.

David Laska is Special Assistant to Chairman Ed Cox of  the New York Republican State Committee.

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David Laska is Communications Director of the New York State Republican Party.

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