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Unions, Not Lack of Funding, Afflict Public Education

It is hard for education reformers to be too optimistic about the post-strike prospects for Chicago schools. The resulting contract significantly boosts teacher pay in exchange for some modest changes such as a lengthened school day and improved teacher testing.

As school officials figure out how to pay for the new deal and bolster vastly underfunded teacher pensions, new disputes are likely to arise. At least officials in Chicago recognized that educational improvements require taking on unions and their counterproductive work rules.

By contrast, officials in California are still peddling the idea that the state’s public-school system – which receives 40 percent of the general-fund budget, by constitutional edict – is struggling because it lacks money.

“We can’t keep cutting our schools and still keep the economy strong for the next generation,” Gov. Jerry Brown wrote in support of Proposition 30, an initiative that would impose higher income taxes on Californians who earn more than $250,000 a year and raise sales taxes for everyone.

Brown’s pitch is as cynical as it is untrue. The tax increase, which is favored in opinion polls, doesn’t provide additional funds for schools. The governor and legislators passed a budget that increases spending for many other priorities, but cuts $5.4 billion from public schools, unless voters approve the tax increase. So it is blackmail – raise taxes or watch school programs get cut. Brown and his fellow Democrats didn’t have to set up the budget this way.

At the same time, the state’s political establishment is trying to defeat Proposition 32, which strikes at the heart of the school problem by attacking the way unions, including the powerful California Teachers Association, are funded. That initiative, lagging in the polls after a labor-financed ad blitz, would stop automatic union-dues payroll deductions, which bankroll the political campaigns that make the union such a powerhouse.

But the real battle over education isn’t being waged in Sacramento, but in poor and middle-class neighborhoods of Los Angeles, where desperate parents have increasingly turned to charter schools. Such schools, which are free of the union collective-bargaining constraints and many state regulations, have flourished by offering students educational choices and a model based on results.

As The Los Angeles Times reported in 2010, “Fueled by money and emboldened by clout from some of the city’s most powerful figures, charter schools began a period of explosive growth that has challenged the status quo in the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

The city, which has the second-largest U.S. school system after New York, has the highest number of charter schools in the nation. United Teachers Los Angeles fights the movement in any way it can, from rallies to regulation efforts. A proposal to expand restrictions on charters and halt new approvals of such schools in the interim is up for a vote this month. If the union can’t beat them, it is trying to organize them.

But it is unionization that is afflicting public schools, not lack of funds. At the state level, there is little debate over education policy beyond efforts to find additional tax revenue. Even reforms that should be noncontroversial have no hope of passing if the California Teachers Association opposes them.

A bill introduced in the state Legislature after the arrest of a Los Angeles elementary-school teacher on horrific molestation charges would have streamlined “the labyrinthine ‘dismissal statutes’ that require districts to navigate a seemingly endless maze of hearings and appeals,” wrote Larry Sand in City Journal. But the union got the proposal quashed.

In 2009, The Los Angeles Times exposed how the school district places teachers accused of serious wrongdoing in “rubber rooms,” where they collect millions of dollars in pay and benefits as the cases against them wend their way through the system. That is why the Los Angeles school district gave the teacher indicted on charges of multiple sex crimes a $40,000 severance package just to get rid of him.

It is impossible to run an efficient, productive and compassionate school system when miscreants and incompetents can’t easily be fired; where seniority trumps teaching skill; and where city leaders, however reform-minded, have little authority over the classroom.

Yet all that Californians hear about from their state leaders are laments about a lack of money. “Spending on K-12 programs has decreased to $7,530 per pupil in the current budget from a 2008-09 peak of $8,414,” reported the Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters. Yet a Pepperdine University study in 2010 found that K-12 per-pupil spending soared almost 26 percent in the five years before the peak.

These per-pupil spending numbers can be vastly understated, according to some researchers. Adam Schaeffer of the Cato Institute, for example, calculated that, when local and state bond measures and capital expenses are included in the spending calculation, Los Angeles spent almost $30,000 a student in the 2007-08 school year.

“More money – they repeat that like it’s some kind of mantra,” said Lance Izumi, a California education scholar and member of the board of governors of the California community colleges. “There’s no correlation between higher spending and performance. If that were the case, the Washington, D.C., public schools would be the best ones in the nation.”

Meanwhile, the schools superintendent in Los Angeles, John Deasy, told a community group recently that the district is so financially pressed that it can’t cut its lawns because “we fired all the gardeners.” It is hard to feel too sorry for the district, given that the Pepperdine study found that while classroom funding fell, spending soared on the number and pay of administrators. This spike, while not necessarily the fault of the union, is another failure of a noncompetitive school system.

Will California voters buy into the poor-mouthing and hand over more cash? Or will they look closely at Los Angeles, where the only hope for change comes from competitive school alternatives, and at Chicago, where a Democratic mayor could finally draw a line with the teachers union?

Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.

The Emerging Nonpartisan Union Reform Consensus

To declare that union reform, public sector union reform in particular, is a nonpartisan cause, is certain to attract vociferous challenges from defenders of unions, but events continue to trump ideology.

As documented in our earlier editorial “The War for the Democratic Party,” even in California, a state where public sector unions wield nearly absolute control, there are increasing numbers of prominent democrats who are standing up to the unions. They include Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former State Senator Gloria Romero, President of the California NAACP Alice Huffman, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, and Matt Gonzalez, former President of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. From education reform to pension rollbacks, Democrats are lining up to make hard choices in California, staring down union power in the process.

A series of similar reality checks are happening all over the United States, as Democrats realize the agenda of public sector unions is in direct conflict with their ability to fund government programs and infrastructure projects. As reported in the New York Times earlier this week in an article entitled “Cuomo Secures Big Givebacks in Union Deal,” a democratic governor in a union stronghold is making tough decisions in an attempt to restore budget solvency. As reported on June 21st on the website “Intercepts,” in a post entitled “Rage Against the Machine,” Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey have joined with Republican Governor Christie to require public employees to contribute more to their own pensions and health care premiums, and Rahm Emanuel, the newly elected Democratic Mayor of Chicago, has canceled cost of living increases for the public school teachers in that city. None of this sits well with public sector unions. And none of this would be happening without Democratic lawmakers.

Another nonpartisan phenomenon gathering momentum is the willingness of major news organizations to editorialize in favor of public sector union reform. In California, the Los Angeles Times, of all newspapers, just published an editorial entitled “‘Card check’ empowers unions, not union workers,” in reference to a bill recently passed by the California legislature. And in California’s capitol city, the liberal Sacramento Bee recently editorialized that “Union concessions are city’s only hope,” referring to the fact that the city of Sacramento cannot hope to balance its budget without reducing the over-market pay and benefits afforded their public workforce.

As documented in our post “Is Union Reform Partisan,” fully 95% of political contributions by unions over the past 10 years in America have gone to democratic lawmakers. But increasingly, democratic lawmakers are realizing they must stand up to the union agenda. This is testimony to the fact that public sector unions have clearly overreached, and that politicians of both parties now realize this. That even democrats, who stand to lose their primary source of funding, are beginning to enact public sector union reform, is a most hopeful sign.