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A Kinder and Gentler Teachers Union?

The unions are trying to take the “we’re in it for the kids” shtick to a new level by declaring that they now collectively bargain for “the common good.”

Last week, The American Prospect posted “Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good,’” which claims that unions across the country are “expanding their focus to the broader community.” All this is code for, “We don’t want to come off as selfish, so while we are still going to push for our typical me-first (and only) union agenda, we are going to try to deceive the public into believing that we really care about kids and taxpayers.”

According to the piece, public employee union leaders and community organizations gathered in Washington, D.C. in 2014 and came up with a 3-point plan: use the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; work with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognize militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The lofty but ultimately meaningless verbiage led the writer of the piece to conclude that “The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.”

Politicize bargaining?! That’s all collective bargaining in education is and ever was – pure, unadulterated, no additives, not-made-from-concentrate – politics. The union sits at a table with school board members and hashes out contracts that, more often than not, are detrimental to students, good teachers and taxpayers. Collective bargaining agreements inhibit creativity and treat teachers as interchangeable widgets. Additionally, the taxpayer gets to foot the bill for goodies like Cadillac healthcare plans that the union – and frequently their bought-and-paid-for school board – collude on and ratify.

There is a ton of evidence that the cuddly, kind and caring teacher union concept is a fraud. Here are just a few recent examples:

In last week’s post, I wrote about a situation in Yonkers, NY where a union president and vice-president are both caught on video trying to help a teacher who claimed to have physically abused a child while using a racial epithet, and subsequently fled to Mexico, unannounced, for two weeks. (It was actually staged by investigative journalist James O’Keefe.) As all concerned parties investigate the union leaders’ responses, the Yonkers Federation of Teachers has asked the taxpayer subsidized school district to continue paying Paul Diamond, the union vice-president, his salary while he performs his union duties for the 2016-17 school year. Not unique to Yonkers, this phenomenon, known as “release time,” goes on all over the country and is an absolute outrage. It’s a practice that allows a public employee to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay, all the while giving the union a free worker. The employee’s activities include negotiating contracts, lobbying, processing grievances, and attending union meetings and conferences. Diamond will not spend one minute teaching. No evidence of “citizen power” here.

Next, a school district in Illinois just awarded its teachers a 10-year contract that includes a 40 percent salary increase over its term, preserves a pre-retirement, 6 percent yearly pay spike to boost teachers’ pensions, an increase in sick-days from 15 to 24 per year, and a freeze on health insurance and prescription drug costs for district employees for the 10-year period. “Shared goals?” In what universe?

On the state level, we have a situation in California that doesn’t involve collective bargaining but certainly calls into question whose “common good” is being served. Contra Costa Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 would change both seniority and tenure as we know it. The bill includes a provision that offers ineffective teachers extra professional support. If a teacher receives a second low-performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process. It would also increase the time for a teacher to attain tenure (or more accurately “permanent status”) from two to three or four years, depending on their performance. Additionally, seniority would no longer be the single most important factor in handing out pink slips. This is hardly radical stuff and would certainly make for a more effective teaching profession in the Golden State.

But the most powerful special interest group in the state, the California Teachers Association, is fighting the bill. Blithely casting the needs of kids aside, the union first claimed the bill “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.” (Yes, just like every other profession in the world.) In a subsequent post on its website, the union went bonkers, claiming, “Corporate millionaires and special interests have mounted an all-out assault on educators by attempting to do away with laws protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions and supporting due process rights.” And that was just the beginning. To read the rest of this bizarre rant, go here. But in any event, we know whose posterior CTA is trying to protect, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “reducing inequality.”

And then there is the pension situation. In California, the state teachers’ retirement system is currently experiencing a $70 billion shortfall. Is CTA willing to accept some responsibility and work to make adjustments for the common good? The union’s response to the nightmare that will ultimately fall on the shoulders of the already beleaguered taxpayer is to try to kill any reforms, maintain the miserable status quo and blame Wall Street and “corporate greed.” “Strengthening democracy?” Hardly.

Finally, last week in National Review, former Florida governor Jeb Bush laid out a plan to save America’s education system. His excellent piece included such basic ideas as letting parents choose from a marketplace of options, including traditional neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools, with education funding following the child. He wants to weed out failing schools and reward good and great teachers for hard work and results. But each of these ideas is fought on a daily basis by the teachers unions, since they would lose much of their power and income if Bush’s ideas were to be implemented on a grand scale.

“Bargaining for the common good” is just a touchy-feely catchphrase which shouldn’t fool anyone. The teachers unions are not acting in anyone else’s best interest. And there is little good about them, common or otherwise.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

The Bad, the Ugly and…the Perky

Three recent stories point to the self-serving teacher union mentality.

The bad. Joseph Ocol was in big trouble when he came to the U.S. in 1999. As a whistleblower, he was placed in the government’s Witness Protection Program for calling attention to an election fund-raising scam in his native Philippines. Even with a double degree in Electrical Engineering and Education, he had difficulty finding work here. Ultimately he found a job as a mathematics teacher in a tough part of Chicago, an area notorious for drugs, crime and violence.

Ocol’s idealism and passion to make things right served him well in his new position. A math teacher, he became famous by creating an after-school chess club. Knowing that most gang violence occurs between 3 and 6pm, he decided to keep as many kids in school as he could and teach them to play chess. He eventually expanded his program from high school students and invited children from the local elementary school to join, ultimately involving over 100 at-risk kids. Over the years, the wildly successful program has produced several chess champions and received accolades from the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and President Obama.

But then, Ocol did something bad, really bad, at least according to the Chicago Teachers Union. Not willing to abandon his students, he decided to shun the one-day teachers’ strike in the Windy City on April 1st. As punishment for his “crime,” the union is demanding that he give the pay he received for working that day to them. Ocol made a counter offer. He said he was willing to fork over his salary, but wants it to help fund his 35 member chess team’s trip to the White House. Ocol was supposed to have a hearing on June 6th, but he refused to go because he said he needed the time to coach his students.

So in a city that is home to the highest paid teachers in the country – where more than one in three students drop out – CTU is doing its best to hound a dedicated educator and idealistic human being into submission over not participating in what was very possibly an illegal one-day strike. (But of course, CTU president Karen Lewis will reassure us that the union’s punishment of the teacher is being administered “for the children.”)

Ocol also said he has been receiving nasty messages from other union members and filed a complaint. Some teachers have suggested that he leave the Chicago Public School System and work for a charter school. Good idea. I’m sure his efforts would be much more appreciated in a non-union environment. And if he goes that route, here’s hoping all his students will follow him.

The Ugly. In Yonkers, NY, we have a reverse problem where the union, instead of trying to punish a good teacher, tries to help a violent teacher save his own skin. Investigative journalist James O’Keefe went into the local union office posing as a teacher who claimed to have physically abused a student while using a racial epithet, and subsequently fled to Mexico, unannounced, for two weeks, because he didn’t know what else to do. The episode, available via a 17-minute video, lays bare the union’s priorities. The local union president and vice-president instruct the teacher to talk to them “theoretically” and not to admit anything. The union bosses clearly couldn’t have cared less about the abused child, but rather counseled the teacher how to save his job, advising him what lies to tell and what truths to avoid.

When the Yonkers City Council caught wind of the video, it insisted that the involved union officials resign. Majority Leader John Larkin said “What kind of people would conspire to conceal child abuse and assist in covering up a teacher going AWOL for two weeks without permission?” (The answer Mr. Larkin is: Your average teacher union leader.)

The mayor was more than a tad miffed. “If this is the standard operating procedure, well you know what, it better damn well change.”

And then there was the teacher union response. The two involved local union leaders refused to comment on the video. Karl Korn, spokesman for the New York State United Teachers (the state affiliate of the involved local), punted to the national union, saying the American Federation of Teachers “was reviewing the facts in the matter.” The AFT responded that it is “commissioning an independent, full and fair investigation to determine whether the video is accurate….”

Then, showing true union colors, Korn added, “The AFT is prepared to act if a breach of ethics is found. What we do know is that the video is based on a series of lies and deceptions. It was cut and sliced at least 14 times. It’s an attack piece manufactured by a right-wing extremist.”

I’m sure the union’s investigation will be very fair, and objective to a fault.

The Perky. Just last week the Buffalo (NY) School Board voted to take away the no-copay cosmetic surgery rider that has been in the collective bargaining contract for years. The district is strapped for cash, and decided to redirect the millions of dollars a year it spends on face lifts and tummy tucks to its students instead. The nerve! The union, you see, is using the issue as leverage to get a new contract which they haven’t had since 2004. Local teacher union president Phil Rumore said “removing the cosmetic surgery provision without a new contract is a slap in the face to teachers.”

As Education Action Group CEO Kyle Olson pointed out, the district, operating with a $50 million deficit, still managed to spend $5.4 million on plastic surgery in 2013. At the same time, the high school graduation rate for the Buffalo Public Schools was a pathetic 56 percent and one-third of all adults living in Buffalo are illiterate. Hey, but what’s a little illiteracy when you can score hair plugs and boob jobs, all paid for by the taxpayer!

These three stories are infuriating, horrifying and ridiculous, but, sadly, not unique at all. Similar scenarios are played out year after year throughout much of the country. It’s the nature of the teacher unions, whose priorities are their officers and (acquiescent) members, and most definitely not the kids. And let’s not even get started on the enormous burden they, with the help of compliant school boards, heap on taxpayers.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.