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Teachers Unions’ Election Day Thumping

“Teachers Unions Take a Beating in Midterm Races”

“Teachers Unions Take a Shellacking”

“Teachers Unions Get Schooled in 2014 Election”

The above is just a small sampling of post-election headlines which flooded the media after last Tuesday’s historic election, which generated a major political shakeup in the nation’s capital as well as state houses from coast to coast. While it was a bad day for Democrats in general, perhaps the biggest losers were the nation’s teachers unions.

Unions, especially the teacher’s variety, had a lot on the line, and except for two wins, the rest of the key contests were nothing short of disastrous. Perhaps their number one target was Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who had minimized teachers’ collective bargaining “rights.” Michigan governor Rick Snyder wasn’t far behind Walker on the union hit list for the same reasons, but both incumbents won handily. The unions went after Florida governor Rick Scott for expanding school choice in the Sunshine State, but he prevailed over challenger Charlie Crist. Especially galling for organized labor was the victory in Illinois (Illinois!) where Republican pro-voucher businessman Bruce Rauner ran against incumbent governor Pat Quinn. Rauner clearly expressed disdain for union bosses on several occasions, accusing them of “bribing politicians to give them unaffordable pensions, free healthcare, outrageous pay and benefits and they’re bankrupting our state government, they’re raising our taxes and they’re forcing businesses out of the state, and as a result we’ve got brutally high unemployment.” Apparently, Rauner’s blunt message resonated with voters; he won by five points.

Many other Republicans were victorious in gubernatorial races in traditional blue states, including Maryland, Massachusetts and Maine. It got so bad for the unions that the one Republican they backed – Allen Fung for governor of Rhode Island – lost to Democrat Gina Raimondo who, as treasurer, worked to rein in out-of-control public employee pension spending. That, of course, incurred the wrath of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Education reformers were thrilled with the results. “I’d call it a mandate for change sent boldly from voters,” Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform, said in a statement. “Governors-elect in these states have proven themselves to be champions of reforms during their tenure as incumbent state executives, or have run on platforms that don’t shy away from being really vocal, putting students and parents first.”

“A bunch of these guys did stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do. They tackled pensions in purple states. They modified collective bargaining. They fought expansively for school choice,” said Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “What that says to me is the unions need to rethink some of their assumptions about what the world’s going to look like going forward.”

The union response to the thumping was varied. Randi Weingarten essentially blamed it on President Obama in a press release. “It’s clear that many believe this country is on the wrong track and voted for change. Republicans successfully made this a referendum on President Obama’s record and won resoundingly, but where the election was about everyday concerns—education, minimum wage, paid sick leave—working families prevailed.” She then pointed to the two needle-in-a-haystack union victories to crow about – the ouster of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Tom Torlakson’s narrow victory over challenger Marshall Tuck in the race for California Superintendent of Public Instruction.

National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García, whose “heart was heavy” was a bit more realistic. “We knew this was going to be an uphill battle. But I don’t think anybody on our side, and we’ve got some very savvy people, anticipated going over the falls like this. Tectonic plates have shifted. And we’re going to have to come back with a new way of organizing for these kinds of races.”

Eskelsen Garcia’s heart may have been heavy, but the teachers unions’ political coffers are a whole lot lighter. The final tallies won’t be known for a while, but it is estimated that the two unions spent at least $70 million in this election cycle – more than in any other year ever.

The Washington Free Beacon’s Bill McMorris writes,

The NEA was the second-largest Super PAC donor of the 2014 cycle, spending more than $22 million to aid Democratic candidates for federal office. The federal spending was on top of an estimated $28 million push at the state and local level….

The AFT had said it planned on spending $20 million during the 2014 cycle, a ten-fold increase from the $2 million it spent on 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s worth noting these lofty numbers don’t include any money that was spent by the unions’ state and local affiliates. The California Teachers Association spent $11 million alone to fend off Tuck’s challenge to Torlakson for the Superintendent of Public Instruction position. Speaking of which….

Usually this scenario – union-backed-incumbent vs. guy-no-one-has-heard-of is a real snooze-fest and the former wins easily. But not this time. Tuck matched his rival Democrat in spending and did well in many parts of the state, winning the more conservative counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Orange, and Kern. He got clobbered, however, in the gentrified areas – Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Mendocino and Marin – where many parents opt to avoid the public schools.

Low voter turnout also played a role. EdSource’s John Fensterwald reports,

Torlakson beat Tuck with 2,266,000 to 2,085,000 votes – a difference of 181,000 votes – with thousands of absentee ballots still to be counted. The total vote of 4.35 million was 900,000 fewer than the 5.2 million votes cast for governor and about 700,000 fewer – 14 percent – than for secretary of state, the only other closely contested statewide contest on the ballot, despite the tens of millions of dollars spend on ads and mailers by both sides in the superintendent race.  

One important thing Torlakson had working for him was that Tuck was an unknown. As John Fensterwald explains, “For most voters, he was a blank canvas that Torlakson and his allies painted darkly. In ads, they attacked him as a Wall Street banker – a reference to a banking job he had right out of college – working with billionaires to privatize and dismantle public schools.”

But the biggest factor in Torlakson’s reelection – in addition to the $11 million gift from CTA – was the fabled teacher union ground game. The low voting numbers gave the unions and their get-out-the-vote messaging a huge advantage that is very difficult to overcome. In fact, U-T San Diego’s Steve Greenhut quotes founder of the California Center for Parent Empowerment and former CA State Senate majority leader Gloria Romero “… You can’t buy this seat and that was Tuck’s and his donors’ mistake. There is a political machine that CTA controls, which would never show up in those stupid polls …. It’s money after money. Below that great green wall is an army.”

Then there was also the voter ignorance factor. Tuck, unlike Torlakson, strongly favored the Vergara decision – where a judge ruled the tenure, seniority and dismissal statutes needed to be eliminated from the state education code – and made it an important part of his campaign. But as City Journal’s Ben Boychuk points out “… polls showed that Vergara resonated weakly with voters. Though 42 percent of likely California voters ranked education as their top priority this year, and the vast majority of voters surveyed after Treu’s ruling agreed that the state should do away with “last hired, first fired” seniority protections, nearly 60 percent said they didn’t know what the lawsuit was about.

So we had Tuck, a no-name candidate, without a ground game, whose messaging failed to reach a low-information populace and who suffered a poor voter turnout, fighting against a man backed by the most powerful state teachers union in the country – and Tuck still lost by only four percentage points. I would call this something of a moral victory, and reformers should not despair; they are a few tweaks away from winning. But they must develop more of a grassroots approach to campaigning – as victorious Republicans did in other states – if the unacceptable educational status quo is to be upended. Tuck acknowledged the sad reality in his concession speech,

Today, one day after this election, there are still 2.5 million children in California public schools who can’t read and write at grade level.  Those children are counting on all of us to take every action necessary to give them a better education and a chance at a better future.

I look forward to continuing to do my part in the collective effort to ensure that each child gets the education they need to achieve their dreams.

So while the rest of the country took a bold step and almost universally denied teachers union candidates, we in California still have work to do.

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.

Early Christmas Gift to Children and Taxpayers in Philadelphia?

School reformers in Philly decide to help taxpayers and kids; teachers unions fume.

Philadelphia can be a tough town – so tough, in fact, that in 1968, frustrated and cranky Eagles fans even booed Santa Claus at a late season game. When that didn’t scare off old St. Nick, the hostile fans unleashed a barrage of snowballs at the bewildered and terrified volunteer.

Forty-six years later, and it’s the teachers unions that are chucking venom at the Philadelphia School Reform Commission. First, a little background. The PSRC – an appointed body – was established in 2001 as a response to overall school district ineptitude. It didn’t help much. In fact, just a year ago, I wrote about the school system’s ongoing incompetence and corruption, using a snippet from a Wall Street Journal editorial that spelled out a few of the gory details.

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

… Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

So the kids aren’t learning, the taxpayer is taking it in the shorts, and the teachers unions couldn’t care less.

But change is in the wind.

After 21 months of negotiating and failing to produce a compromise, the PSRC abruptly cancelled the existing teachers union contract. PSRC chairman Bill Green said the move will save the district $54 million this year, $30 million of which would be quickly pumped into schools beset by large class sizes and reductions in arts and Advanced Placement classes. He added that the money “will be invested directly in classrooms, with principals empowered to use the cash as they see fit – to hire a full-time counselor and nurse, perhaps, or to pay for more supplies or after-school programs.”

Additionally, the cash-strapped city will see some fiscal relief. The new plan dictates that teachers start paying, in part, for their own health insurance – between $21 and $71 per month.

So the lot of taxpayers and kids are improved, who is griping? The teachers unions, of course.

Listening to their leaders’ responses, you’d think the apocalypse was nigh. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan angrily described the actions as “union busting.” (No, Jerry, the PSRC is not trying to bust the union; it is merely removing the bloated perks that have been bestowed upon your teachers for years.) He then groused, “We are not indentured servants.” Predictably, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers – PFT’s parent union – charged into the fray, calling the move (yawn) “a war on teachers.” Weingarten further pontificated, “Three weeks before the gubernatorial election, this surprise early-morning School Reform Commission meeting, lawsuit and notification to employees imposing a contract and compensation cuts can only be characterized as Gov. Corbett’s well-planned Hail Mary ambush.”

Weingarten’s overwrought comments are hardly surprising given her enmity toward Governor Tom Corbett, a Republican. But other PSRC supporters include former Democrat governor Ed Rendell and Democrat mayor Michael Nutter, who remarked, “The action, unfortunately, was necessary, given the fact that the system is broken. There is no more money to be had from anywhere.”

In the midst of all the huffing and puffing, it isn’t clear if the PSRC’s move is even legal. Whether Act 46, the state takeover law, gives the SRC the power to cancel union contracts remains to be seen. We do know that lawyers on both sides of this issue are already working overtime on their arguments.

The situation in Philadelphia could have national implications. Should the courts validate PSRC’s action, it could set off similar motions in other cities across the country. New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago also have too many failing schools, not to mention horribly misallocated funding, which contributes to a crushing debt burdening the already beleaguered taxpayer.

If Act 46 is validated by the courts, the City of Brotherly Love will get a gift that kids and taxpayers deserve. And Santa, preparing for the Christmas season, will save a few lumps of coal for the stockings hanging on the teachers union’s mantle.

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.

Labor Stains

A new American Federation of Teachers financial report shows that the union has not modified its anti-child and anti-conservative stance.

Courtesy of education writer RiShawn Biddle, we get to peek at the latest edition of the American Federation of Teachers LM-2, a yearly financial report detailing union income and spending.

No surprises. Just the same old same old blatant hypocrisy, anti-education reform agenda and leftist political bent.

We’ll start with AFT president Rhonda (please call me Randi) Weingarten who pulled in a cool $543,150 in total compensation over the last year, all the while railing against the rich because she claims they don’t pay their fair share of taxes. Of course this is the same Randi Weingarten who moved out of New York City in 2012 so that she could escape paying an additional $30,000 in city income taxes.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t begrudge anyone using any legal tactics to avoid paying abusive taxes, but when a person who regularly whines that the rich “should pay their fair share” does it, the hypocrisy meter goes well into the red zone. It’s also hypocritical because her one-percenter salary is paid by teachers who are forced to join her union in just about every school district that AFT represents. Throughout ancient times, this kind of coerced fealty was required by powerful states and empires. “Tribute” was forced on people around the world, who had to pay up as a way of submitting – or showing allegiance – to the government. Tribute was picked up in essence in the last century by the Mafia as a means of establishing and maintaining turf. The teachers unions are just the latest bunch to adapt this repulsive practice as a way to line the pockets of the dons – I mean union leaders.

When it comes to political spending, AFT doesn’t skimp. Their anti-education reform spending and other political outlay is reported to be about $32 million. I say “reported to be” because unions have been known to – how you say – lie about their spending. For example, according to teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci, in the 2008 election cycle, the National Education Association

dropped $260,000 on one of the many front groups operated by Craig Varoga and George Rakis, two men Fox News identifies as “Democratic Party strategists.”  

Readers of this blog will not find such news surprising, but if you delve through the pertinent EIA list of NEA donations to advocacy groups, you won’t find this money. That’s because the expenditures are listed in NEA’s financial disclosure report as expenses for “media,” going to Independent Strategies, one of Rakis and Varoga’s groups, for “generalized message, program expenses,” or “membership communication development,” or “legislative policy development.” Without further information, it was difficult to justify classifying Independent Strategies as an advocacy group. This news, however, suggests NEA’s advocacy spending extends well beyond the easily identifiable groups.

In any event, AFT’s latest battles against education reform have been centered on Michigan and Pennsylvania – the former because it recently stopped forcing its teachers to join the union as a condition of employment and the latter because of a squabble over education funding.

As Biddle points out,

It poured $1.3 million into its Michigan affiliate during 2012-2013; this included $140,776 to the unit’s “solidarity fund” and $240,828 for political activities related to efforts to beat back reformers in the Wolverine State … Altogether, the AFT has poured $2.7 million into the Michigan affiliate over the past two fiscal years…

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, the AFT has worked with its Keystone State affiliate to challenge school reform efforts as well as take on moves by Gov. Tom Corbett to reduce education spending. These efforts, along with the move by Philadelphia’s traditional district to shut down 23 schools, was why Randi has spent time in the state (including getting herself arrested by police back in March during a protest at the district’s board meeting). The union poured $696,256 into the Pennsylvania affiliate, including $238,670 for political activities. The AFT also found outfits willing to take its contributions. Youth United for Change, which has held protests against Corbett’s budget moves, received $25,000 from the AFT, while ACTION United picked up $25,252 from union coffer.

In Michigan, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, it is important to note that the unions’ efforts are – not surprisingly – simply an effort to protect its members’ jobs and perks. They have nothing to do with children. This is understandable – that’s their mandate – but they should at least admit it (which they never do). Like cowards, the unions hide behind the children to advance their agenda.

For example, my post last week concerned itself with the situation in Philadelphia, and I included a letter to The Wall Street Journal from Ms. Weingarten, who was responding to an editorial critical of the Philadelphia Teachers Union. Weingarten wrote that Governor Tom Corbett “continues to rob Philadelphia’s students of much-needed funding to further his anti-teacher ideology.” Her “robbing students” claim is based on the fact that the governor is tying a funding infusion to the elimination of the archaic, child-unfriendly, and industrial-style seniority system, in addition to a mandate to hold teachers accountable for student learning.

Another huge chunk of AFT political spending is on issues that have nothing to do with education. And despite the fairly evenly divided political leanings of its membership, the groups that receive millions from the union have one thing in common – they lean to the left; not one penny of the union’s donations go to anything approaching a right-of-center organization. A few examples of AFT’s largess:

National Immigration Forum Action Fund

National Journal Group Inc

Netroots Foundation

Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network

The Atlantic

Alliance for Retired Americans

American Labor Studies Center

Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance

Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Clinton Global Initiative

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

Economic Policy Institute

Institute for Women’s Policy Research

National Council of La Raza

NAACP

Rainbow PUSH Coalition

The American Prospect

The Nation Institute

So, the union forcibly takes money from teachers and spends much of it in a way that not only hurts children, but also goes against the political beliefs of many of its members. If pointing out these hypocrisies and injustices makes me a “union basher,” I am (proudly) guilty as charged.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.

The City of Brotherly Love (Cain and Abel Edition)

Philadelphia is a city famous for Ben Franklin, the Liberty Bell, cheesesteaks, and now – a miserable and bloated education system.

In what has become an American tradition, another big city mayor has gone to war with “Big Education.”  Like Michael Bloomberg (NY), Antonio Villaraigosa (LA) and Rahm Emanuel (Chicago), Philadelphia’s Michael Nutter is dealing with a failing education system, a bureaucratic Leviathan and a hostile teachers union, collectively known as “the blob.”

As The Wall Street Journal reports,

Philadelphia’s schools are a textbook case of chronic, systemic failure. Woeful finances and academics compelled the state in 2001 to install a five-member School Reform Commission. Test scores have improved but are still pitiful. Last year only about 40% of students scored proficient or above in reading on the state standardized test, but 99.5% of teachers are rated satisfactory.

… Teachers also don’t pay a cent for health benefits and can retire with a pension equal to 80% of their final salary after 30 years. As a bonus, the district pays the union $4,353 per member each year to administer dental, vision and retiree benefits. Its health and welfare fund had a $71 million surplus, according to its latest available tax filing in 2011.

The district last year had to borrow $300 million, and this summer two dozen schools were closed and 3,000 employees laid off (including about 600 teachers) to bridge another $300 million deficit. While the union blames state budget cuts, pay and benefit increases resulting from its last collective-bargaining agreement accounted for half the budget hole.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) has put out several ads that attacked the mayor, portraying him as an arch-villain. The best known is a video of a Philadelphia mother of four who accuses Nutter of “paying more attention to corporations,” “not doing his job” and that the mayor “should be ashamed of himself.”

Nutter was furious at the broadside and countered with a video of his own, claiming he has actually increased education funding and blames the state – read Governor Tom Corbett – for the shortfall. He ends his video with the charge that the PFT gets “an F in telling the truth.”

But is the governor really the flinty conservative he is made out to be? Maybe not. Again, quoting from The Wall Street Journal,

Mr. Corbett is offering the district a one-time $45 million grant and $120 million in recurring funds from a one-percentage-point city sales tax increase on the condition that teachers accept lower pay and benefits as well as “work rule” changes. The district wants to cut base salaries by 5% to 13% to offset the rising cost of pensions and for teachers to contribute to their health benefits. Yet the major sticking points are Mr. Corbett’s school reforms that would eliminate teacher seniority rights and base future pay increases on more rigorous evaluations that include student learning.

Teachers have little reason to budge since their previous contract remains in effect and they continue to earn raises based on longevity. Thus the union will likely drag out the negotiations until after next fall’s election when they hope to elect a Democratic Governor and renegotiate a bailout without Mr. Corbett’s preconditions.

Not surprisingly, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten weighed in via a letter to the editor in Monday’s Wall Street Journal in which she also blamed Governor Corbett. She wrote that he “continues to rob Philadelphia’s students of much-needed funding to further his anti-teacher ideology” because he insists on eliminating seniority and demanding more teacher accountability. Weingarten fails to realize that she – as a member in good standing of the blob – is an integral part of the problem.

Sadly, what is happening in Philadelphia is not new or unique. For years now, compliant legislators and school boards in collaboration with insatiable teachers unions have led to an explosion of needless administrators and cushy union contracts which have sent education budgets into the stratosphere. And all the spending has done absolutely nothing to advance student learning. But the era of ripping off taxpayers and kids may be seeing its end-game. We just can’t afford business-as-usual any more.

Teacher union watchdog Mike Antonucci regularly does a terrific job of exposing institutional corpulence. A piece he wrote for the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution back in 1999 is well worth reading in its entirety. Here is a snippet:

There are school districts in America where the superintendent, assisted only by a secretary, is also the principal of the school and teaches fifth grade. In the Philadelphia School District, the superintendent supervises over 25,000 employees and 261 schools. He has a staff of 10. The school board has a support staff of six. The general counsel has a legal staff of 27. These staffers evidently can’t speak with the public or the legislature on their own, so there is a communications and government relations staff, which consists of 13 people. Then there is transportation, school safety, human resources, leadership and learning, purchasing and warehouse, print shop, etc. According to the district, the total administrative staff for 1997-98 was 1,474. But “administration” is a term open to interpretation, and we should make no rash assumptions.

The district defines the following personnel as “providing direct services to students.” They include 12,005 classroom teachers, 3,750 assistant teachers and classroom assistants, and 413 principals and assistant principals. After that, some job titles are self-explanatory and others, well, are not.

(All figures are for 1997-98. Source: School District of Philadelphia 1997-98 Amended Operating and Grants Fund Budgets)

Job Title                                              Number of Employees

Department Heads and Coordinators        103

Non-professional Supervisors

and Technical Staff                                      197

Secretarial/Clerical                                      736

School Coordinators, Bilingual, Computer

and Science Lab Assistants                         371

School Safety Officers                                  337

Non-teaching Assistants                            630

Nurses/Health Providers                           305

Guidance Counselors                                403

Psychologists/Therapists                          116

Administrative Assistants and Facilitators   218

Librarians and Assistants                           231

Food Service Workers                                1,098

Noon-time Aides                                         1,045

Bus Drivers                                                   677

Bus Attendants                                            569

School Aides                                                  81

Warehouse                                                    20

Maintenance                                               534

Custodians and Building Engineers         2,361

Public education lost its way a while ago. Having become a “jobs program” for adults, the real mission of public education – teaching children – has been lost and our country has been suffering greatly because of it. The finger-pointing in Philly between the union, mayor and governor is something of a side-show. (Philly has cut back on bloat, but it is too little, too late.) While it may be politically difficult, one way to achieve effective change is to – as Antonucci says – “break ‘em up.”

He’s right. Subsidiarity – the principle of devolving decisions to the lowest practical level – works. Smaller and leaner school districts are more accountable to families and taxpayers, while the large centralized and unionized blobs are doomed to topple – victims of their own excesses. Philadelphia is just the latest example.

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 with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.