AFT president’s talk is rife with platitudes, attitude, and misinformation.
Platitudes at the ready, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gave a speech to the National Press Club in Washington last Thursday. Calling her talk “The Freedom to Teach,” she referenced a poster on her office wall which reads, “Teachers inspire, encourage, empower, nurture, activate, motivate and change the world.”
Hey, who can argue with that? But it was the last consonant chord she hit. The rest of the talk rings with the sincerity of a con man hitting up a pigeon for some cash so he can bury his dearly departed mother in Cleveland. Weingarten maintains that the current “crisis” has two major roots: deep “disinvestment from public education and the deprofessionalization of teaching,” and then solemnly warns that “America must confront both.”
Weingarten goes for jaw-drops when she claims that “teachers and others who work in public schools are leaving the profession at the highest rate on record.” Sounds shocking, but is it true? She cites a piece in the Wall Street Journal, whose writers use information from the U.S. Department of Labor. Mike Antonucci reveals some important clarifying details, however. In addition to teachers, the report includes hundreds of other occupations like “administrators, accounting and finance specialists, computer and database analysts, psychologists, counselors, social workers, public relations specialists, speech pathologists, security guards, food service workers, landscapers, receptionists, clerks, construction and maintenance workers, vehicle maintenance workers, and other laborers.” Antonucci also mentions that “quits” include those who left their present teaching job to become educators at different schools. “So if a teacher leaves District A for a higher-paying job in District B, she quits and is counted in the statistics.” That whooshing sound you hear is the air escaping from Weingarten’s balloon.
Then the union leader pivots, aiming now for the heartstrings, as she tells tales of rodent infested schools, freezing classrooms and the like. While some school districts clearly mismanage their funds, that’s hardly a reason to make sweeping statements about “disinvestment.” As I wrote just a few weeks ago, over time education spending has sky-rocketed, our outlay increasing 17-fold (in constant dollars) between 1919 and 2014. Looking at a narrower time frame, citing data from the National Association of State Budget Officers, Forbes Magazine reports an increase in state spending of $54 billion between 2012 and 2017. This 16.5 percent rate of growth far “outpaced the rate of growth in population, inflation, and median household income during that period.”
The “deprofessionalization” rant is especially hard to take, as it is coming from a union boss. Weingarten claims that “teachers have been stripped of their freedom to teach” and that is “killing the soul” of the profession. In fact, teachers unions themselves are the number one “deprofessionalizers” in the country.
A union’s essence is the collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is a vestige of the industrial economic model that prevailed in the 1950s when assembly-line workers and low-level managers were valued less for their skills than “for their longevity and willingness to serve loyally as a cog in a top-down enterprise.”
Teachers are paid thusly, just like the aforementioned assembly line workers. Whereas real professionals are paid by merit, teachers are herded into a lockstep pay scale, depending on the number of years on the job. CBAs also foster an adversarial relationship between administrators and teachers, stifle any management flexibility in determining the best slot for a teacher at a given school, and deny them the opportunity to get rid of underperformers.
Barbara Biasi, a fellow in Industrial Relations at Princeton, has studied the teacher salary regimen. She focused on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 in 2011, which all but eliminated collective bargaining for teachers and created a marketplace where school districts could compete for better educators by paying valued teachers more. Among Biasi’s findings is that there is a “34 percent increase in the quality of teachers moving from salary-schedule to individual-salary districts, and a 17 percent decrease in the quality of teachers exiting individual-salary districts.”
Most recently, Florida researcher Jason Baron compared trends in teaching degrees earned in post-Act 10 Wisconsin to those in other states. His findings show that Act 10 has led to a “20 percent increase in the share of college students training to become a teacher, relative to other states, a boost entirely driven by students at the state’s most selective universities.”
While the Janus decision frees teachers from forced dues payments, it does not allow them to opt out of the union’s CBAs. If Weingarten were truly serious about giving teachers freedom, she would unyoke those who want no part of her, her union or collective bargaining, without their having to resort to litigation.
Don’t hold your breath.
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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.