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Unionized Public Education is Destroying California

Edward Ring

Director, Water and Energy Policy

Edward Ring
March 9, 2023

Unionized Public Education is Destroying California

Behind any popular mass movement there are often good ideas and noble objectives. Public sector unions—including teachers’ unions—are no exception. 

Organized labor, ideally, offers collective power to ordinary workers and provides a counterweight whenever business interests become exploitative. How to regulate that balance is a topic that deserves vigorous and ongoing debate, but most of the benefits American workers take for granted—certainly including overtime pay, sick leave, and safe working conditions—were negotiated by private sector unions.

Public sector unions are a different story entirely. Unlike their private sector counterparts, public sector unions elect their own bosses;the government agencies they work for collect taxes instead of competing to earn a profit. Public sector unions run the machinery of government, which makes it easy for the more zealous union members to use their bureaucratic authority to intimidate any citizen or business that opposes their agenda or their chosen candidates.

There’s more. Because the agenda of unions, naturally enough, is to increase their membership and the pay and benefits of their members, there is a constant danger of that agenda conflicting with the public interest. If a government program fails to serve the public interest, it is tempting for the government union leadership to claim that failure can only be addressed by spending more money and hiring more unionized government employees. For them, therefore, all too often failure is success. But the taxpayers lose.

The Worst, Most Destructive Union in California

If public sector unions are inherently more problematic than private sector unions, the worst among these government unions are the teachers’ unions. In California, the unions representing public school teachers and college faculty have acquired extraordinary political power. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the past few decades to elect candidates that will do their bidding, lobby politicians once they are in office, and reelect those candidates that support their agenda. And in almost everything these teachers’ unions have touched, the consequences of their power has been destructive.

The teachers’ union in California supported a ballot initiative that guarantees at least 38 percent of the state general fund is spent on K-14 public education. This guarantees that any new government program – such as last year’s single payer healthcare proposal that would have added hundreds of billions to the state budget – will pour more money into public education. This creates an incentive for California’s teachers’ unions to push for huge increases to the size of the state government, because they’ll get 38 percent of the pie no matter how big it gets.

Because California’s public schools receive state funds based on attendance, the teachers’ union is also incentivized to support anything that will increase the student age population. Hence they have an incentive to support anything that will facilitate mass immigration, whether or not that puts a strain on housing and other services. If those students are from low-income households or don’t speak English as their first language, the per student allocations are increased.

If students from low-income immigrant communities in California were getting a great education in the public schools, they would follow in the footsteps of immigrant groups throughout America’s history and become productive citizens. But they’re not. Everything the teachers’ unions have supported have harmed public education in California.

Instead of prioritizing fundamental skills in math, reading and writing, students are educated against a backdrop narrative that America is a racist, sexist nation. White males are made to feel guilty and everyone else is encouraged to feel oppressed. In both cases, resentment and hopelessness are the result. At the same time, students are fed additional narratives of despair: the climate catastrophe will soon end all life on earth, and right-wing fascists are about to take away our freedoms.

If that weren’t bad enough, impressionable young students are now subjected to radical sexual indoctrination. To cite just one example of this, new recommended readings, even for students in primary grades, are so laden with filth that when outraged parents attempt to read passages verbatim to school board supervisors in public meetings, the material is so obscene they’re told to stop reading.

Government unions are also the reason college tuition has left graduates with trillions in crippling debt. Non faculty positions in California’s public colleges and universities has more than tripled in just the past twenty years. These administrators are usually paid more than faculty, and occupy positions that wouldn’t be necessary if colleges admitted students based on SAT scores instead of race and gender.

But whatever might require accountability, the teachers’ unions seem to oppose. Colleges are now getting rid of the SAT test. Thanks to “restorative justice” policies, misbehaving students that would have been expelled in previous decades are now considered victims. As demonstrated in the defeat of the Vergara case back in 2016, brought by California students fed up with failing schools, it remains nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers, and teachers are granted “tenure” after less than two years of classroom observation.

The teachers’ union in California, not in its words, but in its actions, has declared war on competence. Our society is paying a price for this and the consequences will only get worse as another generation grows to adulthood without the skills necessary to succeed in 21st century America. But the teachers’ union will still have the same answer: give us more money, and blame the oppressive system.


Edward Ring is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. He is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).

This article originally appeared in the California Globe.

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