Nel's New Day

May 28, 2012

Teacher Unions Get a Bad Rap

Filed under: Uncategorized — trp2011 @ 7:32 PM
Tags: , , , ,

The minute that Scott Walker took over Wisconsin as governor—literally took over—the issue of unions, frequently teacher unions has been front and center in the national discussion. Conservatives believe that the right to collectively bargain is the spawn of the Devil, and that teachers (1) are lazy; (2) are overpaid; (3) don’t teach the kids; and (4) have a really easy job. The last one was disproved in Arizona 30 years ago when parents decided to substitute during a Tucson school district strike. Many of these people didn’t last even 30 minutes, and the strike was soon over with the public voting in their raises. But the other myths are still prevalent, especially as government gives corporations and the wealthy even more money while eliminating funds for education.

The teacher union battles have now arrived in my backyard. In both the Portland (OR) area and southern Oregon, teachers in four districts voted this past spring to strike, the most recent in the Reynolds district. They have since settled although the terms for Reynolds has not yet been revealed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg: other school cuts have been so devastating that they may go the same direction as these four districts.

The local mainstream media has left out a great deal information in their reporting. They did point out, as an afterword, that the Reynolds teachers have not had a contract for the past year, but they kept working. They have also pointed out that there was a gap of $5 million between the teachers’ proposal and the school board’s decision. What they left out is that the district claiming a budget crisis has $20 million in reserves and saw fit to increase salaries in the superintendent’s office, including the assistant, by 10 percent this year. Administrators’ pay increased by 2 percent last year while the number of certified and classified staff has been cut during the past two years.

Apart from the fiscal concerns, the board wants the right to fire teachers based on one anonymous written or verbal complaint, eliminate all planning time from student contact hours and professional development days, and add instruction days with no additional compensation. The board also wants to keep teachers from seeing student information concerning past safety, behavioral, or criminal reports. Other board demands would use biased student test scores in teacher evaluations, forbid teachers to take emergency leave days around holidays, and ignore seniority as a factor in layoffs. The icing on the cake is that the officials want the power to reopen the contract any time they say they are suffering financial constraints. Right now Reynolds has declared fiscal problems with its $20 million in reserves, three times the budget carryover recommended by the Oregon School Board Association.

Earlier contretemps between teachers and school boards in bargaining show support for the unions. The Gresham-Barlow strike lasted little more than three hours after hundreds of community members came out the night before in support of the teachers.

In their bargaining, teachers have shown a willingness to compromise. Parkrose reached an agreement just one day before a planned strike because teachers accepted 21 furlough days for no pay over three years and got no cost-of-living increases and only half their experienced-based step raises during the three-year contract. Gresham’s new contract also freezes teachers’ cost-of-living adjustments while preserving step increases.

The Eagle Point Education Association, representing not just teachers but also most classified staff, was pushed into big concessions.  Teachers are forced to work from 8 am to 3 pm with no prep time; a new pro-rated insurance plan reduces benefits for part-time employees. And like other districts, teachers get no cost-of-living adjustments, in this district for the fifth consecutive year.

Despite what lies the school board and politicians told, a starting salary at Eagle point is $34,277 and tops out at $66, 412 per year. Yet robocalls claimed, “Teachers only have to be in school for six-and-a-half hours a day. Teachers only work 190 days a year. On average, a teacher makes $68 an hour with benefits, four times more than the community average. Does that sound like overworked and underpaid to you?” Substitutes covering the strike were paid $330 daily, with no preparation needed for classes, a total of $62,700 for inexperienced, sometimes untrained “babysitters.” One of the most vigorous opponents to fair pay for teachers is Republican state Rep. Dennis Richardson, an attorney who specializes in business and real estate, a position that probably has a hefty hourly pay.

Portland teachers saved 110 teacher layoffs by delaying step increases. The district also cut $2.5 million from the central office, and the city gave the district $5 million out of the city budget. This saved the school district for the current year, but next year will see a much larger budget hole.

Meanwhile Beaverton’s second-largest union signed a two-year contract with pay cuts and nine furlough days. The district office still plans to lay off 344 people. Sports giant Nike is located in Beaverton; for the years 2008 to 2010, the huge corporation paid 4.9 percent average in state income tax. Co-founder and CEO Phil Knight, the 60th richest person in the world, has a net worth of $13.1 billion. The other Fortune 500 corporation headquartered in Oregon, Precision Castparts, paid 2.9 percent in state income tax. The state of Oregon has passed laws lowering taxes for corporations and the wealthy by 12 percent; schools lost 5 percent funding.

Conservatives who have never taught believe that anyone can do it, that it’s so easy that they can walk into the classroom and do a better job than trained, experienced teachers. Conservatives who begrudge teachers $20-$30 per hour cheerfully pay plumbers and electricians over $100 and lawyers up to $500.

When teachers strike, conservatives think that this is inappropriate behavior for “professional” people, that instead of protesting that teachers should just accept whatever they are given. Conservatives wrongly state that teacher unions are only for the teachers and don’t protect the students. Without these unions, huge class sizes would be far more extreme than they are now.

An example of the conservative approach comes from Mitt Romney, who told experts that class size doesn’t make any difference. Recently he selected ten educator advisors from George W. Bush’s administration including Bush’s Education Secretary Rod Paige, known for being Houston superintendent when the dropouts were vastly underreported. Paige has referred tothe NEA as “a terrorist organization.” Another Romney advisor, Idaho state superintendent Tom Luna, pushed bills protested by community leaders, parents, and educators to increase class sizes, reduce the teaching force, replace teachers with mandatory online classes, and eliminate educator rights.

Unions encourage teacher training and further education that betters the quality of teaching while protecting good teachers. When some administrators develop vendettas against good teachers because of differences of opinion, unions use due process to protect these teachers. Unions also keep salaries high enough that schools can have a quality staff.  Without unions, teachers can be fired after a few years without cause so that the school district can bring in new, cheaper teachers, resulting in poorer education.

In Forbes, Erik Kain wrote about the need for teacher unions:

I support teachers unions because they are the best chance this country has to improve and strengthen public education for the long haul. No other organization will step in to protect teachers from political blowback and the reform-trend-of-the-moment. The Gates Foundation may have its heart in the right place, but the big foundations can’t protect teachers from slashed budgets or political retribution. Charity-propelled education reform may very well be a sincere effort, but in the process its leaders have offered up a lot of bad choices for teachers. Too often charity reform translates into little more than corporate reform.

Teachers are on the front lines of the fight to keep America’s egalitarian system of public education public. Faux privatization schemes and for-profit schools threaten to undermine the system itself in the name of choice. But what about democracy? What about a system built around the ethic of society rather than that of the individual? Teachers are one of the last bastions of workplace democracy left in the country, and once they’re out of the picture anything goes. Including public education.

Conservatives are determined to destroy education for young people while complaining about badly educated students are. These conservatives are the same people who display ignorance about history, economy, languge, etc., who make fun of people who speak a foreign language, and who want to get rid of all the arts because they believe it has no value. These conservatives want students to be funneled through a cattle-shoot with a few of the basics, taught in a private school that focuses on Christianity and keeps everyone from  broadening their foundation of knowledge.

The old saying, “You get what you pay for,” applies here.

1 Comment »

  1. The powerful are busy demonizing all unions as somehow being the cause of the current financial mess. Most news media these days (the ones that haven’t folded) are owned by big media and rarely report the truth anymore. If the right gets its way and guts public education even more they can convinced even more people that teachers are over paid and underworked and what they need are vouchers for private schools where the curriculum will be chosen by school officials and parents. It’s easy to see standards varying from school to school and state to state. And if enough choose to dilute their science programs with junk science like intelligent design — which if taught means all science is wrong –then the United States is going to fall further and further down the rung toward third world status where a few rich rule and everyone else does without. Without education, without money, without decent medical care or decent food.

    And you know what? When that happens, people will still be blaming workers for their crappy lives, while the fat cats run private prisons and hospitals and own the government, lock, stock and barrel.


    Comment by Pat Brown — May 29, 2012 @ 9:17 AM | Reply

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