Teachers' Unions Throw Students Under the Bus

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In many cities with abysmal school systems, teacher firings are exceedingly rare, due to powerful teachers' unions. In New York City and Chicago, barely 1 in 1,000 teachers loses his job for poor performance.

In Los Angeles, fewer than 2 percent of teachers are denied tenure-and only a quarter of a percent of teachers who received tenure were fired over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, graduation rates are barely above 50 percent.

In contrast, between 1 and 2 percent of lawyers and doctors can expect to lose their license to practice over their lifetime. Unions claim that teachers are not being paid enough, which may be true in some cases. But in America's highest-paid professions, a high salary comes at the cost of lower job security and is based on quality of work. Before we raise the pay of teachers, we must first do away with tenure and seniority protections.

In New York City, protections for teachers are so stringent that the worst teachers are sent to "rubber rooms" while their firings go through years of litigation. In these rubber rooms, teachers receive full pay and benefits while the school system hired substitutes to teach their classes. The hearings to fire these teachers last an average of 502 days and cost $216,588 per teacher. However, fewer than 10 percent of teachers against whom the city brought cases are fired-and many bad teachers do not even make it to the rubber-room stage.

Rubber rooms cost the city tens of millions of dollars per year. Were the protections afforded bad teachers not available, that money could have gone toward measures such as improved technology in the classroom, better teachers, or additional after-school programs. These would be far more effective at improving students' lives and educations than are rubber rooms.

Public-sector unions cannot force government employees to become members but, because all public-sector workers are covered by the same collective-bargaining agreement, employees who opt out still are required to pay agency fees. Agency-fee payers lose some benefits of union membership, such as liability insurance for teachers, but have to pay for all union activities except those that are narrowly defined as political. The line between political and nonpolitical spending is often blurred, leading to constitutional questions over collective bargaining's violation of the First Amendment. These issues all date back to the flawed 1977 Supreme Court case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.

A group of California school teachers is currently seeking to have the Supreme Court reevaluate and overturn Abood. In the 1977 case, collective bargaining was upheld, along with forced dues collection, even if members disagreed with the political ideology of the union leadership. Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association is now working its way through the courts and offers hope that judges will put an end to the injustice created by taking away choice.

When we spoke with Rebecca Friedrichs, the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs and a veteran elementary school teacher, she explained why she needed to lead the lawsuit:

"Under California law, teachers must pay ‘fees' of approximately $650 to $850 per year to the California Teachers Association or the California Federation of Teachers as a condition of employment. We cannot opt out of these fees, which represent the union's one-sided estimate of its collective-bargaining expenses, as opposed to its "overt" political expenses...Union dollars amassed through mandatory dues are used to control elected officials who create laws that are friendly to unions without consideration for the greater good of society. The only way to stop this unfair and destructive trend is to outlaw the collection of coerced union fees."

Tenure laws discourage younger, better teachers from using their talents in public school systems. Union rules ensure that teacher pay and bonuses are based on seniority and credentials rather than actual performance. Unions also mandate that in times of budgetary strain when layoffs are necessary, teachers must be fired in order of reverse seniority-meaning that the younger teachers must be laid off to preserve the jobs of older ones, regardless of teacher quality.

Since 1990, the two largest teachers' unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have spent a combined $114 million on campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Teachers' unions spent $28 million in contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone. AFT and NEA have also spent $60 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2014. The NEA is the fourth-largest donor in American politics since 1989.

"By any reasonable accounting, the nation's two teachers' unions, the NEA and the AFT, are by far the most powerful groups in the American politics of education," argues Terry Moe, author of Special Interests: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools. "No other groups are even in the same ballpark."

Even teachers are afraid of union power. This is not a new problem. Seeking to shed light on the union rules that were harming her city's young people, Eva Moskowitz, a former Democratic New York City councilwoman and the current CEO of Success Academy, held four days of hearings in 2003 on the mandates. She reached out to several teachers to ask them to testify. Teachers were sympathetic to her goals, but most refused to speak out of fear of retribution from the union. "I'm not that brave" and "I might be blacklisted" were common responses to her requests.

In the face of this outrage, there are glimmers of hope. In 2014, the Superior Court for the County of Los Angeles, California, struck down the state's teacher-tenure laws on the grounds that they infringed upon civil rights by keeping poor and minority students in failing schools. The case was brought by nine California students, one of whom had not learned to read by the third grade because of ineffective teachers.

The court's logic was sound-for poor families who cannot afford to send their children to private schools or move to neighborhoods with better public schools, teacher-tenure laws are a major stumbling block to the education that can result in a step up the economic ladder.


Diana Furchtgott-Roth is a senior fellow and Jared Meyer is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute.  This article is inspired by their new book, Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America's Young (Encounter Books, May 2015). Follow Diana on Twitter @FurchtgottRoth and Jared @JaredMeyer10.  

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