All of this stuff is Wisconsin is fascinating: the debate surrounding the new bill seeking to limit collective bargaining for public employees (and requiring them to kick in some money for their health care). Why should the state be required to collect union dues for the union? My own experiences growing up in union-terrorized Western NY are the roots of my support for the bill, but the “protestors” at the State House just make it harder and harder to sympathize with their cause: particularly the teacher’s unions, who are refusing to teach their classes until the bill is dead.
At my small public high school in Rochester, I saw first hand where the priorities of my teachers were: ensuring more pay for themselves, ensuring that they were required to do less for that pay, and ensuring that the rules governing public education were modified to safeguard their money and benefits. My education was a distant second.
Some of my more senior teachers made around $80,000 per annum — a salary that I will probably never reach as a holder of a PhD in my field and a university professor. Many of my teachers served as union representatives who were absent from school on union business for as many days as they showed up at work. To fill the gaps, I had a revolving door of substitutes which meant there was little continuity in the curriculum of each course. Many days we weren’t taught at all, but instead had “study hall.” On days when my union-rep teachers did show up, it was not uncommon that I would have to sit through a lecture about why their work in the union was so important, why the public critics of the union were wrong (my teachers knew that my father was one of these critics during his brief tenure on the district school board), and why it was important (as we approached voting age) that we support the unions. The troubles with the NY teachers’ union are well documented: try googling “rubber rooms.”
In the days before the internet, John MacIntosh, a family friend, published in the local paper the salaries of the teachers at my school. They were outraged. This struck me as strange even as at the age of 12: why should it be so outrageous that the taxpayers simply be aware of how much public employees earn? With that move, John became a figure of local legend in union lore. My dad pulled some similar stunts, but I don’t think he was ever viewed as the menace that MacIntosh was.
There was an interesting article in _Reason_ this month that shows that student performance has decreased very slightly (on the national level) since the 1970s…but generally, it remains unchanged. We have this stasis despite an EXPLOSION of spending in public education since the 1970s. Since that time, the teacher-to-student ratio has improved slightly. And in the face of these findings, Obama’s State of the Union address insists upon the need to spend even more on public education and to hire thousands of new teachers. In truth, we probably need fewer teachers, but more good ones. Producing better teachers would involve instituting merit pay, revoking tenure for k-12 teachers (who are not required to produce research), and making raises dependent on student success as defined at the local and national level. These are all measures that the unions vociferously oppose, not because they would limit their power to teach children, but because teaching might become a more demanding profession if we take education (rather than politics) seriously.