In my last post I alluded to the belief that for conservatives, public education would be a lot better if we got rid of those damned teacher’s unions. I gave the example of a conservative pundit on Bill Maher’s show (Real Time), who blurted out that teacher’s unions are trying to keep our education system in a eighteenth century mode by insisting on a ten month calendar. This moron apparently doesn’t know that school calendars are set by state boards of education, which are closer to the centers of political power than they are teacher’s unions. Unions cannot bargain the number of days in the calendar, it is a nonnegotiable matter. But according to all true conservatives teacher’s unions oppose reforms and negotiate lavish salaries for teachers from limpwristed boards of education. Is there any support for this belief? (Take a wild-ass guess.)
My teaching career began in 1972 right around the time that my home state created a right to collectively bargain for public employees like teachers. So I decided to look back to see if there were any studies about the impact of the unions on teacher’s remuneration, working conditions, etc. I found a Rand Corporation Report by Linda Darling-Hammond produced in 1984 with the lovely title: Beyond the Commission Reports: The Coming Crisis in Teaching.
Here are a couple of quotations from that report:
“Although there is a common perception that teacher’s salaries have improved as a result of collective bargaining, average salaries for teachers actually declined by nearly 15 percent in real dollar terms between 1971 and 1981, even though the average experience level of the teaching force increased over that period, as did the average education level.” (italics are mine)
“As bureaucratization took hold in American schools, teacher salaries slipped from 49 percent of educational expenditures in 1972 to only 38 percent in 1982.”
Once again, reality and the conservative world view don’t seem to connect. As a participant in the fray and a teacher who started out as quite anti-union and ended up a union president and chief negotiator, I can say it was quite the opposite. Union members were all for innovations that we could not get through the powers that be. For bureaucrats, change is more work for the same pay—teachers were good to go, but administrators not so much.
And as far as the argument that teachers have gotten fat at the public trough, I don’t think you can support that notion. Here is a chart from that report and I guarantee you things have not gotten better.
Teachers start at lower salaries than just about any other profession and then continue to fall behind from there. When I reached full salary as a teacher I was making 50% of what someone with my academic credentials made working in my chosen field (chemistry). We knew that going in but we also bargained for substantial, but not extravagant, pension plans because of the lack of salary. My pension (from California) is rock solid, because everybody (me, my school districts, and the state) all met our obligations. I now live in Illinois, a state which decided that they not only didn’t have to meet their obligations to their pension funds, but they felt it was okay to give less than 50% of what they were required by law to give year after year. Anyone who understands compound interest knows that it is impossible to catch up from that, even from a year or two of that. So, now in Illinois there are criticisms of teacher’s pension programs based on a huge state government obligation that it cannot now pay and which would not exist if they had met their obligations like California did. (I obviously cannot hold up my home state as a paragon of state government responsibility as everyone now knows, but they did meet their mutually agreed upon obligations and teacher’s pensions in California are rock solid even with the financial mess of the past three decades.)
So, unions are a problem in public education? Uh, no, but hating unions is a conservative meme. Look a conservative in the eye as say the word “union” and step back. After the vitriol subsides, ask them if they have ever done any business with a union. Most will say “no,” which means their knowledge is second hand and I can tell you that this comes from the fact that you cannot hang around conservatives and utter anything pro-union. You will be shunned completely. Consequently, if you want to fit into a crowd of conservatives, you have to toe the conservative line and loudly state “all unions are bad, really bad” even when you have no evidence or the evidence, as in often the case, is entirely the other way.