The Selfishness of Public School Teacher Unions

Troy Senik writes about California’s problems and talks in passing about how the public school teachers’ unions have the state by the neck. Read it and weep:

Perhaps the most vexing labor organizations are the teachers’ unions. These groups were the driving force behind Proposition 98, locking in mandatory spending on public education without regard to any other fiscal considerations. But that’s only where their transgressions begin. In 1992, the California Teachers’ Association — by far the most powerful teachers’ union in the state — blocked a ballot initiative to promote school choice in the Golden State by physically intimidating petition-signers and allegedly placing false names on the petitions. When asked about his union’s opposition to the measure, the CTA president responded: “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters.” And in 2000, when testing results revealed that two-thirds of Los Angeles public schools were ranked as failures, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles announced that his union would accept a proposal for merit pay only on “a cold day in hell.”

The result of the teachers’ flight from responsibility has been unadulterated dysfunction. In Los Angeles schools, one out of every three students drops out before graduation. And a research team from the University of California, Riverside, recently concluded that by 2014 — the year all students are required to be proficient in math and English under No Child Left Behind — nearly every elementary school in the state will fail to meet proficiency standards. Yet despite the atrocious performance of California educators, it is nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher (the percentage of California teachers terminated after three or more years in the classroom is just 0.03%). For example, in a May exposé on the Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Times reporter Jason Song revealed: “The district wanted to fire a high school teacher who kept a stash of pornography, marijuana and vials with cocaine residue at school, but a commission balked, suggesting that firing was too harsh. L.A. Unified officials were also unsuccessful in firing a male middle school teacher spotted lying on top of a female colleague in the metal shop, saying the district did not prove that the two were having sex.”

But no matter how egregious their misconduct, California’s public-school teachers can always skirt the consequences. With 340,000 members statewide, the California Teachers’ Association is perhaps the most powerful interest group in state politics. In 2005, for instance, the organization spent nearly $60 million to defeat ballot measures aimed at bringing more accountability to California schools. And when budget agreements get hashed out in meetings of the state’s notorious “big five” (the governor and the four legislative party leaders), the CTA is treated like an unnamed sixth party to the talks. It’s no wonder, then, that despite having some of America’s lowest-performing schools, California’s teachers are the highest paid in the nation.

Trenik doesn’t even touch the idiocy of tenure.

It’s unfortunate that public school teachers are often portrayed as selfless martyrs, the guard-bearers of our children, when in fact they are selfish economic actors who look out for their own interests. Sure, the prison guards are similarly spoiled. But they make no bones about being anything other than self-interested prison guards.


Here’s the in-depth L.A. Times piece on how it’s basically impossible to fire teachers in LAUSD. Here’s the New Yorker just a few months ago on New York City’s battles with unions, where some teachers are being paid more than $100,000 to sit in a room and do nothing.

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