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.

15 comments on “The Selfishness of Public School Teacher Unions
  • Great piece.

    Part of the cost of this bad behavior (in addition to the obvious ways) gets passed along to the middle class as a higher cost of home-ownership… Just saw an old presentation by Elizabeth Warren that showed some interesting evidence on where the middle class has seen costs go up over the last generation. One was homeownership. While part of the increase in home spending that the avg middle class consumer was to buy a bigger home, the rest was trying to get in a good school system. That is a byproduct of the bad behavior you have described above…

  • The major problem with Californan public schools isn’t the teacher unions, it’s the demographics. While it’s easy to blame the educators, the real problem has everything to do with who the students are. We know that blacks and hispanics tend to perform a lot worse than whites and eastern asians. We also know that there’s very litte you can do about that — peope have been trying for years to increase the academic performance of non-asian minorities, without success. Talking about “good schools” is just the politically correct way of talking about schools where most of the students are white or east asian.

  • While it’s fair to say that there are some cultural and economic differences (a greater emphasis on the value of education, and more access to resources like computers and tutors, for example) that tend to lead to greater proficiency among certain demographics, to say that people have been trying “without success” to improve minority achievement is unadulterated bullshit. There are numerous studies proving that changing teaching style to accommodate and address “at risk” student populations (not a big fan of that term, but it’s more inclusive than “minority”) and while (to be fair) they haven’t found widespread adoption yet, that’s because they require a level of training and resources that most school districts (greedy or not) either don’t have or won’t support. So yes– demographics are a problem, but don’t try to say they can’t be addressed (and if you want the articles to back that up, I’d be more than happy to provide them- I’m in a class right now specifically devoted to the literacy crisis in the United States, so I have pages and pages of peer-reviewed articles and case studies that I’d be more than happy to share.)

  • “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. ”

    Surely you meant “SOME of them are selfish economic actors”?? Paint with a broad brush, much? Lots of teachers ARE selfless martyrs, Ben. Was every teacher you had a bad one? You seem to have a smattering of education nonetheless.

  • Ben,

    You touch on such a wide range of subjects on this blog, that it’s inevitable that occasionally you’ll write about something with which you feel strongly about, but with which you don’t have the requisite experience to make a truly informed opinion.

    This is one of those times.

  • Check out this charter school in LA. Watch the video – it’s short and really inspiring. Based in LA, mostly minority (+ lower socio-economic backgrounds), growing rapidly and great student achievement. This place probably drives the teachers union crazy.

  • The way I’ve come to view unions is the way I view a public defender. They have a specific, important role to play — the interest of their members. A corporation lamenting the existence of unions is like a prosecutor complaining about the role of public defenders.

    In a capitalist democracy, people have the right to form their own organizations that represent their interests. People just shouldn’t think they’re anything but that.

  • It’s important to separate the role of individual teachers from teacher unions, which is often subtle. Teacher unions have a fiduciary responsibility to protect and advance only their members’ interests, which in theory can be in conflict with students. An individual teacher has a responsibility to his students as well as his own interests that he tries to balance.

  • “Selfish economic actors who look out for their own interests”

    You say this as if it’s a slur, Ben. In reality, this describes every human being on the planet. Every single commenter on this post is a selfish economic actor who looks out for his own interests. After all, he goes to work every day, and I’m quite certain that if his employer stopped paying him, he would stop going. This is, by definition, selfish and looking after his own interests.

    However, there is nothing wrong with this. This is what our society, the most successful society in history, is premised on.
    The statement doesn’t preclude an interest in others, it merely recognizes that, as a human being, you (and often your immediate family) come first. Our system of government was designed with this principle at the forefront of the framers’ minds. In fact, it is the attempt to deny that this is not in fact how human beings work that result in our biggest policy blunders.

    Additionally, some have stated that the children are as big a problem as the teachers. If you scream “Racist!” at this thought, you have obviously never been to any public school in Southern California, outside of the tony areas. You tell me how “different teaching styles” are going to affect a major change when 95% of the class doesn’t speak English and goes home to a family that doesn’t emphasize education. As someone who’s been there, it’s virtually impossible.

  • Just because some of the school districts does not comply to the law and the way Teacher’s Union SUPPOSE to work it doesn’t mean the rest of the districts or Teachers in California are “economic actors who look out for themselves.” Are you suppose to be a motivational speaker?! Your article is a classic example of someone that thinks their one biased opinion matters when in reality, it doesn’t even cover or touch on the teachers that actually care about making a difference. Lol. Wow. Just wow.

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