Saturday, December 11, 2010

Screw the kids, save the unions.

Consider a for-profit hospital that is filled with patients but faces a budget crunch. The hospital has various employees with various skill levels. Some staff are highly paid, but have lower skill levels. But these highly paid employees have an “in” with the board of directors. The hospital board owes these staff members some favors.

The board keeps the highly paid staff members, to the detriment of the patients. And it cuts the lower-paid staff, even if they are better at their job. Of course, since it is firing the lower-paid staff it has to get rid of more of them to make up the deficit. Had it fired these less qualified, more highly paid staff it could have covered the deficit with fewer lay-offs, to the benefit of patients.

What would say about this scenario? Is this the evil nature of capitalism? Is this “private” enterprise at work?

Before you answer you might want to know that the scenario above exists, just in a different field. The field in question is the public education system and for the proof I turn to the normally left-of-center Los Angeles Times.

The Times tells the story of John Leichty Middle School. The staff at this school performed miracles, bringing up the grade schools of students who had previously performed quite badly. But with a budget crunch the school board started firing teachers and because many of the teachers at Leichty were new they were dismissed. The school board, and the politicians, and the teacher’s unions have a backroom deal that says firing takes place on seniority basis, not job skills. As the Times says:

Quality-blind layoffs are just one vestige of seniority rules introduced decades ago to promote fairness and protect teachers from capricious administrators. Enshrined in state law and detailed in teachers' union contracts, the prerogatives of seniority continue to guide many of the key personnel decisions made in public schools across the country, including pay and assignments. The effects are most keenly felt by students during layoffs.

By looking at the performance of the students of the teachers laid-off compared to those who were retained, the Times determines that “the district laid off hundreds of its most promising math and English teachers. About 190 ranked in the top fifth in raising scores and more than 400 ranked in the top 40%.” The Times also found that since some of these very good teachers were “new” teachers they were paid less than those retained. “An estimated 25% more teachers would have kept their jobs if L.A. Unified had based its cuts on teachers’ records in improving test scores.”’

Of course attempts to reform the “seniority” rule is opposed by the California Teachers Association, the trade union for government teachers.

The kids at Leichty had done poorly in their previous schools. But this school tried to do things differently and the teachers there believed the kids had the ability to learn but had been short-changed before. And the teachers were union members, not that they have a whole lot of choice in the matter. But most thought the union represented them. So when over half the teachers at Leichty were laid off they wanted to know what the union would do.

When the union officials meet the teachers their message was a sorry one. They made it clear that these teachers would be fired because the union was wedded to the “seniority” rule and not to performance. According to the Times, the union president “said he told teachers there was no evidence that new teachers do better than veterans, seniority-based layoffs were part of union policy.”

The teachers who were let go went off looking for other positions, some in private schools. Many made it clear that they would never return to the school system again. And the kids, who saw test scores take-off faced plummeting scores again and lost interest in the school.

The teacher’s unions donate millions of dollars every election cycle, almost all of it to Democrats. These candidates then make sure the unions get the legislation and benefits they demand. So the teachers hand the politicians money and they politicians then raise the pay of the teachers. And so the cycle goes. It’s one hand washing the other. It works out nicely for everyone concerned except the kids and the taxpayers.

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