American Greed


Who knew American Greed referred to K-12 public school teacher and other public employee unions? Well, we all knew after reading my last blog, “Government Employees Owe Back Taxes—Top to Bottom.” (Oct. 2010; review for background information)

Look at the demonstrators in Madison, Wisconsin. Do you see any “professionals” in that crowd? Teachers who act like thugs can’t expect to be considered professionals. Can they really be entrusted with the education of our children? How much chutzpah does it take to make demands that are bringing the state to the edge of insolvency when two-thirds of eighth graders in the state can’t read at a proficient level, according to a U.S. Department of Education report?

Not only that, but through collective bargaining Wisconsin teacher union bosses compel the state to purchase teacher health insurance from a union-affiliated health plan: WEA Trust. This gives the union ultimate say over health benefits—not the state that pays the bill with tax-payer dollars.

University of Arkansas professor Robert Costrell writes (WSJ 2/25/11) that in Milwaukee, for every dollar in salary teachers and other public employees receive, they are rewarded with an additional 74.2 cents in retirement and health benefits for a total of $100,500. (The corresponding benefits rate for private firm employees is 24.3 cents.) When asked, these folks insist they are willing to share in the sacrifice to help the state, but last June the teachers’ union was faced with a potential lay off of 428 members. This could have been avoided if the union leaders were willing to accept a slightly less expensive health care plan. Their response: NO THANKS! Lay off those young teachers; we will keep our health plan.

Now demonstrations are spreading to other state capitols where governors seek to balance their state’s budget without raising taxes. Even though President Obama seems to think only union members are “workers” and make up “the middle class,” it’s the workers in the private sector who are paying for these gold-plated compensation packages.

K-12 education in the United States is broken. How did it happen? In the 1950s public schools in this country were considered superior. Then in 1965 the National Education Association converted itself from a professional association to a trade union. Deterioration started there—when power and concern for the welfare of adults topped concern for educating students. The continued decline in school quality prompted the establishment of the National Commission of Excellence in Education. The Commission’s report “A Nation at Risk” was published in 1983. A quote from Paul Copperman summarized the Commission’s conclusions:

“Each generation of Americans has out-stripped its parents in education, in literacy, and in economic attainment. For the first time in the history of our country, the educational skills of one generation will not surpass, will not equal, will not even approach, those of their parents.”

In the decades since the Commission’s report was published, the country has been struggling to stop public education’s downward spiral. Enlightened lawmakers and student advocacy groups have introduced school choice through charter schools, vouchers to attend optional schools, tax credits to help pay for private school, linking teacher tenure to student test scores, private competitive school systems, and more and more tax-payer money. Many of these efforts are showing success albeit slowly. But every alternative option to the status quo is being fought, blocked, resisted, and decried by teachers’ unions, even in the face of improving achievement by students in these alternative settings.

Two recent documentaries, Waiting for Superman and The Lottery, tell heart-breaking stories of underprivileged children who are attempting to escape from horrible, failing public schools to charter schools with less union control over decision making. Because of teacher union resistance, the number of charter schools is seriously limited so that the few spots available for new students must be handed out by a lottery system, leaving hundreds of thousands of children disappointed and on waiting lists, deprived of the education they desire and deserve. (These valuable documentaries are available on DVD and are well worth viewing.)

One of the worst performing public school systems is the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 81 percent of the district’s middle school children attend failing schools. Only 13 percent of students are reading at grade level, and 11 percent perform at grade level in math. This is with a budget of $10,000 per student. Efforts to institute a reform plan giving the mayor more oversight to ensure accountability have been blocked by teacher union bosses and their Democratic colleagues in the California Legislature. (WSJ) They would rather see children fail than lose their power over schools.

One exception to this rule is Democratic Senator Gloria Romero of Los Angeles. Last year Senator Romero introduced a bill known as the “Parent Trigger.” The law says that if at least 51 percent of the parents of a school petition the District for reform, officials must follow one of four options selected by the parents: establish a charter; bring in a new staff; fire the principal; shutter the school and send children to a better school nearby. On December 7, 2010, the parents of McKinley Elementary School presented such a petition to the Compton Unified School District requesting their school be converted to a charter school. Unfortunately District officials have been less than cooperative and earlier this month the parents had to sue the District to force action. (BayArea News Group-EB)

How are public unions spending their members’ dues to increase their power over school systems and state and local governments? In the last election, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, the Service Employees International Union, and the union of the National Education Association combined spent approximately $186 million of member dues to elect Democrats to office. Those Democrats in turn vote to support public union demands and to protect them from change.

That’s not to say that all teachers agree with these damaging policies or that all schools are bad. That certainly is not the case. Great strides are being made in Florida, New Orleans, and New York City, among others, to open up the system and improve learning. Several states besides California are considering “Parent Trigger” laws, which could help give parents more clout in effecting improvements in their community schools. But if we are ever going to break this terrible cycle that is strangling our schools, the power of public employee unions must be weakened.