Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Teachers Unions are Killing Education

The Indianapolis Star reports today that IPS cut 300 teachers, including 9 who were nominated for teacher of the year. Why would we get rid of quality teachers in one of Indiana’s worst school systems? Because we have “no choice.” The contract IPS negotiated with the teachers union mandates that all layoffs be seniority-based. This is lunacy.

Anyone expecting a broadside against unions or seniority in every context will be disappointed. Father time is ruthless. As we age, we cannot lift as much or move as quickly. Without seniority, big industry would have stripped many Americans of their dignity and marginalized us. The young and vibrant workers would stay secure until cast out in droves when age (or the pension vesting date) approached, and cheaper, more “efficient” labor emerged. Without seniority, we would have no American middle class.

Seniority makes sense for factory workers, service workers, and even building trades that require a set of technical skills. But teaching isn’t manual labor or artisanship; it’s mental labor. Teaching isn’t automatically grasped by anyone who goes through an apprenticeship; it’s the art of motivation and creating enthusiasm for exploration.

As a Democrat, I believe education is second only to “providing for the common defense” among the services government offers us. Education is “the great equalizer” and the linchpin of the American dream. We tell our kids, “No matter where you come from, if you study hard, you can be or achieve anything you want.”

Then we take away the teachers who get them to study hard.

My goal as a Democrat is to make sure that those who cannot afford private schools have the opportunity for a comparable education as those who do. We cannot achieve this goal without the best teachers in the classroom.

The teachers union might say, “Increase education spending! Then we won’t have to layoff anybody.” This is true, but it also ignores the fact that study after study shows little correlation between education funding and achievement. Perhaps this is because we keep paying lackluster instructors.

I had an eighth grade history teacher, Mr. Andrews, who acted out major events in history in costume and with accents. He was excited to teach, so he tried something novel. I was excited to go to class, and nearly thirty years later, I can still visualize significant events in American history. In contrast, I had a social studies teacher who made government as boring as the textbook from which he read daily. Guess who made more because of seniority?

Of course, all education discussion comes back to “vouchers” or “school choice.” I would not characterize myself as a staunch choice advocate, but I have a hard time stomaching hypocrisy.
Many choice opponents in my party say that schools will get worse if we let some students leave because the remaining students will have a school with fewer dollars. The argument is essentially “we’re all in this together.”

Unfortunately, many of these same opponents send their kids to private or parochial schools. They get out of the boat before forcing everyone else to stay. Oh, and they also shoot holes in the boat by making sure seniority systems stay in place, so anything that could be done to improve the existing schools never occurs. They offer some nebulous promises about change that never comes. With friends like these . . .

What makes the choice opposition particularly insulting is the opponents act like they’re defending the disenfranchised by keeping them in the boat. But the strongest proponents of school choice I have met are single, African-American mothers who want their children to have better than they did.

Seeing a rising tide of political inevitability, teachers unions reluctantly signed off on dirty little compromises. They would permit pseudo-choice, but the students would have to stay in the same school district. This way, the money would at least stay under the same roof, and administrators could move it around. And therein lies the problem. The schools aren’t broken, per se. “The system” is, which is why even a pseudo-choice, magnet school-based system like IPS is still required to sack 9 quality teachers.

You want to avoid school choice forever? Take off the shackles. Let administrators do what they need to do to make the schools thrive. Otherwise, people like me will embrace choice as the means of last resort for the parents who care enough to move their children out of schools with crappy teachers.

The only people who fear the repeal of a seniority system are teachers who cannot deliver results. You know who you are. It’s time to innovate or hand over the chalk.


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