John Richard Schrock: Teacher unions aren’t bogeyman

02/10/2013 12:00 AM

02/08/2013 5:54 PM

Using teachers as the latest scapegoat in school reform and state financing, legislators in many states, including Kansas, are moving in various ways to cut the last vestiges of teachers’ bargaining power.

Some folks fear Kansas might face a Chicago-like strike. Or that incompetent but tenured teachers are allowed to lounge in “rubber rooms,” as in New York City.

But Kansas is not Chicago and our teachers, similar to firefighters and police, are vital services and cannot strike. And Kansas is not New York; we have no tenured teachers passing time doing nothing.

Another straw-man argument contends that it needs to be easier for school administrators to fire incompetent teachers. But it takes a competent administrator to dismiss an incompetent teacher. If there are incompetent teachers in the classroom, then either the administrators are incompetent or there is no surplus of good teachers to replace them and the administrators have no option.

So just where does Kansas rank in the level of teacher union power? The Nov. 7, 2012, issue of Education Week included a summary of the findings of a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Education Reform Now advocacy group on “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-by-State Comparison.”

Ranking of teacher union power was based on five factors: number of members and financial resources; involvement in politics, including contributions to candidates and parties; scope of collecting bargaining and right to strike; alignment of union positions on workplace rules to state policies; and perceived influence based on key stakeholders.

Adding up scores, the states were grouped in five categories: strongest, strong, average, weak and weakest. Kansas was in the next-to-bottom set of “weak” teacher union states. But with no right to strike, and with most Kansas schools being small and closer to extended families than business operations, this ranking is not unexpected.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker notoriously shut down statewide collective bargaining for public employees. But just as Kansas is not Chicago or New York, it is not Wisconsin.

Kansas teachers negotiate locally with their individual districts. This takes into account that a lower rural teaching salary may be offset by lower costs of living, etc.

When it comes down to the wire in local negotiations, the only leverage teachers have is public opinion. When teacher pay or benefits are so low as to be pitiful, only public shame can leverage change.

In Kansas, if a dispute over salary cannot be settled, it is the school that automatically wins. The old contracts continue into the next year, and it is the burden of a non-returning teacher to submit a resignation or swallow the loss from higher costs of living. Kansas teachers are among the most vulnerable in the nation.

If there is no genuine problem with tenured incompetence or negotiation or political activity, then why the mean-spirited legislation?

Legislators nationwide are on a school-privatization bandwagon. Advocating vouchers and shifting funding to charter schools, a herd of folks think that private competition will somehow improve education. Therefore, suppressing public schools and professional teachers helps move that direction.

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