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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Kill the union. Yeah, that'll work.

by folkbum

Dad29 points us to Marquette Professor John McAdams's blog, where he's running with a study on teachers unions. Conservative hatred of teachers unions is a happy--for them--confluence of their hatred of unions, distrust of the public sector, and general freakishness about educating children. We're the trifecta, if you will. And they're always on the lookout for reasons to toss us aside.

The study cited by McAdams (not available online except as a .pdf file on McAdams's Marquette University server space--good thing he's at a private university, no?) is a study only of California school districts and their contracts. Teacher contracts are always governed by state law, including often what is and is not a mandatory or possible subject of bargaining. The applicability of this study to Wisconsin and elsewhere is already suspect.

But McAdams pulls out a paragraph from that study:
The unions use their power—their basic work-denial power, enhanced by their political power—to get restrictive rules written into collective bargaining contracts. And these restrictions ensure that the public schools are literally not organized to promote academic achievement. When contract rules make it difficult or impossible to weed out mediocre teachers, for example, they undermine the most important determinant of student learning: teacher quality (Sanders and Rivers 1996). And when contract rules guarantee teachers seniority-based transfer rights, they ensure that teachers cannot be allocated to their most productive uses (Levin, Mulhern, and Schunck 2005). Much the same can be said about a long list of standard contract provisions. This is to be expected. Except at the margins, contract rules are simply not intended to make the schools effective.
This seems to be the nut of the study, that there are three, maybe four things about teachers unions that make bargaining with them harmful to kids' educations. And you know what? None is true for Wisconsin's largest school district and the one with the greatest non-white enrollment, the Milwaukee Public Schools. This poses a problem for McAdams and the theory that, as another paragraph he quotes puts it, "in large school districts, restrictive labor contracts have a very negative impact on academic achievement, particularly for minority students." Let's look at those four things.
The unions use their power—their basic work-denial power . . . By law, teachers in Wisconsin cannot strike--though teachers in California can.
. . . enhanced by their political power . . . McAdams asks, "We might wonder, for example, whether heavily black districts with a lot of Democratic voters elect liberal school boards that readily cave in to the teachers’ union." Please note, non-Milwaukeeans and locals who haven't paid attention (i.e., McAdams himself): In the last Board election, the union-backed candidate lost 4 out of 5 contests. In the one before that, it was 1 out of 4. I could go back further, but suffice it to say, the Board has not been in control of the union-backed candidates for some time now. In the next go-round April 7, out of four contests, two of the union-backed candidates didn't even make it out of the primary (and one was unopposed, hardly making for a fair fight). That means after the new Board is seated, union-backed candidates will still be in the minority.
When contract rules make it difficult or impossible to weed out mediocre teachers, for example . . . MPS actually has an easy way for principals to deal with bad teachers, designed collaboratively between the union and the administration, called the TEAM Program. I've seen it work, as a union rep. I've also seen principals refuse to use it when they should have--hardly a black mark against the union.
when contract rules guarantee teachers seniority-based transfer rights . . . MPS also does not have seniority-transfer rights, at least not for the vast majority of movement of teachers among schools. Those decisions are site-based, with individual schools seeking the best fit for themselves.
So if those things are not screwing up Milwaukee, what is? (cough, cough) Maybe the study's author should come here to find out. Better yet, McAdams. I've occasionally wondered how McAdams, professor of political science, would fare teaching an MPS freshman civics class. If he wants to spend a day or two with my freshmen, he knows where to find me. Alas, he has tenure (something he would likely wish to deny public school teachers) and is unlikely to leave the academy for the glamorous life of an MPS teacher.

More importantly, though, this notion that if we could just get rid of the union, everything would be all right--or at least a lot better--is dumb. Consider how probable this chain of events really is:
  1. Show teachers that you're not afraid to fire a bunch of them en masse (the "bad" ones, presumably)
  2. Slash pay and benefits for those that remain (a common proposed benefit of killing the union)
  3. Eliminate the remaining teachers' ability to bargain together, as well as any job protection they may have had been counting on after seeing #1, above
  4. Then, magically, good teachers stay in, and more good teachers flock to, the most challenging district in the state to raise achievement
I don't believe it for a second. Look, I know people do not choose a life of public service like teaching for the money. But there is only so much you can take away from good teachers before they start bailing on you. We already hear, including--mostly, even--from conservatives, how many good teachers are turned away from MPS because of the residency rule. How many more will walk away when you take away job protection and bargaining rights? When you cut pay and benefits to make MPS the lowest-paid, hardest assignment in Southeastern Wisconsin?

Good luck with that.
Aside: I bet McIlheran blogs on this study before the week's out.

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