Almost everyone can remember that one teacher who changed their life; the teacher who stimulated education and personal development of their students by virtue of teaching their subject well. A good teacher can truly change the trajectory of a child’s life.
Right now, a subcommittee of the House Education and Workforce Committee is thinking about eliminating some Highly Qualified Teacher (HQT) rules in order to improve American education. HQT rules prevent school districts nationwide from hiring talented applicants simply because they do not hold a “traditional” teaching certificate. Along this vein, the subcommittee called a hearing yesterday to discuss alternative teacher certification programs.
Seth Andrew, a Harvard graduate and a superintendent of Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem, NY, gave potent testimony at the hearing. He brought up points which—backed by empirical data—may prove highly relevant to the debate over education reform.
According to Mr. Andrew, HQT laws impose a senseless entry barrier on the teaching profession. He argued that school districts should be allowed to hire the best teachers possible, without having to worry about a meaningless slip of paper. After all, experts cannot find a statistically significant performance gap between teachers with traditional and nontraditional certifications.
“Unfortunately,” the superintendent noted, “most districts, states, and the federal government continue to use a course-based certification model with a lock-step seniority pay system that deters the best and the brightest teachers from entering and remaining in the profession.”
In other words, the practice of limiting teaching applicants to those with “traditional certification” favors educational systems tied to credentials and seniority, not performance. This in part explains why public school districts often sack the newest teachers first when they encounter budget problems—regardless of their performance in the classroom.
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Under a law signed by former President George W. Bush, all unions must publicly disclose their assets and expenses. Such disclosures reveal the political contributions made by unions and the salaries of top union officials.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal used the public data to examine the broad array of political contributions of the two most powerful teachers’ unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Over the weekend, Fox News used the data to show that union bosses make ten times more than the average American worker.
The data does, however, reveal another trend in the labor movement: Due in part to the growing right-to-work phenomenon, unions have lost considerable numbers of their rank-and-file in the last decade. Therefore, organizations like the NEA have morphed into primarily political organizations.
They want to obtain the best possible political representation (read: union execs and their assistants) and the most promising political coalitions that union dues can buy. Instead of bargaining for higher union wages, union bosses focus their energies on cultivating lucrative political contacts. Such a strategy tends to entrench a union bureaucracy that identifies more with the political elite than with ordinary workers.
This shift in attitudes is subtle, but it carries important ramifications for the future of the labor union. As union bosses live an increasingly lavish lifestyle, they may find themselves unexpectedly defending income inequality to a disillusioned and rather unhappy workforce. This, of all things, may be the most startling turn of all.
No one should be forced to join or contribute to any organization if they do not want to do so. This principle forms the bedrock of our society, yet influential Americans still disagree with it.
For instance, Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, thinks that liberty means the “the freedom to bargain collectively.” However, Trumka does not understand that the First Amendment to the Constitution grants two freedoms as part of its charter. That is, Americans possess the freedom both to associate and to refrain from associating.
Some influential labor unions also seem unwilling to accept the full implications of associative rights. In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) launched a plan to stop a free-speech ballot initiative. This initiative aimed to prevent SEIU from garnishing fees from 36,000 non-union state employees in order to fund union-approved political campaigns.
On June 21, the Supreme Court ruled against SEIU’s special dues assessment in the Knox v. SEIU decision. Seven of the Justices could not swallow the fact that the SEIU tried to use the wages of independent workers for its own partisan objectives. They lambasted the SEIU’s “aggressive use of power” as “indefensible.”
But union bosses are not the only ones who reject the full import of the First Amendment. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn issued an executive order to unionize 4,500 home-care workers without their consent, in order to extract dues for the SEIU. Now, he is embroiled in a lawsuit that may be taken up by the Supreme Court.
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Appalled by the $22.4 billion fiscal millstone that the public teacher pension fund (MPSERS) has become, Michigan lawmakers hope to make long-overdue structural reforms. In particular, the Michigan Senate is now considering a new “Hybrid” pension plan that would bring retirement benefits more in line with the defined-contribution plans so often utilized by the private sector. If Michigan — a state whose economic struggles are well documented — can achieve fiscal stability, the rest of America should take note.
While Hybrid systems cannot wreak any more havoc than defined-benefit plans do now, they still bear similar risks. If the “normal cost” of MPSERS — the amount needed to prefund a year’s worth of retirement benefits — is inaccurate, the state risks the possibility of a severe shortfall in the pension fund. In other words, Hybrid plans assume a certain rate of return on investment in order to work. As is true with defined-benefit plans (which promise a certain payoff upon retirement), both taxpayers and teachers suffer when those investment predictions prove overly-optimistic.
The good news is that, by offering a 401(k) option, a Hybrid system can lessen the chance of underfunding. The advantage of a 401(k) program, as noted by a June 26 editorial in The Detroit News, is that future taxpayers never pay for the overly optimistic promises made by politicians today. Unfunded liabilities simply do not occur in this sort of arrangement, otherwise known as a defined-contribution plan.
A Hybrid pension system can also create good outcomes for educators. The 401(k) is portable, meaning that teachers can take their savings with them when they leave the school district. By including the 401(k) option, the Hybrid plan offers flexibility for younger teachers who may not want to work as an educator for an entire career.
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This last May, a California teacher named Michelle Apperson received a pink slip from the Sacramento City schools. Yet she was not let go because of poor classroom performance. In fact, only a few weeks before her dismissal, she received the “Teacher of the Year” award for her school district. According to ABC News and the Huffington Post, a severe budget shortfall forced the district to lay off Ms. Apperson.
Still, the Huff Post neglects to mention an important cause of the incident: California’s teacher unions. When given the choice between renegotiating a favorable contract and simply firing newer teachers, the unions consistently choose the latter. In fact, these unions favor a California state law that compels administrators to make layoffs solely on the basis of teacher seniority. The law gives no consideration to the merit of the teachers that are fired. That explains why Apperson, despite her hard work and creativity, has received pink slips in eight of her nine years with the school district.
Teacher unions have made it clear that they will continue to stand behind the current law, despite the rising current of political pressure. The California Federation of Teachers, in fighting against lawsuits intended to abolish “last hired, first fired” practices, firmly opposed any move to include job performance in the evaluation of teachers. So far, CFT is losing ground. And just a few months back, the state legislative analyst’s office released a report urging California to drop seniority-based layoffs in times of fiscal crisis.
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