Tag: American Federation of Teachers

Fact-Checking the Teachers Union: A Follow Up

Yesterday, I noted that American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten cited an imaginary statistic on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Weingarten claimed that “most teachers right now in America have less than two years of experience.” That’s clearly false because the most recent NCES data shows that 91 percent of government school teachers had more than three years of classroom experience in 2011-12.

As I noted in an update to my post, some claimed that Weingarten had probably intended to refer to the mode, not “most.” Weingarten herself later admitted that she misspoke and meant to refer to the mode, but even then, the data she meant to cite was out of date. What she said was technically true for 2007-08 (though misleading, as I will show), but she claimed that this was the case “right now,” which is false. In fact, the most recent data (see page 12) show that the mode for teacher experience was five years in 2011-12.

Nevertheless, she still claims that the statistic she meant to cite buttresses her point. Actually though, her use of that statistic is misleading.

Teachers Union Poll Is Not Credible

Yesterday, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) released the results of a poll conducted by a Democratic polling firm supposedly showing that American parents don’t support a plethora of education reforms, including school choice, and would rather increase funding for public schools. A closer examination reveals that the some of the AFT’s poll questions were designed to push respondents into giving the answers that the AFT wanted, which is why their results are so different from previous polls from more credible organizations.  

Here’s an example of how the AFT phrased their questions:

With which approach for improving education do you agree more?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. We need to make the investments needed to ensure all schools provide safe conditions, an enriching curriculum, support for students’ social and emotional development, and effective teachers.

APPROACH B) We should open more public charter schools and provide more vouchers that allow parents to send their children to private schools at public expense. Children will receive the best education if we give families the financial freedom to attend schools that meet their needs.

It’s no surprise that 77 percent agreed with the first approach and only 20 percent agreed with the second. Either “invest” in “good” public schools in your “community” and receive all sort of wonderful goodies (“enriching curriculum!” “effective teachers!”) or forgo all that so that some parents can send their kids to private school “at public expense.” Aside from the fact that this is a false choice (competition can actually improve public school performance and school choice programs can save money), the wording is blatantly designed to push respondants toward Approach A.

But what if we rewrote those options?

APPROACH A) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to a good public school in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in better public school safety, curriculum, support services, and teachers.

APPROACH B) We should focus on ensuring that every child has access to good public charter schools and private schools in their community. Children will receive the best education if the public invests in giving families the financial freedom to choose the schools that meet their needs.

This question is clearly more fair than the AFT poll’s since it employs similar wording in each answer. If we wanted to push respondents toward Approach B, we could replace “invests” with “at the public expense” and employ additional shenanigans like the AFT poll did (e.g. - “choose the schools with the most enriching curriculum and most effective teachers”).

Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine how the public would respond to fairly-worded questions. Harvard University’s Program on Education and Governance conducts an annual survey of the public’s views on education policy that meets the highest standards for fairness and rigor. The survey eschews language designed to push respondents in a certain direction and often asks the same question with multiple wordings. According to the 2012 Harvard poll:

  • 54% of parents favor giving all families a “wider choice” to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • 46% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 21% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 50% of parents favor giving low-income families a “wider choice”  to “enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition” compared with 50% opposed.
  • When the question omits the words “a wider choice” and only asks about using “government funds to pay the tuition of low-income students who choose to attend private schools,” 44% of parents are in favor with 32% opposed.

Note that while support fluctuates depending on the wording, no matter how Harvard asked the question there was still more support among parents for school choice than opposition.

Moreover, when asking about scholarship tax credits instead of vouchers, the support was even higher:

  • 57% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 16% opposed.
  • When not given a neutral option, 73% of parents supported “a tax credit for individual and corporate donations that pay for scholarships to help low-income parents send their children to private schools” compared with 27% opposed.

The AFT’s poll results only look so different from Harvard’s because their poll was designed to reflect what the AFT wanted to hear rather than what the public really believes.

Democrats’ Problem: Teachers and Their Unions Just Like the Rest of Us

Let’s face it: everyone is trying to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s normal, with people doing things because they feel they’ll make them better off. The problem starts when you insist that you’re a saint—that you’re somehow far more selfless than most other people—and you just can’t keep up the charade any longer. Welcome to the Democratic Party’s teacher union problem.

It seems that trying to keep the party’s union-heavy base happy while simultaneously appearing unbeholden to entrenched interests is going to be a tricky balancing act for the Democrats. But dealing with teachers unions—which adding the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers together have about 4.7 million members—is going to be particularly treacherous. Educators are by far the biggest unionized bloc, and almost certainly the most troublesome. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports today, Democrats are particularly rent asunder on education issues, and a new movie about a parent taking on the union to turn a bad public school into a charter school—the so-called parent trigger—is driving another wedge.

The movie, Won’t Back Down, has already been panned by AFT president Randi Weingarten. But at least her union—unlike the larger and more obstinate National Education Association—acknowledges that there are education problems, and maybe the unions’ time-honored demand of “more money and no accountability” has had something to do with them.

“We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten recently told the New York Times. ”We were focused—as unions are—on fairness and not as much on quality.”

No doubt part of the reason that at least the AFT is accepting a little blame is that it sees that teachers unions are losing the sympathies of many members of the public. People are seemingly growing tired of seeing unionized educators enjoying good incomes and expensive perks while those paying the taxes struggle and test scores languish.

The problem with the union reinvention—at least as captured by the Weingarten quote—is that it probably strikes many people as hollow. Why? Because they know that unions are run by normal people and represent normal people, and what they want first and foremost is not what’s best for kids or “fairness,” but getting as good a deal for themselves as possible. In other words, they are starting to see through unions’ selfless-angels facade—the public relations sham of people just wanting a living wage while they give the mythical 110 percent “for the kids” —and are glimpsing normal, profit-seeking human beings who have had a fairly cushy deal over the decades.

Teachers unions, as those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have said, are not the root problem in education, nor are they or the people they represent any more evil or good than most other people. The root educational problem is that public schools are government schools, and politics—which cannot be detached from government—rewards concentrated special interests, of which unionized teachers are among the biggest.

For the Democratic Party, the big problem is that for decades the teachers unions have insisted that they and their members as far more noble than almost anyone else. At least, more noble than anyone openly seeking a profit, which is most people. But the public is catching on: teachers and their unions are just as self-interested as most other people, and government-run schooling has enabled them to get some awfully nice, taxpayer-funded deals. So what do you do? Acknowledge the paper-mache wings have fallen off and risk the wrath of the teacher unionists, or keep up the angelic charade and hope the public stops noticing reality? Neither is a happy prospect for the Democratic Party.

Teachers Unions Are But a Symptom of the Disease

Just as some public schooling defenders like to caricature their opponents as self-important, money-grubbing ”corporate reformers” or malevolent destroyers of “public education,” there is a tendency on the other side to attack teachers unions as the root of all evil. They aren’t. They are a natural symptom of a government monopoly that, because it is a monopoly, strongly favors the monopolization of labor. One employer, one employee representative.

Unless someone has compelling evidence to the contrary—I’ve never seen any—teacher union officials and members are no different than anyone else: they are simply trying to get the best deals for themselves.  What separates them from non-unionized workers—and unionized workers in the private sector—is not their desires, but that their employment comes from a system into which ”customers” must pay, and which is controlled completely by politics. Public-sector unions have big advantages in politics, where organization, numbers, and motivation—millions of people advocating for their very livelihoods—translate into power.

That brings us to today’s Wall Street Journal piece on union political spending. That spending is huge, and manifested in far more ways than contributions to candidates. Between 2005 and 2011 the Journal estimates unions spent $3.3 billion on political activities, which beyond candidate donations included everything from trying to persuade members to vote a certain way, to supplying bratwursts to demonstrators in Wisconsin.

There would be no major freedom issue if all of this were spending by unions with completely voluntary membership, and which operated in truly free markets. There would, then, be no compelled support of politicking. But this is absolutely not the case when it comes to teachers unions and other public sector unions.

For one thing, teachers often are, for all intents and purposes, forced to join unions as a condition of employment, even when they are required to ”just” pay big “agency fees” to cover collective bargaining. Moreover, the ultimately taxpayer-supplied dues money is used to get more dough out of taxpayers who have no choice but to be schools’ “customers.” And we’re not talking pocket change here: according to the Journal’s numbers, between 2005 and 2011 the National Education Association spent $239 million on politics and lobbying, and the American Federation of Teachers spent $138 million. And that doesn’t include the outlays of all their state and local affiliates.

Despite those power-wielding expenditures, the members and leaders of teachers unions still aren’t evil. They are normal, self-interested folks. The effects of their actions, however, are to compel people to fund political speech and activities against their will, and often against their personal interests. But we shouldn’t attack unions for that. We must attack the government schooling monopoly.

Public Schools Are the Future of Charter Schooling

For years we’ve been told that charter schools are the future of public schooling. The reverse is true.

The pattern in publicly funded education, both domestically and internationally, has always been one of increasing regulation over time, and of the triumph of producer interests over the interests of parents and children. Public schools in the late 1800s had considerably more autonomy than do most modern charter schools. Over time, public schools have come under the sway of centralized bureaucracies dominated by employee unions.

That same pattern is playing out in the charter school sector. As the Associated Press reports today, the American Federation of Teachers has just signed several more collective bargaining agreements for charter school teachers in New York City and Chicago. Meanwhile, federal education secretary Arne Duncan has been calling for more government “accountability” (read: “regulation”) for charters, singing from the union’s hymnal. From the AP:

AFT president Randi Weingarten said the administration’s push for more charter schools must come with stricter regulation.  “You can’t do one without the other,” Weingarten said.

Duncan struck the same tone Monday, saying that only high-quality charters should be allowed to operate.

If you want to know what charter schools will look like in a generation or so, just look at the public school status quo.

School Choice, Not Stalemate

A Washington Post editorial today rightly laments the seemingly insurmountable impasse reached by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union. Actually, scratch the WTU – I mean the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU’s parent organization, which has essentially taken over the negotiations because it thinks giving into much higher pay for somewhat less job security would be a disaster of national proportions. But the union’s stifling full court press isn’t what primarily bothers the Post. It’s that lowly John Q. Public isn’t getting even a crumb of information from the power brokers about major decisions that are all supposed benefit his kids.

But since when did the best interests of kids or the public really matter in public schooling decisions? Sure, parents and regular citizens can vote every few years, but what the heck else can they do? They can’t stop paying the taxes that fund both chancellors and teachers. They can’t form their own union and require teachers and chancellors to negotiate with them. All they can do is complain, and it’s pretty hard to hear them when you’re behind closed doors, arguing with some other guy about which one of you should be king.

And to think, someone thought it was a good idea to kill a program that actually gives parents some power…