The Philadelphia school district is in a near-constant state of financial crisis. There are many factors contributing to this sorry state–particularly its governance structure–but it is compounded by fiscal mismanagement. One particularly egregious example is paying six-figure salaries to the tune of $1.5 million a year to “ghost teachers” that do not teach. Pennsylvania Watchdog explains:
As part of the contract with the School District of Philadelphia, the local teachers union is permitted to take up to 63 teachers out of the classroom to work full-time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. The practice, known as “release time” or “official time,” allows public school teachers to leave the classroom and continue to earn a public salary, benefits, pension and seniority.
These so-called ghost teachers perform a variety of jobs for the PFT, serving as either information officers for other teachers or carrying out the union’s political agenda.
“Teachers should be paid to teach,” attorney Kara Sweigart, who is arguing ghost teacher lawsuits for the Fairness Center, a free legal service for employees who feel they’ve been wronged by their unions, told Watchdog.
“At a time when school districts are hurting financially, districts should be devoting every tax dollar to support students,” she said, “not to pay the salaries of employees of a private political organization.”
According to public salary data available through Philadelphia city agencies, the school district is paying 16 ghost teachers $1.5 million this year. All of them are making at least $81,000.
In less than an hour, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in one of the most important cases of the year, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The plaintiffs in Friedrichs are ten California teachers who are suing their union because they believe that laws forcing government employees to join a union or pay them “agency fees” as a condition of employment violate their First Amendment right to free speech, which includes the freedom not to speak, and not to be compelled to subsidize the speech of others.
SCOTUS has previously held that the agency fees may cover collective bargaining activities but not the unions’ political activities. However, as the plaintiffs argue, public-sector collective bargaining is inherently political. For example, more funding for teachers means higher taxes or less money for public parks, etc. The Cato Institute has filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs, and several Cato legal eagles, such as Ilya Shapiro, Andrew Grossman, and Trevor Burrus, have already weighed in.
Much of the constitutional analysis floating around the interwebs has focused on whether or not overcoming the supposed “free rider” problem constitutes sufficient grounds for states to grant unions the right to expropriate funds from non-members to cover collective bargaining activities that supposedly benefit them. Champions of free speech have generally attacked the other side’s strongest case, therefore their arguments assume that all teachers do, in fact, benefit from that collective bargaining, but that freedom of speech entails the freedom not to be forced to pay for someone else to advocate even on your supposed behalf. In an op-ed for the Orange County Register, however, Ilya Shapiro and I explain how collective bargaining can actually come at the expense of some teachers:
[E]ven if collective bargaining weren’t inherently political, it’s easy to see how workers could object to the supposed “benefits” negotiated on their behalf. For example, a teacher might prefer higher pay to tenure protections, or a defined-contribution pension plan – such as a 401(k) – to one that has defined benefits.
There are countless ways in which union-negotiated contracts or laws that the unions lobbied to enact can actually harm the interests of individual teachers. For example, “last-in, first-out” laws protect long-serving teachers regardless of ability at the expense of talented, young teachers. Worse, as we explain, such contracts and laws can harm the interests of the very children our education system is supposed to be designed to serve:
Collective bargaining also can come at the expense of students. When schools lack high-quality math teachers because the union contract requires they be paid the same amount as gym teachers, kids lose out. And when that contract has “last in, first out” (LIFO) rules that force a district to lay off a talented young teacher before a low-performing teacher with seniority, students suffer.
Last year, a judge in California struck down such tenure and LIFO rules after finding “compelling” evidence that making it hard to fire low-performing teachers had a negative impact on students, especially low-income and minority students. The judge pointed to research by Harvard professor Thomas Kane showing that Los Angeles Unified School District students who were taught by an English teacher in the bottom 5 percent of competence lose the equivalent of several days of learning in a single year relative to students with average teachers.
“Indeed,” the judge concluded, “it shocks the conscience.”
Sadly, the deleterious effects of collectively bargained tenure rules can be serious and long-lasting. In a 2012 study of more than 2.5 million students, Harvard professors Raj Chetty and John Friedman and Columbia professor Jonah Rockoff found that students who had just a single year in a classroom with a teacher in the bottom 5 percent of effectiveness lose approximately $50,000 in potential lifetime earnings relative to students assigned to average teachers.
If a teacher opts out of her union, but the union refuses to hear it, did she really opt out?
Even where state lawmakers have passed “right-to-work” laws legally enabling teachers to opt out of paying union dues, the practical ability to opt out is far from guaranteed. In Michigan, for example–where dues can cost up to $640 a year–the teachers union surreptitiously created new bureaucratic hoops for teachers attempting to opt out.
In an apparent effort to make it even more difficult or even stop school employees from exercising their right under right-to-work to not pay union dues or fees, the state’s largest teachers union has quietly set up an obscure post office box address to which members must send the required opt-out paperwork. It’s P.O. Box 51 East Lansing, MI 48826.
Based on a letter the Michigan Education Association sent to members who had tried to get out, and discussions with some of them, resignation requests sent to the regular union headquarters address will not be honored.
An extensive search of the union’s websites found references to the post office box address on just one page of MEA’s main website, and on one affiliate union’s website. There is no record of this post office box address existing before this month. In the past, union members who wanted to opt out just had to send notification to the address of the MEA’s headquarters in East Lansing.
The MEA had previously restricted the union dues opt-out period to the month of August until a judge ruled that the restriction was illegal. As reported in Michigan Capitol Confidential, about 5,000 teachers left the MEA last year despite the obstacles.
Earlier this year, Florida’s largest teachers union filed a legal challenge to prevent the expansion of school choice. As I explained then:
The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida to eliminate the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program, among other recent education reforms, including an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit law. Modeled after Arizona’s popular education savings account (ESA), the PLSA would provide ESAs to families of students with special needs, which they could use to pay for a wide variety of educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, and educational therapy. Six families with special-needs children who would have qualified for the program are seeking to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, represented by the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick.
Today a circuit court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not show how they were harmed by the law. Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Granite State’s scholarship tax credit law because they also could not demonstrate that they suffered any harm.
Since man bites dog stories are all the rage lately, I thought it might be a good time for me to point out that the rising Democratic attacks on teachers unions are largely misdirected.
Charles Krauthammer’s latest column is titled “The Union-Owned Democrats.” In it, he recounts a litany of economically ruinous actions being pursued by unions around the country, from blocking free trade agreements to hobbling Boeing’s efforts to compete with Airbus. He writes that “unions need Democrats — who deliver quite faithfully,” and that “Democrats need unions.”
Like a hole in the head.
Yes, it’s been a politically and financially symbiotic relationship for many decades. Unions get rents, Democrats get elected. But, as I argue in a cover story for The American Spectator this month (now on-line: “A Less Perfect Union”), it can’t last.
The biggest unions of all are the public school employee unions—the AFT and the NEA—with well over 4 million members between them. As I point out in my Spectator piece, these unions have become too successful for their own good—and for the good of the Democratic party.
In their game of Monopoly with American kids and taxpayers they have created staggering bloat in public school employment (which has grown 10 times faster than student enrollment over the past 40 years), and they have wheedled total compensation packages worth $17,000 more per year than those of their private sector counterparts (who, according to most of the research, outperform them in the classroom).
But the union-led public school spending spree has nearly bankrupted states all over the country. If California’s public schools had just maintained the same level of efficiency they’d had in 1970 (not gotten better, as other fields have, just stagnated), it would turn the state’s $26 billion deficit hole into a surplus.
Americans are rapidly running out of money to pay for their states’ school monopolies, and they are rapidly introducing school choice bills (42 states have done so this year), to give families alternatives. But as families escape the highly unionized monopoly and send their kids to school in the largely non-unionized private sector, teachers union power will implode. And resentment at having been gored for so long by the now bankrupt and discredited system will focus on the party that fought to preserve it until the bitter end… Democrats.
In my Spectator piece, I explain why that would be a bad thing, and what Democrats could do to avoid that fate. “Public schooling” is just a tool, and an ineffective, unaffordable one at that. Public education is a set of goals and ideals that can be advanced much more effectively by other policy mechanisms. The sooner Democrats realize that, the less likely they are to be dragged to the bottom of the political sea by the sinking union-helmed school monopoly.