The unions’ betrayal of teachers
(1) Teacher salaries are the driving force of public school budgets. (2) Although teachers were once underpaid, they have caught up and are now generously compensated. (3) The newly enacted salary caps on school spending will hold teacher raises to the rate of inflation. The above three statements are not true, but are widely accepted myths about school spending.
This article will clarify the myths about school spending and teacher salaries. This article will also examine how the teachers union could be a force for positive change and improvement rather than being the weight around the neck of public education.
I was an elementary teacher in the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) for ten years. During those ten years, I never felt I received any benefit from belonging to the teachers union. The professional staff of the union made triple my salary, but provided me with no perceivable service. Every year classroom expenditures decreased and working conditions deteriorated. Teacher preparation time was cut by forty minutes per day, while the demands for our time grew. The paperwork was staggering. Teacher aides in the classroom were cut by 15 percent. My fringe benefits were no better than when I was a factory or construction worker and they did not increase in level of service during my teaching years (although the system did pay substantially more for those same services). Despite the common contrary perception, our salaries did not keep pace with inflation. If we wanted creative supplies or quality literature for our classrooms, we were expected to purchase them out of our own money. Class sizes grew and were far larger than those of the surrounding suburbs.
These cutbacks occurred while the students of MPS were becoming increasingly more needy and the system was spending in excess of $7,500 per child. These cutbacks drastically lowered my morale and seriously affected my ability and motivation to effectively teach. The teachers union was powerless in stopping this erosion of working conditions. Yet the teachers union is widely seen as an extremely powerful organization.
What accounts for this vast disparity between the perceptions of most people and the experience of a classroom teacher? While the union was inept at helping to create working conditions favorable to successful student achievement, there was an area where the union exhibited great strength. No teacher could be fired from MPS regardless of how incompetent.
I observed hundreds of classroom teachers in almost fifty different MPS schools. In most school buildings, there were typically one or two teachers who were clearly not good for children. My main criteria for judging competence were if I would allow any of my own children to spend a year with this teacher.
In my first year of teaching regular students, I was the mid-year replacement for a veteran teacher. This teacher was being transferred to another school because a number of parents had witnessed his classroom being clearly out of control, with this teacher physically slapping students. During my meeting with this teacher the day before I took over, he told me candidly that “I shouldn’t knock myself out with this class—They’re animals, they can’t learn”. Although it was the middle of the year the class was in the first or second chapters of their textbooks. There were months of uncorrected student work in piles around the room. The room had been severely vandalized, clutter was everywhere.
I took over the class. They rapidly became the hardest-working class I ever taught. These students were so grateful to have a teacher who liked them, showed them some respect and knew how to teach them. The overwhelming majority of this class in less than a half of a year with me made over a year of academic progress. Meanwhile, their former teacher was sent to another classroom in another building to do more damage at twice my salary.
It is not often that one runs into such a meanspirited and physically abusive teacher as the one mentioned above. What is far more typical are teachers who just are not very good at motivating or creatively instructing kids. Also very common are teachers who at one time were good, but after years of bureaucratic nonsense and dwindling morale, don’t much like their job anymore. In a recent survey, over half of current public school teachers when asked if they would go into teaching again, responded with a No.
In the early nineties, the Milwaukee Journal reported on personnel decisions in MPS. They found that no teacher had been fired in the past five years for incompetence; every teacher was granted tenure; and only two or three teachers out of 2,000 evaluated each year received unsatisfactory evaluations.
The union’s response to protecting incompetent teachers is that they are merely protecting the due process rights of individual teachers. The union will argue that there are proper steps that can be followed that will allow the termination of truly incompetent teachers. It is simply the administration’s fault for never following the proper steps. Granted there are principals who could not follow the proper steps to many procedures. But even the most cynical critic would have to allow that out of 150 MPS principals, one or two would have the patience and intelligence to provide the proper documentation to dismiss poor teachers if such steps existed.
Teacher unions have many similarities with other unions. Almost half of all Americans have a bad image of unions. They see unions as often serving the interests of union leaders rather than its members. They consider union members as overpaid and under-worked. They feel the union protects lazy, unproductive workers. They attribute the loss of jobs to be related to union demands.
Unions definitely have a public relations problem. The perception of union members being overpaid is simply a case of misinformation (see insert on the myths of teacher salaries). The perception of union members being under-worked, sometimes lazy and unproductive is much closer to reality.
These views are held at a time when most workers no longer receive an individual wage capable of supporting a family. It now takes two people’s incomes to equal a bit more than one wage-earner fifteen years ago. This took place in healthy, robust economy that saw the stock market raise by 400 percent and the gross national product double the rate of inflation. The rising economic tide clearly did not lift all boats.
Unions to survive and become a positive force in the American economy again, must have a commitment to serve not only the needs of their members but also the needs of the institutions for which they work. They must focus not only on their own well-being but also with the well-being of children and the families that they serve.
John Matthews, head of the Madison Teachers Union, was asked during the recent contract dispute how various job actions of teachers would effect the children of Madison. Mr. Matthews replied that he did not work for the kids of Madison, but that his job was to protect the interests of teachers, to see that they had the best and strongest contract possible.
A 1990 Lou Harris poll stated that 90 percent of the American public would be willing to spend more on education if the thought they would receive tangible rewards for their investment. The popularity of the recent school spending caps in Wisconsin show that most people have no faith that the public schools can spend money wisely to benefit children.
The perception that increased government spending does not correspond to increased services is currently accurate, but does not have to be true. Most industrialized nations pay more in total tax than we do in the United States but are not as displeased as we are about their taxes. This is best explained by the connection Europeans feel between their taxes and their quality of life. The majority of citizens in the United States see absolutely no correlation between rising taxes and increased services. They experience the opposite—as their taxes rise, their services decrease.
School systems spend a lot of our money, over $7,500 per child, but have not been delivering the intended results. Teacher unions must make it their business to see that the vast economic resources of schools are used to raise the quality of education. Union officials know very little about how school systems spend their money. They only know what the budget directors want them to know. The attitude that a union has absolutely no responsibility for the quality of a product has been detrimental to American unions. The perception of fewer services for more money frustrates and angers most citizens.
Unions could appeal to everyone’s sense of fairness. A person recently hired by a school system with twenty years of education will make half as much as their fathers did with only high school diploma, while the economy prospers. Most people would see this as unfair. Not many people think it is fair that public jobs are lifetime positions regardless of the level of performance.
A Milwaukee school board member received a proposal from a union official last fall. The union head requested that one school in Milwaukee be given the same resources as a school in Fox Point, a wealthy surrounding suburb of Milwaukee. He wanted to prove to the public that money could make a difference in the quality of education. The school board member agreed, but under one condition—that the union allow one school in Milwaukee to be able to hire and fire whomever it please and that seniority in that one school not be the criteria for transfer. Then to make the experiment even more interesting—give a third school both the added resources and the autonomy to make its own personnel decisions without union interference. The union declined this offer.
The union’s major area of expertise is making sure no one is fired from teaching. What has been created is a school system where teachers receive little respect or professional regard, have miserable working conditions—working conditions that clearly contribute to student failure—receive a salary incapable of supporting a family, but cannot be fired. Are these not the conditions we would create if we intentionally wanted ineffective institutions?
What if we did the opposite of what we now do? What if we paid teachers well, gave them the working conditions they say they need to best educate children; small class sizes, reasonable preparation time, access to technology, school based decision making—but then held them accountable for the results?
What if such a system assured us that only talented, caring adults would be teaching our children? What if such a system cost us no more money than the one we currently have? Would this not benefit our economy and our society? Do we think that our future economic strength is related to how well we presently educate our children?
The Myths Of Educational Spending
Myth #1 The prevalence of this myth is due to one technically true but misleading statistic. Eighty percent of school dollars are devoted to staff salaries and benefits. This statistic leads most people to the assumption that the majority of school dollars go for teacher salaries. This would be a valid assumption if most school employees were teachers. The MPS employed 11,171 people in 1992–93 excluding bus drivers. Of that amount, 6,004 were called teachers (although many of these have little or no contact with children), but only about half of these (3,200) were regular education classroom teachers.
During the 1950s and 60’s teacher salaries consistently consumed 56 percent of school budgets both locally and nationally. Today for Milwaukee, it is 34 percent (6,004 teachers multiplied by $37,230 average salary divided by a $667 million budget). If only regular classroom teachers are included, teacher salaries account for only 18 percent of the budget, 24 percent with benefits included. Similar statistics apply to the Madison schools—3,200 total employees, 2,300 in the teacher bargaining unit, 1,700 teachers, 1,100 regular classroom teachers. This means that 92 percent of the Madison’s students spend 90 percent of their time with one-third of the system’s employees.
MYTH #2 Teachers were at one time underpaid, but are now generously compensated. In 1978, when I began teaching, the average teacher in Milwaukee was paid $18,100. This was not considered a great salary then. It was 35 percent lower than the average profession that required a collage degree. Today teachers in Milwaukee who make above the statewide average earn 20 percent less in real dollars than they did fifteen years ago (106 percent rise in salary compared to a 126 percent rise in the consumer price index).
The $37,000 teacher salary, although less in real dollars, is now seen as a lavish salary. This change in perception occurred because many other workers experienced far deeper cuts in real wage during a time of great economic expansion. One income families predominated fifteen years ago, but now two income families have become an economic necessity.
Madison teachers, among the highest paid in the state, make exactly the same in inflation-adjusted dollars as their 1978 counterparts with the same years of experience and level of education. Madison’s average teacher salary is slightly higher than in 1978 because today’s teachers have more experience and education.
Madison’s average teacher salary in 1978 was $16,500. If held exactly to the rate of inflation till 1993, teacher salaries in Madison would now be $37,100 instead of $39,100. Holding teacher salaries to the rate of inflation for the past fifteen years would have saved the district $3.4 million. Holding the cost of healthcare and other fringe benefits to the rate of inflation would have saved the district $18 million. The above inflation growth in special education and the growth in total school employees (while Madison experienced a decrease of twenty-seven classroom teachers) cost the district an additional $10 million and $21.6 million respectively.
MYTH #3 The newly imposed salary caps will hold teacher salaries to the rate of inflation. While it is true that it will hold each individual teacher’s salary now employed to the rate of inflation, it will also mean that in fifteen years teacher salaries will be cut in half. If the sum of the experience step, educational lane and base salary raises is held to the 3.8 percent rise in inflationm then a teacher starting this year at $24,000 will make only $24,000 in real dollars every year for the rest of their career.
Serious misinformation has been given to the public concerning the cost to the taxpayer due to experience and education step increases for teachers. Step increases over a long period of time cost the taxpayer nothing. School systems pretend that they do, in order to build up their surplus, which they can spend with less accountability. Teachers in Madison make between $25,000 for a first-year teacher and $50,000 per year for a teacher with twenty-five years of experience. Teachers get about $1,000 for each year of experience. If a system had a 100 teachers at $25,000, 100 second-year teachers at $26,000, 100 third-year teachers at $27,000, continued all the way to 100 twenty-fifth year teachers at $50,000 and they all moved up one year of experience, the typical school system would claim that this would cost the taxpayer $1,000 multiplied by 2,500 teachers each year for a total of $2.5 million. This would be true if no one ever retired. When those one hundred teachers in their twenty-fifth year retire and the system hires 100 more first-year teachers at $25,000, the system saves $25,000 per teacher, which represents a savings of the same $2.5 million. Some years fewer teachers retire, but this is always made up for by an eventual increase. There is a slight additional expense when the average years of experience rises.