Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Schools, unions, and Scott Walker

The bill, proposed by Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, to strip government employees of their collective bargaining rights is now on a smooth road to passage.  Similar, but less well-publicized, bills are on the table in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Idaho, and other states.

The whole thing has been spun as a blow in favor of fiscal responsibility, to break the power of corrupt labor union bosses, and to allow administrators to fire inept workers without having to consider seniority.  I'd like to cast the whole thing in a different light -- that these laws are bringing about a dangerous shift in the balance of power, and the results, especially for public schools, will be devastating.

First of all, let me state one thing up front; I have no lack of awareness of the fiscal situation.  Between the recession, and years of poor management, many states are in dire situations.  There's no doubt that some level of economic austerity is a necessity.

Stripping workers of their rights, however, isn't the way to accomplish this.

In my own school district, we've seen state revenue decline every year I've been here.  We've had layoffs four years in a row, and are facing more this year.  In New York State we are required to use a LIFO system -- last in, first out -- it can even come down to where your name fell on the school board agenda the day your hiring was approved.  Fine, qualified teachers have lost their jobs because of this; but what other system would be fair?

"Merit, of course," is the usual response; but there the waters get deeper.  Merit by whose standards?  How do you quantify good teaching?  Does the fact that currently in one of my elective classes, 30% of the students are failing, mean I'm a bad teacher?  Does the fact that in the class immediately following that one, 100% of the students have a grade above 85%, mean that in the three-minute passing time between the two classes, I suddenly figured out how to teach well?

Standardized test scores clearly aren't the answer; any political correctness aside, you just can't expect equal scores, or even equal improvement in scores, in a poor, overcrowded, inner city school and a well-funded suburban school whose students come from wealthy, well-educated families.  To put it bluntly: if you want to run schools like a factory, and would like a guarantee of equal quality in the product, you have to have equal quality in the raw materials. 

So, the situation is as follows:  1) States are strapped for money, and property taxes are about as high as they can reasonably go.  2) Collective bargaining rights, and LIFO as a standard system for fair layoffs, are out the window, drastically shifting the balance of power away from teachers and into the hands of administrators.  3) Merit is difficult to establish, much less quantify, given the inherent inequities built into the system.

What happens now?  I'd like to make a few predictions.  I'm not, as a rule, given to prognosticating, but I think I can make a few guesses.

1)  Schools, trapped between declining revenues and unfunded state mandates, will cut the budget in the only possible way; they'll cut staff.  Without LIFO, they'll start laying off the most senior, and therefore most expensive, teachers first.  This will benefit the budget in two ways -- it will give states the immediate result of a reduction in the money needed to pay salaries, and the lasting result of a reduction in the money those teachers are eligible for in retirement.

2)  Class sizes will rise, and any non-"core" subjects -- music, the arts, and electives -- will be eliminated.

3)  There will be a drastic reduction in the number of talented college students who choose to go into education.

Some people are predicting a backlash -- that the rise in pro-union sentiment because of Walker and his ilk will assure that they are one-term politicians.  I don't know that that's necessarily true -- the anti-union rhetoric I'm hearing seems equally strong.  But one thing I'm fairly certain of is that even if the pendulum eventually begins to swing the other way, it will be too late to prevent devastating consequences for public schools.


  1. Thank you for stating the arguments so succinctly. I completely agree with your assessment of the problem. My fear is that, if they start chopping at the top, I may end up living on the streets, eating out of garbage cans, because businesses don't hire people in their 50s.

  2. I emailed this to my sister who is teaching in Portland, Oregon. This is one of the clearest and most succinct commentaries on this issue I've read. We must demonstrate support of the best education our children can have. Thanks Gordon.