Hey, Teacher Union! Leave Those Kids Alone!

Props 74 and 75 could jumpstart reforms


California has more than 1,700 schools failing to make adequately yearly progress according to No Child Left Behind Act standards. And the U.S. Department of Education just delivered more bad news to California students and parents. The newly-released 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which reports on reading and math achievement scores in every state, shows California fourth graders scored an average of just 207 out of 500 in reading, with eighth graders scoring 250 out of 500. Only students in Mississippi and Washington, D.C., scored worse.

The state's poor academic performance and the large number of struggling schools demonstrate our ongoing failure. That may be the best argument for two ballot initiatives slated to come to a vote November 8: teacher tenure (Proposition 74) and paycheck protection (Proposition 75).

Over the long haul, Prop 75, which would prohibit unions from spending member dues on political contributions without explicit consent from individual members, could turn out to be a deciding factor in whether or not we can stop wasting education money on bureaucracy and red tape, and get more money flowing into classrooms. In recent years, the teachers' union has shown a troubling tendency to put union power and financial interests ahead of students' educational interests. 

Why does a 2002 state law say that a catering company can't provide school lunches, and a local cleaning company can't clean classrooms? 

Simple, the union only wants dues-paying union employees in those jobs—even if it costs taxpayers more, taking money out of classrooms. 

Unions used their political war chests to lobby for, and pass, a law prohibiting California schools from hiring private firms for food, transportation, janitorial and landscaping services. Meanwhile, studies show that school districts in other states are saving 20 to 40 percent by outsourcing these very services. If California saved 40 percent on the more than $13 billion it spends on these types of school services, we'd be looking at around $5 billion that could go to books, computers, or even more teachers each year.

Most good teachers wouldn't care who cuts their school's grass, especially if it meant they'd actually have the books and computers they need inside their classrooms. And if the union had to justify and explain the causes on which it spent money—and the tradeoffs involved—to rank-and-file teachers, we might actually lay the groundwork for some real education reform. 

Increasing the requirement for teacher tenure is also likely to spur improvements. Prop 74 would extend the time it takes for teachers to become permanent public employees to five years. Current teacher tenure laws give teachers lifetime employment guarantees after just two years, making it difficult for principals to hold teachers accountable for student achievement. 

A new study by researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and EdSource, a nonpartisan education organization, interviewed over 5,500 teachers and 257 principals, and found that the schools with high test scores are "more likely to have teachers that report school-wide alignment and consistency in curriculum" and provide "instruction that is closely based upon state academic standards." 

Many principals are doing their best to analyze test results and identify teachers who need help and additional training, but they have little or no recourse if the teachers do not improve. New tenure rules would give principals the added ability to ensure that teachers who receive multiple years of negative evaluations and low test scores can be replaced with more effective teachers. 

If principals have more control over the quality of their teachers maybe California will no longer find itself at the bottom of the nation's student achievement rankings. 

Tenure reform and paycheck protection are the first steps in leveling the playing field between policymakers who are focused on improving student achievement and those who support labor interests over student interests.