Most people don’t think “government unions” when they hear the words “special interests.” As the battle royal in the Wisconsin statehouse shows, though, they should.
Government unions stymie education reform to protect their narrow interests — interests that don’t represent America’s students, parents and taxpayers.
America’s taxpayers want quality education at a reasonable cost. Education unions want guaranteed job security and the best benefits they can get.
So education unions have used their political clout to block the reforms that would most benefit the teaching profession: performance pay for teachers, tenure reform, and alternative teacher certification that allows more mid-career professionals and those without traditional teaching degrees into the classroom. They don’t want competition or the pressure to perform.
Education unions have also lobbied to prevent public-education employees from chipping in to cover the cost of their health insurance premiums. They prefer to leave that burden to taxpayers. They’ve also secured pension and health benefits that far exceed what most private-sector workers make.
These special-interest handouts don’t serve children or taxpayers, but unions fight fiercely to protect them. For example, the American Federation of Teachers spent more than $1 million last year to ensure that Vincent Gray — someone it knew would protect the failed educational status quo — defeated D.C.’s incumbent mayor, education reformer Adrian Fenty.
Education unions also continually oppose letting parents choose the school that best meets their child’s needs. Union political pressure resulted in the voucher program in our nation’s capital, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, being phased out by the Obama administration. The scholarship program, which is now on life support, significantly improved graduation rates for low-income students in D.C.
Education unions are the most powerful force blocking meaningful education reform. They get the money to do this from millions of dues-paying members. In 28 states, teachers must pay union dues or lose their jobs. Unions spend these involuntary dues with little regard for teachers’ wishes.
The NEA’s own polling of public-school teachers found that 55 percent identified as more conservative than liberal. Yet more than 90 percent of the union’s campaign and political contributions go to Democrats — and we’re not talking chump change. The NEA and AFT spent more than $71 million on politics and lobbying in the 2008 election cycle. That’s roughly equal to public funding for a presidential campaign.
The result? Enormous amounts of money flowing into political campaigns to block education reforms. The good news is that some state leaders are beginning to push back on education unions and special interests.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has earned national headlines for his push to reassert voter control over state spending. He wants to limit collective bargaining to wages, taking benefits and work rules off the negotiating table. His plan lets voters approve any pay increase beyond inflation. Walker would also require government workers to contribute more toward their healthcare and pension plans — preventing layoffs of junior teachers.
Walker is also restoring a non-partisan civil service. He would allow teachers to keep their jobs if they quit their union. He also wants to end the government subsidy for union fundraising. Under his plan the state would stop collecting union dues with its payroll system.
Walker’s plan follows in the tradition of Wisconsin’s leadership on education. In 1990, the Badger State set an education reform example for the nation by enacting the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP). Twenty years later, Governor Walker has identified another obstacle to quality education: union collective-bargaining power protecting their interests rather than the needs of children.
And other states are taking similar steps.
Alabama just prohibited using the state payroll system to send money to political organizations — to the fury of the Alabama Education Association.
The Ohio legislature is debating a bill that would restrict collective bargaining for state and local government employees.
The Tennessee legislature will soon take up a measure to restore full voter control over education. The bill would completely end collective bargaining with education unions.
For too long government unions have stood between children and the quality educations they deserve. It is time to take bold measures to protect children from union special interests.
Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org). James Sherk is a Senior Policy Analyst in Labor Economics in Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis.