Teachers' Unions Profit at Students' Expense

Teachers' Unions Profit at Students' Expense

Now that the Supreme Court declined to hear a constitutional challenge to tenure laws that make it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers, California's children will continue to pay the price.

Tenure rules are so skewed in favor of protecting incompetent teachers — some of whom are merely reassigned to classrooms in poor and minority communities — that they “shock[ed] the conscience” of the Superior Court judge who first ruled on them. 

Because experts cite teacher quality as the most important factor in student-learning, even those who are normally supportive of government unions have criticized their inflexible opposition to reform — as was seen in recent editorials from both The Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee.

But simply to ask legislators to oppose one of California’s most powerful special interest groups is to ignore the very forces that got us here in the first place.

The special interest effect — first popularized in 1986 when economist James Buchanan won the Nobel prize for his work in this area — says that lawmakers will serve those who can provide the most political support to them, not the public interest. Thus, as long as the state’s top political spender — the California Teachers Association (CTA) — opposes reform, California's lawmakers will, too. 

Because it is, like most government unions, chiefly concerned with protecting the jobs of its dues-paying members, the CTA often ends up supporting demonstrably harmful policies. Such is the case for California’s tenure rules, which have led to the “diminishment of the teaching profession,” according to TNTP, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving teacher quality. 

Unfortunately, while supporters of government unions are frequently — and correctly — critical of special interest groups in the private sector, such as those in the banking and pharmaceutical industries, this critical lens is shattered when it comes to government special interest groups.

The basis for government unions rests on shaky ground. The original labor movement was created to prevent the exploitation of workers by profit-hungry corporations. Because the government has no profits over which to negotiate, the case for government unionization remains dubious, which is why, historically, many of the labor movement’s greatest leaders emphatically rejected the idea of government unions.

In other words, the argument for labor unions in the private sector — namely, that an owner can profit by paying their workers less — does not apply to government, which has no owners.

But government unions aren't merely permitted in California. California state law grants them compulsory power to force elected officials to sign union contracts. 

This coercive power has left taxpayers on the hook for nearly $20 billion in superfluous spending in 2012 alone, according to an analysis by the Heritage Foundation. 

Such outlandish examples of government excess burden those least able to afford it the most.

Consider the Orange County city of Santa Ana,. In 2014, the median earnings for full-time, year round private-sector workers was only $27,391, while the median city worker pocketed over $90,000 — with city manager David Cavazos’s $341,798 salary topping that list, according to TransparentCalifornia.com.

Clearly, California’s government unions have taken full advantage of their monopolistic powers. But at what cost?

Repealing compulsory collective bargaining laws would yield more than just the estimated $20 billion in annual cost savings. It would also allow the state Legislature to enact desperately needed reforms without having to battle such powerful adversaries as the CTA — who would be forced to become more efficient and less willing to fight for universally reviled laws. 

The sad truth, however, is that legislators are unlikely to advocate for tenure reform as long as the political cost of doing so remains high. For reform to have a shot, Californians should reconsider the sacrosanct status granted to government unions, especially now that there’s so much at stake. 

Robert Fellner is director of transparency research at the Nevada Policy Research Institute, where he manages the TransparentNevada.com and TransparentCalifornia.com public pay databases.

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