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NYC Teachers and the Greek Rioters, Kindred Spirits...?

On Friday, I penned a modest op-ed for the New York Daily News which argued that, in light of New York City's budget crunch, it was reasonable to lay off up to 6,400 teachers (potentially 8% of the teacher workforce). I wrote, "Not only would the layoffs of thousands of teachers not mean the sky is falling...thinning the teacher ranks, done right, could be a very good thing."

I further asserted, "Smaller classes would be good if a school district could hire all the great teachers it wants and if funding were unlimited. In the real world, neither of those is true. In practice, smaller classes make it harder for districts to recruit enough talented teachers while soaking up dollars that could otherwise reward good teachers or fund crucial services." I went on to note that if NYC teachers want to protect jobs, "They have an easy solution. They did well through the economic boom of the 2000s, with average teacher salary rising by 35% from 2001 to 2009. Meantime, the city's teacher ranks grew by more than 12,000. If the UFT wants to protect all those new jobs, a simple way to forestall layoffs is to simply give back a modest portion of those hefty raises."

The reception from NYC teachers was not enthusiastic. But what caught my attention was the degree to which their tone brought to mind Greek protesters rioting against the notion that a nearly bankrupt government had to trim jobs, generous salaries, and unaffordable benefits. You'd have thought that NYC didn't have a teacher for every 12.5 students or that only agenda-driven crazies would seek to trim jobs and/or salaries in a grim fiscal environment.

One Daily News commenter opined, "This clown has obviously never stepped into a NYC Public School. Classrooms are already overcrowded, and this guy wants to put more students into those rooms? ...Teachers deserved every penny of those raises that were given between 2000-2009." Another quipped, "This author is promoting a lie. I must ask has this person ever taught a class? Of course not, or he would have included his credentials. Any idiot, except apparently Mr. Hess, would understand that class size matters a great deal." A third offered, "Here we go with another powerful idiot and deciever [sic] who has never set foot in a modern day classroom weighing in on educational matters. This is the type of sick hypocrite who for some reason wants to influence the public's opinion by telling public school parents what is acceptable."

The problem is that states and districts overextended themselves in recent decades, spending the windfall generated by soaring property taxes through the 2000s without ever contemplating the possibility that the good times might end. Today's teachers and public servants may feel entitled to the salaries, benefits, pensions, and perks they're currently receiving, but a glance at the looming federal deficits, unfunded health care and pensions, and grim state and local projections indicates that, even with higher taxes, cuts are going to have to be made.

The really unlovely part is when a sense of entitlement gets wrapped in the cloak of self-righteousness and moral umbrage. As one anonymous woman rioting in Greece explained, "The measures aren't fair for workers, because they didn't cause the crisis, and they want money from the loan to pay the banks." Another Greek rioter told the press, "We must protest and continue the struggle until we take back what they are trying to take away from us." When those paid from public coffers cease to feel any obligation to recognize that public resources are limited or that others, suffering through the same turbulent times (or those that won't draw their first paycheck for awhile yet), must foot the bill, it raises questions about whether public servants have morphed into public claimants. Something seems fundamentally off when irresponsible spending is justified as a matter of "fairness."

NYC's teachers may not believe it, but they have been the beneficiaries of unaffordable and unsustainable generosity. Average teacher pay in NYC jumped more than 35% between 2001 and 2009 (a period bookended by two devastating recessions), increasing from $51,000 to $70,000 per annum. At the same time, the City's teaching ranks grew by 12,000, reaching 80,000 teachers, for NYC's one million kids (a student-teacher ratio of about 12.5 to 1 for those keeping score).

If "it's for the kids" (gag!) and if we think (as the NEA and AFT repeatedly explain) that educational success is largely a factor of home and community environs, then I'd think the teacher associations would be eager to trim raises and forgo extravagant benefits in order to cushion the severe cuts being visited upon libraries, parks and recreation, departments of youth services, police, and so on. As another Daily News commenter noted, school performance is impacted by "homes, neighborhoods, lack of role models, peers, socio-economic levels, and self-inflicted deviant behaviors."

While policymakers may wish to cater to the mob by ladling out fresh goodies, as Greek politicos did for so long, the piper eventually comes calling. As that day draws closer, will educators step up to the plate and concede the need for cuts in staffing, salary, and benefits, like their neighbors at so many public and private organizations (including Education Week), or will they caterwaul like the Greek rioters? The early returns aren't promising.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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