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A New Low in Teacher-Union Scapegoating

Ordinarily I avoid addressing political issues in this column. But after reading an explanation for California's fiscal ills by Charlotte Allen, I'm going to make an exception ("Decline and Fall," The Weekly Standard, Nov. 19). According to Allen, the state is technically insolvent because of - you guessed it - California's teachers unions. Here's why.

The most powerful special-interest group in the state is the California Teachers Association, whose 325,000 members pay about $1,000 apiece annually in dues. Its financial clout resulted in the passage of Proposition 30, which raised the state sales tax by a quarter of a percentage point and increased income taxes for individuals earning more than $250,000 annually. Proposition 30 money goes into the state's general fund, where some of it can be used for education. But it was actually Proposition 98, which passed in 1988, that guarantees 40 percent of the annual budget be devoted exclusively to K-12 schools and community colleges.

So muscular are California's teachers unions that voters rejected Proposition 32, which would have prevented unions from using automatic payroll deductions to raise money for political campaigns. Without such a ban, teachers unions now effectively rule the state. Who are the beneficiaries? Teachers, of course. The average annual salary for California teachers is $68,000, making them among the highest paid in the nation. Moreover, teachers have lifetime job security and are not held accountable for student learning.

The above constitutes the essence of Allen's scapegoating. Now let's look at the issue rationally. There's no question that CTA is a formidable body in Sacramento. But voters are not stupid. They are exposed to arguments from other special-interest groups in the form of media ads, op-eds and letters to the editor. To suggest that they are brain dead on matters affecting their pocketbooks is patently absurd. The proof is that voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13 in 1978 despite robust opposition by the same teachers unions. If teachers unions are so strong, then why did voters resoundingly ignore them?

There's also no question that CTA represents the interests of its members. But what they have received for their dues is hardly extraordinary. Despite Allen's assertion, teachers are indeed being held accountable for their performance. They no longer have lifetime job security. In fact, all that tenure ever meant is the guarantee of due process. The fact that some teachers have not been removed from the classroom when they are ineffective is evidence of administrative failure to document cases. Moreover, $68,000 is hardly a remarkable salary. Thousands of teachers in New York City suburbs have been making well over $100,000 annually for years ("The Rise of the Six-Figure Teacher," The New York Times, May 15, 2005). In addition, New York State exempts 100 percent of its teachers pensions from state taxes, without causing the state to be technically insolvent.

Finally, if CTA is the villain for the state's fiscal woes, then why has California never failed to make its bond payments on time and in full? This includes the protracted Depression. Debt service in the state has second call on general fund dollars, with education being first. The California Constitution guarantees that bond holders get their money even before public safety and environmental protection ("California isn't broken," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 20, 2010). Don't try blaming teachers' pensions, which their unions have fought to protect, for budget shortfalls either. There is currently $2.7 trillion already set aside in pension trusts for current and future retirees, according to the California Retired Teachers Association.

What should be readily apparent is that teachers unions are once again being set up. After all, they consistently make such easy targets. But voters have shown time and time again that they can see through phony claims. That's why a year ago, 64 percent of California voters indicated in a poll that they were willing to pay higher taxes to support public schools ("Californians willing to pay higher taxes for better schools," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 19, 2011). The latest election confirmed the findings.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check 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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