PULLMANN: Teachers unions steer clear of Race to the Top

States buy in to federal oversight of local schools

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Teachers unions are infamous for pursuing money and power at children’s expense. It’s ironic when they try to turn down taxpayer money on principle but state and local officials won’t let them.

One obviously bad-for-children policy the unions push is often called “last in, first out.” This policy requires school leaders to hire, place and fire teachers by seniority rather than teacher quality or school need.

Seniority rules consolidate union power because older teachers agree more with union positions politically and practically, according to the largest U.S. teacher surveys, conducted by Scholastic and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Older teachers also stand to gain the most from unions because the biggest union perks, such as comfortable pensions and health care benefits, accrue most toward the end of a teacher’s career. Seniority ties older workers to their jobs, providing unions steady membership and support.

In short, seniority rules keep unions around longer, so unions support those rules despite their bad effects on students. Research has shown seniority rules reduce classroom quality and are most likely to hurt poor and minority students.

Though unions will sacrifice young teachers’ careers and children’s educations for dues money and influence, they’re not willing to take money in the short term that may weaken their long-term influence. The most visible recent example of this is state and local union objections to Race to the Top (RTT), the $4.35 billion federal Santa Claus gift bag that seems never to run out of taxpayer money. It’s in its fourth iteration as a money pile that individual school districts can beg to get in exchange for promising to please federal overlords.

Unions from California to Florida and Maryland to Nevada have vocally and repeatedly blocked their states and local school districts from applying for RTT because districts have to adopt some policies unions don’t like — such as tying teacher evaluations to student test scores — in order to receive the grants.

This is where unions differ from state and local politicians, who regularly take federal money and grants that lock taxpayers into unsustainable projects despite little evidence that these help children learn. RTT shows school leaders will trade their delegated authority to the feds for what amounts to 30 shekels of silver. Tennessee, for example, got about 6 percent of one year’s education expenditures for winning RTT’s first round, but it had to submit to federal approval and intervention in how it evaluates teachers, what teachers will teach, how it handles failing schools and a new data system that compiles student health, academic and behavior information.

Now local school districts, in addition to states, can invite federal oversight, and 1,193 have done so. This is a massive departure from the U.S. system of tiered oversight, which wisely used to grant more control to institutions the nearer they were to the students.

This is like having your mother-in-law dictate what you will eat for dinner and wear to work. Almost 20 years ago, the Government Accountability Office reported that the federal government provided school districts with about 7 percent of their income while creating 41 percent of their mandatory paper-shuffling. Federal education regulations have only multiplied like cockroaches since then, along with expenditures. In constant dollars, education spending has quadrupled since 1950, yet math, reading and science scores have barely budged.

When teachers unions, the ultimate dictator-bureaucrats, refuse to be bought but state and local leaders sell out cheaply, voters essentially have no voice in education. That’s not just undemocratic, it’s dangerous.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and a research fellow in education at the Heartland Institute.

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