- - Monday, January 8, 2018

Was this what Mark Zuckerberg had in mind?

Several years after his $100 million gift to Newark public schools, new research shows that nearly one-quarter of teachers miss at least one out of every 10 work days, one of the worst absentee rates in the nation. Mr. Zuckerberg’s generosity has been wasted on even more generous union contracts, which include 17 days off each year — not counting summers, Christmas holidays, Spring Break and federal holidays.

Essentially he’s paid teachers to stay home and watch “Days of Our Lives.”

Meanwhile, Newark schools are again facing a $30 million deficit, driven by excessive union contracts and tens of millions of dollars being wasted annually on “rubber rooms,” where excess and poor performing teachers languish without assignments because they can’t be fired. In 2015, these teachers made up 15 percent of the district and cost over $35 million in annual pay. What a waste.

Newark’s high teacher absenteeism costs the state $8.5 million a year in substitutes, but it costs Newark’s 34,200 students far more. They lose out on teaching continuity which is very important for academic performance.

Test performance demonstrates the consequences. Only one-third of Newark students are proficient in English. Only one-quarter are proficient in Math. In state tests of third- to eighth-graders, math and reading proficiency actually went down in all six grades between 2011 and 2014 following Mr. Zuckerberg’s union gift.

“For several years, we have focused on students coming to school more often,” said district executive Larisa Shambaugh. “Now we are focused on our teachers coming to school just as much as students.” Repeat that aloud to yourself again.

Teachers are able to take so much time off because they have no fear of being fired for poor performance. About 10 years ago, the Center for Union Facts, an organization my firm manages, launched an educational campaign of our own. Protecting Bad Teachers was designed to educate Newark residents about how the Newark Teachers Union makes it nearly impossible to fire bad teachers.

The campaign highlighted examples of the worst district teachers like the story of one who maced a second grade student, slapped other students, and placed a stapler over another’s lips and threatened to seal them. She kept her job and salary for six months until the school could get rid of her. Another Newark teacher swore, threatened, and punched a 10-year-old girl, and was able to get nine months’ pay plus sick time and vacation in exchange for quitting. If it’s this difficult to get rid of violent teachers, it’s nearly impossible to get rid of poor performing ones.

This poor teacher performance starts at the top. The Newark Teachers Union is part of the American Federation of Teachers, whose militant leader Randi Weingarten opposes education reforms that could threaten union dues flow that funds her political operation. A colleague of hers once said, “Randi Weingarten would protect a dead body in the classroom. That’s her job.”

How does the AFT get away with this self-serving agenda that puts students last? By engaging in a quid pro quo with politicians. AFT and the other major teacher union National Education Association were among the biggest donors ($60 million) to Democrats in the last election cycle. In return, politicians promise to defend the failing union status quo that sees U.S. students score worse on international tests than students from countries most of her entrenched teachers couldn’t find on a map.

Poor teacher performance from a small group of teachers has a big impact. Education economist Erik Hanushek has found that a small percentage of teachers are responsible for virtually all of the United States’ poor global education ranking. According his research, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the United States near the top of international education rankings and improve national economic output by trillions of dollars.

One bad math or English teacher sets the course for additional student struggles in each following year until many discouraged kids drop out. Over 1,000 a day leave our public schools without a diploma. A new study by economists from Cornell University explains: “By protecting teachers from being fired, unions can reduce teacher effort and lower the quality of the teacher workforce, which will lead to worse student outcomes.”

There is hope for reform. A group of Newark parents is challenging the state teacher tenure laws that have clearly distorted the state needs and obligations to students. If nothing else it will further inform the public about the union chokehold on the necks of elected Democrats.

If Mr. Zuckerberg really wants to improve schools, he would put his money behind parents and this litigation.

Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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