More on the Issues in the East Greenwich Teachers’ Union Strike
A lot of words are being said as the East Greenwich teachers go out on strike. Many of the public comments by union officials and some teachers have nothing to do with the facts.
These contract negotiations and strikes are not about doing right by our children or about education. They are about maximizing adult entitlements where the NEA is willing to use our children as pawns to get more money.
Along the way, they complain about unacceptable “working conditions.” Let’s spend some time on the facts underlying that claim.
SALARY COMPENSATION ISSUES
From the outset, be clear about the context for this part of the discussion: The debate has nothing to do with a lack of desire to treat teachers well. Out of the 50 states, Rhode Island is already in the top 10 in how much it spends per pupil and in teacher salaries. We are generous and willingly so, in spite of being in the bottom one-third among the 50 states for educational outcomes. The resistance is to continuing an expensive gravy train entitlement ride which the state and individual communities can no longer afford. The resistance is also to giving the same 9-12% annual salary increases to the worst teachers when we would gladly give high salary increases to the great teachers. But the NEA won’t give school administrators the freedom to make those judgment calls.
Furthermore, school commmittees and teachers’ union officials are all guilty of misleading the public about the real salary increases going to teachers under contracts around the state. I wrote about the hidden nature of these extreme salary increases in this 2004 ProJo editorial.
To further elaborate on this point and make it specific to East Greenwich, here is a 2004 analysis done when my term on the East Greenwich School Committee was ending. It is an Excel spreadsheet analysis based on data taken from union contracts over a 6-year period: 1998-99 to 2003-04 East Greenwich teacher salary data.
Here, again in an Excel spreadsheet, is an updated version of that salary increase data: 2003-4 to 2006-7 East Greenwich teacher salary data.
Handing out 9-12%/year salary increases for 9 of the 10 job steps is the norm. And we can’t afford it anymore.
There are some nuances:
Roughly 60% of the East Greenwich teachers have now reached the top step 10 and that means their increases have been 3.25%, 3.6%, and 3.8% over the last 3 years. In other words, roughly what taxpayers working in the private sector have been receiving. But these teachers are unhappy about their recent “low” increases. After years of getting 9-12%/year increases, their expectations are skewed and out of line with the real world. But the pragmatic issue the NEA won’t address is that if they want increases above 3.8% for step 10 teachers, then some other non-step 10 teachers are going to have to give up their 9-12%/year increases. And I repeat: Why should good and bad teachers get identical salary increases?
What part of 3.8-12%/year salary increases creates unacceptable working conditions?
On the John DePetro radio show this morning, one East Greenwich teacher called in to complain that there were 22 students in her class, 1 above the “approximately 21” contractual limit. What she didn’t tell anyone is that her salary is increased pro-rata (22/21) based on that extra student. In other words, she is compensated under the contract for the difference. How many taxpayers working in the private sector get roughly 5% salary increases when their workload goes up 5%? [NOTE: Subsequent discussions have clarified that this extra pay is not the standard practice, although the idea had been thrown around recently.] She also complained that recess had been “taken away” by the Superintendent. What she didn’t disclose is that the Superintendent’s original response to the State requirement of 20 extra instructional minutes was to extend their day by that 20 minutes. (9:10 a.m. is the start time at Meadowbrook; they are out around 3:10 p.m.) I understand that the high school did make some schedule changes. However, there was no apparent similar flexibility at this teacher’s elementary school and that led to teachers there – and not just teachers’ aides – having to spend recess time on the playground with students. So who is obstructing here?
HEALTH INSURANCE CO-PAYMENTS
There are 10 salary steps for East Greenwich teachers. Teachers at steps 1-4 only pay 5% co-pays. Teachers at steps 5-10 only pay 10%.
In my last company, the co-pays for employees were 25-35%. I don’t know a single person in the private sector who pays less than 20%.
I am told the East Greenwich town employees under an NEA contract pay 20%. What should teachers be treated differently?
Why is it a matter of debate that a 20% co-pay creates unacceptable working conditions?
HEALTH INSURANCE CASH BUYBACK
East Greenwich teachers receive a cash payment of $5,000/year when they do not use the health insurance plan provided by the district. I am told that 68 of the 235 teachers in the district receive this additional cash payment. I am also told that the $5,000 payment is among the highest of any school district in the state.
Why do modest changes to that payment level create unacceptable working conditions?
Separately, I also understand the East Greenwich town employees under an NEA contract receive only a $1,000 cash payment. Why should teachers be treated differently?
I don’t know a single person in the private sector who receives any cash buyback payments.
We will save the pension debate for another day. Suffice it to say that Rhode Island public sector employees have some of the richest pension benefits of any state employees anywhere.
And private sector pension programs don’t hold a candle to public sector programs in either dollar payouts or the age when such payouts can begin. The fact that nearly every public sector pension plan is underfunded doesn’t seem to deter the unions from resisting reforms and demanding more.
At some point, the strike will pass and teachers will return to the classroom. There is a good chance they will return to the classroom under work-to-rule conditions, where they only do the minimum legally required under the contract. In other words, they will continue to use our children as pawns while they demand retroactive pay and other financial benefits. They insist on being made whole financially but their actions do not allow our children’s educational experiences to be made whole. Why do we tolerate them treating our children like that?
This is where contractual issues move from financial considerations to non-financial considerations. Here are excerpts of what a friend wrote me about work-to-rule:
The “rules and conditions” maintained in the contracts do not reflect the practices that have become expected of and provided by the school system. The unions always state that teachers typically work beyond the obligated work hours stipulated in the contract, including helping students after school, writing letters-of-recommendation for college apps, etc. Therefore, you would think these items and others should be written into the contracts. But, as much as unions like to point to these activities, they resist putting them into contracts because the more “best practices” or “past practices” are stipulated in the contract, the less leverage work-to-rule provides. This is why the unions are hesitant to write in either best practices or past practices – because the work-to-rule status quo allows them to extract more financial concessions. How is this good for the students?
The obviously fair thing for our children would be for all teacher practices not stipulated in the contract but which are, in fact, done must be continued because they represent past practices precedent under which school districts operated during prior contracts. But the union won’t agree to that either.
So here we are, dealing with a union which doesn’t negotiate in good faith, is all about adult entitlements, will use our children as pawns in the negotiations, funds its operations through coerced dues, and doesn’t have the courage to allow its members to take a strike vote by secret ballot.
THE CHALLENGE MOVING FORWARD
The challenge for our society is to realize that many teachers not only don’t want to be union hacks but they are classy professionals who want to be rewarded differentially for delivering excellence in the classroom.
But these teachers will never have the freedom to operate accordingly as long as we live in a world where unions have monopoly control over the public schools.
There is no way to tweak the status quo and improve public education as long as schools are controlled by unions whose mission is to maximize financial benefits to members, not produce excellence in education.
The more you learn about public education, the more compelling school choice becomes – for the great teachers and for all of our children. As Milton Friedman wrote:
…education…takes a system that should be bottoms-up and converts it into a system that is top-down. Education is a simple case. It isn’t the public purpose to build brick schools and have students taught there. The public purpose is to provide education. Think of it this way: If you want to subsidize the production of a product, there are two ways you can do it. You can subsidize the producer or you can subsidize the consumer. In education, we subsidize the producer – the school. If you subsidize the student instead – the consumer – you will have competition. The student will choose the school he attends and that would force schools to improve and to meet the demands of their students.
Nothing will change until these great teachers and enough parents have the courage to say enough already and exert sufficient political pressure. It will be an uphill battle because we are not an organized big business like the NEA – which has monopoly control and over $295 million/year of cash from coerced dues money to buy political power through lobbying. But we all know history is full of examples where the rich and powerful fell – and fell hard. With all the failures of public schools and looming public sector financial implosions, the time is coming soon. The only question is how many children will be hurt along the way.
Only with such change will we then move toward a world of freedom where our children – especially the poor inner city kids – can break free from the enslavement of underperforming public school monopolies and get the education they so richly deserve.
For the good of our children, let’s take up this fight and not give up until the battle is won!