by Larry Sand
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that could reverse the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, in which SCOTUS asserted that the use of an applicant’s race as a factor in an admissions policy of a public educational institution does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The current case specifically cites the use of race in the admissions process at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The plaintiffs, Students for Fair Admissions, maintain that Harvard violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, “which bars entities that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, because Asian American applicants are less likely to be admitted than similarly qualified white, Black, or Hispanic applicants.”
One of the glaring outrages of the case is that the two national teachers unions – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – filed amicus briefs in which they pound the racial bean counting drum. The unions insist that “diversity” must remain a factor in choosing who gets to be admitted into a given college.
The NEA brief claims that “elementary and secondary schools remain heavily segregated. In the 2019–2020 school year, the average White student attended a majority White school. By contrast, students of color are far more likely to attend schools where the majority of students are also students of color.”
The irony of the teachers unions’ deploring racism in education is glaring, because it is the very same unions that essentially imprison children – notably poor children of color – in substandard public schools. Specifically, the union-mandated collective bargaining agreements (CBAs), in place throughout most of the country, bring to light why government-run schools fail so many kids.
Collective bargaining, a term first introduced into the lexicon by socialist Beatrice Webb in 1891, is a process of negotiations between employers and employees aimed at reaching agreements that set wage scales, work rules, etc.
In reality, CBAs dictate that teachers unions don’t treat teachers as professionals, but rather as interchangeable widgets, all of whom are of equal value and competence. To differentiate between effective and ineffective educators as a result of what their students actually learn would necessitate doing away with their industrial-style work rules. Those include one-size-fits-all salary scales, tenure (contractually known as “permanence”) and seniority or “last in, first out (LIFO), whereby if a teacher must be laid off due to budgetary belt-tightening, it is not the least talented teacher who is on the chopping block, but rather the newest hire.Regarding salaries, teacher quality doesn’t matter a whit to teacher union honchos, only the number of years he or she has on the job. The other way teachers can increase their salary is by taking “professional development classes” which typically have no impact on student learning.
Permanence clauses make it just about impossible to fire an incompetent teacher. In California, it was revealed during a court case in 2012 that on average just 2.2 of California’s 300,000 teachers (0.0008%) are dismissed yearly for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance.
The arbitrariness of seniority based decisions is epitomized by Bhavini Bhakta, a teacher-of-the-year who lost teaching positions in four southern California schools over eight years because she lacked seniority. One of her ongoing encounters with LIFO involved a situation where either she or another teacher-of-the-year – who was hired on the same day – was to be laid off. The district had the teachers pull numbered popsicle sticks out of a hat to see which one kept her job. Ms. Bhakta got a lower number and thus lost her position, yet again. Also, The New Teacher Project found that only 13% to 16% of the teachers laid off in a seniority-based system would also be cut under a system based on teacher effectiveness.
Many studies have borne out the harm of CBAs to America’s children. In 2013, an analysis by the University of Chicago showed that strong unions have a greater impact on student proficiency rates in math and reading than weak unions. The researchers found that a $233 rise in union dues per teacher causes student math and reading scores to drop almost 4 percentage points. Also, a $14 increase in union spending per student results in a 3 percentage point decrease in math and reading scores. The reason for the correlation between spending and test scores is that powerful teachers unions are able to get laws passed that protect their interests, and make it more difficult to implement child-friendly reforms that boost student achievement.
Released in 2019, “The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” a study by researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, found that, among men, exposure to a collective bargaining law in the first 10 years after passage depresses students’ future annual earnings by $2,134 (3.93%). The negative effect of CBAs is particularly pronounced among Black and Hispanic males. In these two subgroups, annual earnings decline by $3,246 (9.43 percent), and at the same time, employment and labor force participation are reduced.
Another way the unions have done great damage to children, especially minorities, was their insistence on shutting down schools during the Covid pandemic. Using testing data from 2.1 million students in 10,000 schools in 49 states and D.C., researchers found that “shifts to remote or hybrid instruction during 2020-21 had profound consequences on student achievement. In districts that went remote, achievement growth was lower for all subgroups, but especially for students attending high-poverty schools. In areas that remained in-person, “there were still modest losses in achievement, but there was no widening of gaps between high and low-poverty schools in math (and less widening in reading).”
Additionally, a study by Amplify, a curriculum and assessment provider, examined test data for some 400,000 elementary school students across 37 states. It found that the shutdowns led to a spike in students unable to read at grade level, with literacy losses “disproportionately concentrated in the early elementary grades. The study revealed that during the 2021-2022 school year, 47% of black and 39% of Hispanic second graders fell behind on literacy and needed “intensive intervention,” compared to 26% of their white peers.
Of course, if any students try to break out of their public school prisons, the teachers unions are standing at the schoolhouse door fighting tooth-and nail against any kind of parental choice.
Clearly, the NEA, an organization that frequently rails about “systemic racism,” is guilty of that sin. Yiddish maven Leo Rosten wrote that the word “chutzpah” can best be exemplified by a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan. The union’s chutzpah on beating the systemic racism drum, while acting in a way that ruins the lives of many minority kids, is another suitable example.
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Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.
Photo “Teachers Union Members Protest” by Fibonacci Blue. CC BY 2.0.