What I learned from an Arizona Teacher

On Tuesday of this past week my wife and I were playing golf. One of our group had to cancel at the last minute and, as is the custom, a single player joined us. As we played the conversation went back and forth and we explored each other’s background. Our last minute substitute was named, well let’s just call him “Bill”, and while he was nearly a scratch golfer, he dutifully and cheerfully bore up with me as one of the all time, world-class hackers. The weather was spectacular, the course in pristine shape, and the company delightful.

But a funny thing happened during our four plus hours on the course and the lunch afterward. While I learned a little about fixing my swing, I re-learned the mistake of typecasting individuals.

“Bill” is a high school teacher from Phoenix, Arizona. He recently retired after 35 years of teaching life and health sciences. He was a wrestling coach, and still is, a swimming coach. He’s apparently pretty good at this because he has won both state and national recognition awards for his work. He has raised this own three children, all of whom are in their early thirties, and he and his wife have adopted a son, age 7, about four years ago. (Their adopted son was rescued from a broken home where both parents were unrepentant drug abusers and who neglected the child in favor of their own pursuit of crystal meth.)

It wasn’t until lunch that we got onto politics and Oregon PERS program. Let’s start with the fact that “Bill” is a public employee, and a public employee union member, both of which made my wife nervous as I rose to the political discussion.

“Bill” had heard about Oregon’s PERS program and that Oregon schools were having difficulty hiring teachers because they had to fund a pension plan that was almost broke. I described the PERS Tier One program to him and how it allowed recent public employee retirees, including teachers, to retire at age 55 with pension payments in excess of their last salaries. He was appalled that funding such a system was preventing school districts from hiring additional teachers.

“Bill” described Arizona’s teacher retirement system. It is a defined benefit program that pays a retiree 2% of his/her last salary for each year worked. When he began work, he intended to work twenty years and obtain a pension of 40% of his last salary and move on. Somewhere along the line, Arizona realized that it was losing qualified teachers to early retirement. “Bill” told us that they offered a new plan that, if one worked for thirty-five years, would pay a pension equal to 2.3% of the last salary. “Bill” elected to work the thirty-five years and now has a pension equal to 80% of his last salary. Cost of living increases are not automatic and, in fact, one was not adopted for the current year. He thought all of that was a good bargain and a bountiful pension program. He couldn’t understand how Oregon could permit or fund an abusive program like the Tier One PERS system.

“Bill” then went on to describe his continuing dismay with many of his fellow teachers in Arizona. He noted that he always believed that if you wanted to provide fully for your family as a teacher that you had to teach full time during the school year and then work during the summer – you know like everyone else does. For years, in addition to his teaching and coaching responsibilities he worked for an Arizona kid’s charity during the summers. He expressed his exasperation at listening to many of his fellow teachers complain about their salaries while they took the summers off.

He was also critical of the teachers union continuing opposition to teacher merit pay. He said that Arizona has a proven performance measurement device called AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards). He believes good teachers should be paid more than mediocre teachers and he’ll let his AIMS scores talk for him.

“Bill” carried most of the conversation – an unusual event when I’m participating. However, there wasn’t much with which I could disagree and so I just listened, asked questions and learned that not every teacher, not every public employee, not every union members buys the rhetoric of their union bosses.

So I have resolved to be more careful in the future so as to not paint all teachers and all public employees with the brush of the union leadership. The abuses of the public employee unions are the abuses of their union leaders whose job security is dependent on representing the least productive rather than the most.

We’ll keep in touch with “Bill” and his wife and play a little golf with him and his son when we are next in Arizona.