Two identical teachers reveal flaws in system

Since the public employee unions declared war on gubernatorial candidate Ron Saxton and joined en masse the campaign of Gov. Ted Kulongoski, there has been considerable debate about the role of public employee unions in government. The question boils down to whether government should be run for the benefit of the public employees or the benefit of public.

You will be asked to engage in that debate when you go to the polls in November to select Oregon’s next governor. Ted Kulongoski has bluntly said he knows who he represents — the public employees unions. He has declared this election to be “us against them” — in this instance the “us” is Kulongoski and the public employee unions and the “them” is the public who foots the bill for their excesses.

In order to enter that debate, one should understand what the public employee unions do for government operations. Following then is a tale of two teachers, although the teachers are fictional, the impact of the unions on them and their work is accurate.

John and Mary are teachers in the Portland Public School system. They both graduated college in 1975, he from Walnetto University and she from the University of Oregon. They both became teachers in Portland in the fall of 1975 and have continued in that system to the current date. Significantly, both John and Mary teach sophomore English in the same school building.

Mary works hard at her job, showing up at 7:30 AM and regularly staying late for special instructions for her students, conferences with their parents, preparing lesson plans and grading papers. It is not unusual for Mary to be found in her classroom at 7:00 PM. John shows up at 8:30, in time for his first class, and generally leaves at the same time as the students — between 3:30 and 4:00 PM. John is an accomplished tennis player and runner and is usually on the courts or the track by 5:00 PM.

Mary’s students regularly finish in the 85th percentile in the national testing programs for English. John’s students regularly finish in the 45th percentile. Mary heaps on the homework and increases her workload by then having to grade and correct it. John doesn’t believe in heavy homework assignments and thus finds more time for his own pursuits. Most of John’s students like him because he a “regular guy.” Most of Mary’s students never appreciate her until their first year of college English.

Both Mary and John annually pursue teaching credits toward an advanced degree. Mary has secured her master’s degree in education from prestigious Stanford University while John obtained his from Walnetto State — a well-known diploma mill.

Each summer, Mary works in an innercity program to help teach learning skills to entering highschool freshmen. She is paid for this work. John takes the summer off preferring to participate in tennis matches throughout the Northwest where he maintains a high ranking amongst amateurs. He has corporate sponsors who foot the bill for his travel and entry fees.

John and Mary both belong to the teachers union. Mary initially resisted but was told that she had to belong in order to remain employed. John didn’t care one way or the other.

Now here’s the rub. Mary and John are paid exactly the same salary and receive exactly the same benefits. There is no opportunity for Mary to distinguish herself from John in order to receive payments commensurate with her work or her accomplishments. Because that is the way public employee unions work.

Each union member is paid solely on the basis of their longevity of employment (time) and their acquisition of additional educational credits (steps). While there may be some assumption that these two criteria could relate to better teachers, it is not necessarily so. More important, when there are readily available alternative measures (such as standardized testing) those two criteria are almost irrelevant.

But in the world of public employee unions, the standard forced by the unions in their collective bargaining agreements is to make the least productive member the standard — which avoids any chance of termination for cause. In doing so they punish both those who achieve and those to whom the service is delivered. In this instance, Mary is not able to obtain greater pay for superior performance. And in this instance, John’s students pay the price for his poor to mediocre performance.

But it doesn’t end there. John is apolitical and neither knows nor cares how his union dues are spent. Mary is a Republican and watches, without significant recourse, as her contributions are spent on almost exclusively Democrat politicians and Democrat policies. She has noticed that the few Republicans that are endorsed by the public employee unions seldom receive contributions and those that are endorsed are usually incumbents with no serious competition in the general election. She has tried to “except” those contributions from her union dues but the hassle and recriminations are not worth the small amount that the unions “declare” political.

As a parent you should be concerned about the impact of such practices on your children’s education. As a taxpayer, you should be concerned about the impact such practices have on your checkbook.