The Public Employees Unions Are Primarily Responsible for Oregon’s Declining Schools

Right From the Start

Right From the Start

Last week, the Oregonian, with front-page headlines above the fold, announced “Schools doing worse on tests.”  If that was meant to be a revelation, they are about two decades late.  Oregon’s public schools have been on a long slide into sub-mediocrity for years.  Each year brings new evidence in the form of test scores demonstrating that Oregon’s public schools are losing ground when compared to other states and, more importantly, particularly when compared to other countries.  (I realize that Oregon’s dominant teachers unions scowl at being compared to other countries but this is a global economy and the “mushheads” they are failing to adequately educate are at a growing disadvantage in that global marketplace.)

The Oregonian story indicates that there has been a dramatic one-year drop in test scores for all grade levels in at least one subject.  The test results indicated a year-over-year decline of seven-percent.  That would be alarming until you realize that last year’s scores were artificially inflated due to cheating in the form of teachers assisting students during the tests.  The seven- percent decline represents better policing of cheating as well as the regular decline in testing scores.

The score results indicate that only sixty percent of high school students could pass the writing test.  But that is not the worst of it.  At sixty-eight percent, Oregon is fourth from the bottom on its high school graduation rate.  That means that only sixty percent of the sixty-eight percent of those finishing high school, or 40.8 percent of students entering high school, are receiving an adequate education.  Oregon’s public school education community is failing nearly sixty percent of all children entering high school.  (Were this a private enterprise, it would have been broke and closed years ago.)

So who is to blame for this travesty?  Well, according to the education community, everybody but them.  The Oregonian quotes Nancy Goldman, the interim education officer under Gov. John Kitzhaber as saying:

. . . years of flat or diminished school funding took a toll.  Districts clipped days off the school year, cut teaching positions and delayed buying new teaching materials.

“’When you take furlough days, significant amounts of them, and bigger class sizes, that can definitely have an impact on learning,’ she said.”

The Oregonian attributed a different excuse to Rob Saxton, described as Oregon schools chief:

“. . . the broad decline may primarily reflect that students took the tests fewer times, not that schools did a worse job.”

In other words, it is everybody’s fault but theirs.  And it has been for over two decades.  Not once in that period of time have governors, legislators, or educators engaged in a serious performance review of Oregon’s education system.  Instead they are content to annually cry out for “more money” and to cast the primary blame on a lack of “adequate school funding.”  Even the Oregonian, which was beginning to demonstrate some editorial courage regarding the accountability of Oregon dominant public employee unions (including the teachers unions) has succumbed one more time to the demand for more money.  In its Sunday editorial, the Oregonian stated:

If legislators needed any more reason to try harder to find a budget deal for a special session this month, the report card should do it.”

A “budget deal?”  This after the legislature increased school funding by nearly $1 Billion in the regular session.  Not a word said about examining the efficiency or performance of the existing schools and their teachers?  Not a single question as to how paying the existing teachers more will improve their performance.  And please don’t raise the canard that more money will allow the schools to hire better teachers – under union rules accepted by every school district you simply cannot terminate poorly performing teachers and replace them with better teachers. It’s a nice “spin” but it is simply not true.

There are two major problems in Oregon’s public school system and everybody knows them and no politician wants to confront them.  The first problem is that Oregon’s public employee unions, including the teachers unions, control the education system.  As a result virtually every attempted educational reform that requires accountability through teacher performance reviews, including replacement of those failing to meet standards, has been blocked by the unions.  The unions have been successful in barring any legitimate reforms in Oregon’s gold-plated Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) which annually drains most of the increased education funding to pay every higher assessments – sometimes approaching a thirty percent add-on to already inflated wages.  A union negotiated “Cadillac” healthcare plan further absorbs money that might otherwise be used to hire competent teachers and reduce class sizes.

And while Ms. Goldman and Mr. Saxton may whine about the impact of furlough days, the use of furloughs instead of employee reductions was done at the insistence of the unions.  There are less teaching days solely due to the choice of the teachers unions.  (Quite frankly elimination of “in-service” days and extended holidays – all for which the teachers are paid – would have easily closed the gap on the number of days in the classroom.)

The second problem is that the public schools spend an inordinate amount of time as a social welfare agency.  Time that should be devoted to teaching – math, reading, writing and science – are instead spent on hygiene, self-esteem, sex education, fairness, and nutrition.  The education community has absorbed these responsibilities on the assumption that parents have abandoned them.  But as the teachers assert themselves in these areas, parents feel less responsibility for doing the hard work of raising children and willingly let someone else do it – particularly someone else that they can blame when things go to hell.  I don’t know what the solution to poor parenting is, but I do know that assuming that the schools should pick up the slack is counterproductive and that to the degree government should intercede in that responsibility it should be left to the myriad of government welfare agencies.  Teachers are educated to teach not be substitute parents.  Let them teach and student performance will undoubtedly improve.

Which brings us back to the vaunted “Grand Bargain” that Gov. Kitzhaber seeks to impose in a special session.  The bargain is supposed to be an exchange for substantial reforms in the PERS system to reduce its costs in return for tax increases.  But past reforms of PERS have been voided by Oregon’s Supreme Court – all beneficiaries of PERS themselves and most often appointed to their position by an unbroken succession of Democrat governors who, themselves, have been beholden to the public employee unions.  (The current mini-reforms adopted by the last regular legislative session are already being challenged by the public employee unions.)  The likelihood of the “Grand Bargain” is that reforms will be voided and the tax increases will stand unless the tax increases are conditioned on the PERS reforms being sustained on any legal challenge.

But this is Oregon and the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government – as well as most school districts – are under the firm control of Democrats who are beholden to their fund raising arm – the public employee unions.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for an improvement in Oregon’s public education system.