Why Are Public Safety Unions Supporting Teachers Unions?

Edward Ring
Edward Ring is the vice president of research policy for the California Policy Center.

During the Los Angeles teachers strike earlier this year, an article in the ultra-left publication The Nation offered an excellent glimpse into the mentality of strikers and their supporters. The article begins by describing a scene in front of an LAUSD middle school on day three of the strike. A truck driver has arrived to make a delivery to the school, and the picket line won’t budge. Police have been called.

What happens next? According to The Nation, “The line holds. The police don’t make good on their threats to cite or arrest teachers, and the truck and police cars drive off. One of the officers even gets on his radio before he leaves and says, ‘Don’t let them come between us. We support you!’”

It would take an expert to determine whether this conduct falls within the boundaries of normal police discretion or constitutes a minor act of civil disobedience in solidarity with the strikers, but it doesn’t take an expert to determine whose side this officer was on. “We support you.”

Police, along with the firefighters who on January 19th actually marched by the hundreds through downtown Los Angeles to support the teachers strike, can be applauded for wanting to support teachers and students. They can be applauded for doing what they think is right, especially if they think they are helping the next generation of Americans get a quality public education. But what if everything the teachers union is trying to do is wrong?

For starters, funding for traditional public schools is not undermined by the presence of charter schools. Public schools receive public revenues based on enrollment, and public school classrooms, according to one of the union’s own stated grievances, are bursting. There are more students than the system can handle, so charters siphoning off some of these students cannot possibly be the reason for inadequate operating revenue. What about funds for capital improvements?

In November 2018 California’s voters approved over $15 billion in local school improvement bonds. In November 2016, voters approved over $24 billion in local school improvement bonds; June 2016, $6.2 billion; November 2014, $11 billion. There should be no shortage of funds to upgrade public schools, because the success rate for local school improvement bonds in California is over 90 percent, and tens of billions have been allocated over just the past few years. We should be asking where, if we’ve allocated nearly $60 billion over just the past five years to maintain and upgrade schools in an era of stable enrollment, did all that money go?

With respect to operating revenue, the biggest reason for deficits is the crushing burden of funding retirement benefits. The reason the teachers union opposes charters is because it leaves a smaller pool of LAUSD traditional school students, i.e., less revenue, to pay down their unfunded liability for retirement benefits – nearly $7.0 billion for pensions, and nearly $15 billion for pensions.

At the very least, the teachers union should tell the truth: We want more students so we will have more revenue because we demanded and received retirement benefits that were excessively generous and financially unsustainable. Better yet, they could “negotiate” lower benefit formulas and higher personal contributions through payroll withholding.

Instead, the teachers union wants to kill charter schools, and the police and firefighter unions are helping them. But all these unions ought to recognize that their retirement benefits are not more important than providing quality education. And at least police and fire unions have not destroyed the effectiveness of their organizations. Can the teachers union make that claim?

No. They can’t. The teachers unions in California are the worst thing that’s ever happened to public education. Set aside for a moment their leftist agenda that they use every opportunity to bring into the classroom, or their economic demands that reflect innumeracy and greed in equal measure. Just refer to the 2014 Vergara vs. California case for a defining example of just how much damage these unions are doing to California’s public schools.

The plaintiffs in this case sued to modify three work rules, (1) a longer period before granting tenure, (2) changing layoff criteria from seniority to merit, and (3) streamlined dismissal policies for incompetent teachers. These plaintiffs argued the existing work rules had a disproportionately negative impact on minority communities, and proved it – view the closing arguments by the plaintiff’s attorney in this case to see for yourself. But a California State Appellate Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, and the California Supreme Court refused to take the case. To put it mildly, California’s public schools continue to suffer.

Instead of embracing reforms such as proposed in the Vergara case, the teachers union is trying to unionize charter schools. And instead of agreeing to retirement benefits reform, the LAUSD teachers union went on strike. Post strike, the financial challenges facing LAUSD are worse than ever.

To cope? More money, of course. The LAUSD school board has called for a new parcel tax in Los Angeles, Measure EE, to address their budget deficits. As reported by Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the board is calling for a special election with “the intention to keep voter turnout very low.” Needless to say, in low turnout elections, the union’s ballot harvesting machine virtually assures that this new tax will pass.

Blaming charter schools for financial challenges facing traditional public schools is a huge deception, and it’s working. According to polling conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California, while California’s voters support, by a narrow margin, charter schools, a majority of them have “concerns about the fiscal impacts [of charters] on traditional public schools.” Spreading this deception allows the teachers union to deflect growing evidence that charters – at least the non-unionized ones – are doing a better job at educating at-risk youth. Thankfully, not everyone is listening to these unions.

Three branches of the NAACP in California have now filed resolutions with their state board opposing a moratorium on charter schools. They have correctly observed that the academic performance of African American students is significantly better in charter schools. Hopefully the momentum of this grassroots support for charters from members of the African American community will be an eye opener. As it is, union controlled school districts from Los Angeles to Oakland are declaring a moratorium on new charter schools, and some are pushing for a statewide ban.

Anyone wanting more insight into the mentality and strategy of the teachers union in California should carefully read the pro-union article in The Nation. Consider this quote from the UTLA president: “the union can’t just have a small bargaining team that meets with the district when a contract is up. It has to be in constant contact with membership, through an ongoing process of identifying and developing leaders. Teachers are elected as leaders at the school or chapter level; then those chapters are grouped into clusters that have their own leaders, all of them in regular contact with the union leadership.”

Get it? Union commissars in every school. Not one per school. Many. If you want to know what sort of coercive group-think culture this breeds, read “Standing Up to Goliath,” by veteran public school teacher Rebecca Friedrichs.

How about this, from a LAUSD history teacher: “She sees the union’s focus on racial justice not merely as a feel-good sound bite but as a reflection of the reality faced by so many of their students: undocumented students, students who are harassed by police in their neighborhoods only to run into school police (LAUSD has its own police force) in the schools, and students being gentrified out of their homes. She organizes with Students Deserve, a grassroots group that has been inspired by Black Lives Matter’s divest/invest framework and is part of what she says is a different way of thinking about a labor-community alliance.”

“Focus on ‘racial justice’.” “Harassed by police.” “Inspired by Black Lives Matter.” What sort of history might one expect these impressionable young students to be studying in her classroom? Do you support this sort of biased education?

Police, and their unions, ought to ask themselves: Who is more likely to help them improve their relationship with disadvantaged communities? Is it history teachers who are inspired by Black Lives Matter, the teachers union, the far-left wing of the NAACP, or journalists at media outlets like The Nation?

Or is it the rebellious branches of the NAACP who have looked at the data, and support charter schools? At the least, police and firefighter unions might stay neutral on these conflicts. The LAPPL might use their resources to fight for things affecting their ability to do their jobs. Litigate and overturn Jones vs. the City of Los Angeles, or launch a ballot initiative to reverse Prop. 47.

The teachers unions are not your friends.

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