Commentary

Lose Schoolchildren, But Keep Taxpayers’ Money

By Stan Greer | September 23, 2020 | 4:05pm EDT
Featured is an empty classroom. (Photo credit: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)
Featured is an empty classroom. (Photo credit: James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Big Labor Gov. Gavin Newsom shuttered K-12 public schools across California on March 13, he promised schoolchildren, parents, and taxpayers that meaningful education would be offered for as long as school buildings were closed, through online classes.

But regardless of what Newsom intended, the sweeping monopoly privileges that California law accords to teacher union bosses rendered his promise altogether unkeepable.

Wielding their monopoly-bargaining power, union officials across California and other states soon extracted deals from school districts that practically guaranteed that students and their families would be shortchanged. For example, the bosses of the San Diego Education Association (SDEA/NEA) union secured a deal under which teachers could not be required “to work more than four hours a day, including instruction, prep time, and staff meetings.” 

Of course, even though the required work hours were drastically cut for unionized teachers in San Diego and other large school districts in California, pay and benefits continued as usual.

Before the 2020-2021 school year began, many parents in California evidently decided they had had enough.  As Zach Weismueller documented in an article for Reason magazine in August, families are “flocking to [charter schools] in part because they were poorly served by district schools in the spring.”

Charter schools, commonly called charters, are public institutions that today furnish their services to more than three million U.S. schoolchildren free of charge, but are subject to fewer regulations than traditional district public schools.  For years, Big Labor has fought to squash charters, or at least stymie their growth, because they are overwhelmingly union-free.  (Over 60 percent of American teachers work work under union contracts.)

A May 2020 scientific survey of parents commissioned by the publication Education Next indicates that, because the vast majority of charters are free to deploy their teachers in the most effective way possible, without Big Labor constraints, they have been far more successful at meeting schoolchildren’s remote-learning needs than have unionized district schools.

As Weismueller noted, the survey found that teachers working for “private or charter schools were more than twice as likely to meet with students daily” as teachers at “district-run schools.”   Private and charter teachers were also 20% "more likely to introduce new content.”

Widespread parental dissatisfaction is undoubtedly an important reason why, in 2020, enrollment in Los Angeles public schools “declined by about 11,000 students,” compared to 2019-20.  Meanwhile, a number of charter schools in and near LA have far higher enrollment this year than they did last year.  For example, Huntington Beach’s Sycamore Creek Community Academy’s current enrollment is roughly double what it was this winter.

In October 2019, Sacramento politicians who are beholden to teacher and other government union kingpins tried to stymie the growth of union-free charters by enacting a bill granting the district schools who compete with them for students and funding extensive power to “stop new charter schools from opening and existing ones from renewing their charters.”

This June, once again acting at teacher union bosses’ behest, state politicians adopted a budget that bases school funding for this academic year on enrollment as of February 2020, so that Big Labor-dominated schools that are losing students due to poor performance would be held harmless, while rapidly growing charter schools would see a substantial decline in the per pupil funding they received from the state.

The public backlash against this brazenly cynical maneuver was so great that lawmakers recently went back to the drawing table and agreed to allocate more money for some charter schools with growing enrollment, with the exception of exclusively online charter schools, which have antagonized Big Labor even more than other charters by providing many examples of how online education can be furnished successfully.

At a time when teacher union officials themselves are publicly fretting about California’s poor financial outlook and the possibility in the near future of 60,000 school layoffs statewide, it is outrageous that they have successfully lobbied to ensure that unionized school districts get to keep collecting tax revenues for children who are no longer attending. The COVID-19 crisis and its aftermath are now illustrating, perhaps more vividly than ever before, why government union bosses in states like California never should have been granted monopoly-bargaining privileges in the first place.

Stan Greer is senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.

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