January 14, 2008

When Evidence of Need Doesn't Matter

Justin Katz

"We teach our children every day not to accept the easy answers but to get all the information they need before they make a decision," writes NEA-Tiverton President (and teacher) Amy Mullen in a letter to the Sakonnet Times (which is not online). What follows that opener is, not surprisingly, another iteration of the union's talking points.

Mullen does, however, inadvertently point toward an interesting comparison that the school system's union mindset tends to obscure:

I received a tongue-in-cheek 13 tactics of the Tiverton School Committee which focused around the committee refusing to listen or do the job they were elected to do. Teachers see the realities of this every day. Just look at the lack of substitutes. We don't pay them enough so they go elsewhere. So now some classes go unsupervised, some are sent to study hall, some are covered by the principal, others are covered by teachers during their instructional planning time. What do we have to do to attract good subs? Well soon we will be saying that about our teachers.

One could note, of course, that classroom teachers are the largest line item within any given town's largest expense category (education), that substitutes' role is to relieve some of the pressure on teachers to be in the classroom come hell or high water, and therefore that money for substitutes would logically come from their oversized wedge of the pie. A way in which some districts have sought to attract subs is to free them from the discomforts of awaiting the 6:00 a.m. wake-up call, before which they've no idea whether they're working, by hiring them as full-time employees, often on a track to become full teachers themselves. Given budget constraints in Tiverton, of course, that option would probably require the loss of a position or two in some other area.

What's most interesting about Ms. Mullen's look down her dark slope, though, is the marker by which we realize that we've got a problem when it comes to substitutes and financing of them: we don't have enough of them to fill the demand. Mullen would like her readers to apply the sub-shortage principle to teachers, but there is no shortage of them. Rhode Island's public schools are not struggling to find professionals to take charge of their classrooms. And that indicates that there is room to lower their employment packages — salaries, benefits, perks.

I do see a parallel between subs and teachers, although not one that Mullen would like for many people to consider: The pool of substitutes has generally been treated as a collection of volunteers and next-step-up interns, when really what districts ought to do is to treat them as professionals (perhaps with some number of the old style on reserve). The pay wouldn't have to be much better, I don't think; it's the opportunity and the career track that matter.

Treating teachers as actual, individualized professionals, which would require the end of collective bargaining, might just lower their cost to tax payers and, counterintuitive as it may be, increase their quality.

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Good points Justin. Unfortunately the teachers, collectively speaking of course, care much more about their paychecks than they do about education. The teachers have forced our children to get in line well behind the interests of the teacher's union. If education was the paramount concern of public school teachers they would have told the union to take a hike a long time ago.

Posted by: Frank at January 14, 2008 9:18 AM

There wouldn't be such a shortage of substitutes were there not so much demand.

Look at the Tiverton teachers contract: 15 sick days a year, personal days, maternity leave of up to one year, sabbatical leaves. All this for a only a nine-month work year!

A couple of public school teachers from Hartford have their vacation home down the street from me (when you know you're going to get a fat taxpayer funded pension you can buy vacation homes because you can spend every penny you make rather than having to put money aside for retirement).

They routinely take sick days off in order to come up and work on the house, get it ready for the summer, etc. No doubt Hartford has a shortage of substitute teachers as well!

Posted by: Tom W at January 14, 2008 10:31 AM

You talk about the “school system’s union mindset” and imply a pejorative in so doing, something like mindset = closed = insensitive. At the same time you amply demonstrate an anti-union mindset which is closed and insensitive. This is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. The phrase, “mindset” sets the argument spinning up the wrong alley. It’s the intellectual equivalent of sticking your tongue out to make an argument.

Specifically you tell us that “classroom teachers are the largest line item “within the school budget”. May I point out that CEO salaries are the largest per capita line item in the overwhelming majority of payroll budgets and that the economy is in worse shape than the school budget. Yet you say nothing about the outlandish and growing disparity between the rich and the poor and the middle class. Recession is here, and soon even numb brained bloggers like you will have to acknowledge that Greenspan and his ilk are a much, much larger problem than teachers’ pay. You find a speck in your neighbor’s eye and ignore the beam in your own.

You are a dishonest fraud.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at January 14, 2008 12:46 PM

OldTimeLefty, the difference is, we can choose from which companies we purchase our goods, in which company we invest.

Parents who are not rich have no choice but to send their children to Rhode Island's poor performing schools. And we taxpayers have no choice but to pay taxes to support the generous salaries and compensation that in no way correspond to the performance of schools and children. And now Rhode Island is the seventh (or fourth) highest taxed state in part because of that situation. Frankly, that's far more detrimental than anything the Chair of the Federal Reserve Board has done.

Nevertheless, by all means, describe your complaint about Alan Greenspan (who is no longer Chair of the Federal Reserve Board) and, presumably, the current holder of that position. Do you feel that interest should be abolished?

Posted by: Monique at January 14, 2008 3:46 PM

Justin, you are not considering the invisible hand of the free market in your argument. Subs in the state now use an online jobsite service called Aesop to find available sub jobs. A qualified sub could logon and choose between a position teaching 20 little Tiverton kids for 60 bucks or a position in another community for 80 bucks. After calculating drive time and other factors - I think I know what I would choose. That is competition and the free market way.

Posted by: David at January 14, 2008 7:22 PM

The economy is in the toilet; poor people are being run out of their homes; forty eight million U.S. citizens lack health insurance and you’re happy because some of us can pick up our diamonds at Cartier’s and others at Tiffany. People who don’t have enough money to buy a decent meal should take solace in the knowledge that they can invest in either Microsoft or Apple??

As to my mentioning Greenspan, I did so to point out that he ran the Fed and we now have a big mess on our hands, and he’s asking us to look the other way while he slouches into wealthy anonymity. He’s just one drip in the bucket. I noticed that you had nothing to say regarding bloated CEO salaries and compensations and income disparity.

If you are really concerned about government spending you should be looking into our bloated defense budget and the billions being spent in Iraq. What I said to Justin Katz, I say to you, “You point out the spec in your neighbor’s eye and ignore the beam in your own.

Posted by: OldTimeLefty at January 14, 2008 11:12 PM

OldTimeLefty, my focus is on government. However, to make you happy, my view of a private sector matter - CEO compensation - is that it damn well ought to be earned under the rules by which it is disbursed: capitalism. In an increasing number of cases, it appears that it is not and that is not acceptable.

Returning to government, two wrongs don't make a right. [I am setting aside the action in Iraq as thousands of our men and women are serving there as we speak.] Just because there is pork barrel spending on the federal level (which there is) doesn't make it acceptable that our cumulative state and local taxes are the seventh highest in the country while we have abysmal public services - including specifically a poorly performing education system - to show for it. That's like being robbed by not one but two muggers and someone on the sideline saying, "oh, at least there's balance".

By the way, you in turn did not respond to the point that with the "evil" corporations, we usually have a choice whether to patronize or invest with them while there is often no such choice with public schools. The parents of students being badly served by our expensive state education system decidedly do not consider that a mote. Nor do most of us.

Posted by: Monique at January 16, 2008 9:02 PM
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