September 5, 2007

A Case of Crossed Hands

Justin Katz

Something about the following quotation — offered in "State blamed for teacher strikes — from Bob Walsh gives me the impression that there's a long-term plan behind the words:

"We predicted this would happen," said Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island, which represents 28 teacher locals. "We believe this is bad government decision-making and we believe they have a responsibility to fix it. They are killing public education."

The context reporter Jennifer Jordan has given for the comment is "the decision by lawmakers in June to 'level fund' state education aid at last year's amounts and the impact of a new state law that limits how much municipalities can raise property taxes to pay for schools," and one can see why the top guy in the local teachers' union would want the responsible "they" to be the state government. For one thing, it would consolidate the contribution checks required to influence policies. Relatedly, and perhaps more importantly, it would pull the ultimate authority for schools one step further from citizens who share the interests of townsmen. And of course, the state has more places to hide its financial doings and more ways to disguise its fund-raising than do municipalities.

The article goes on to illustrate that it is a deeply embedded practice in Rhode Island to disperse responsibility to no group in particular:

The state law governing teacher contract negotiations does not give teachers the right to strike. In fact, teacher strikes have been ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court. But one or two teacher strikes a year are not uncommon, and usually end when a judge orders teachers back to the classroom while mediation or arbitration resumes.

Within Rhode Island's General Laws, the strongest language regarding teacher strikes is that "nothing contained in this chapter shall be construed to accord to certified public school teachers the right to strike." I've come across a few bills, especially from early this decade, attempting to strengthen this ambivalent negation, but none made it through to the statute. The rest of the relevant law (although I haven't been able to find it via casual research) comes from the judiciary. And we all can observe the process that the judges have devised: Teachers get to threaten strikes and to follow through; elected town officials get to complain and take legal action; and judges get a role in the administrative/executive function of negotiating contracts, often (as I understand) requiring that a mediator be employed to wrap the two sides together in legally binding terms.

At no point is there an official against whom the public can take direct action at the ballot box.

Subsequent comments from Senate Majority Leader Teresa Paiva-Weed, in Jordan's article, give somewhat more than the impression that another doozy of this sort of well-greased circular chute for blame is in the process of being constructed:

MEANWHILE, A STATE law known as Senate Bill 3050 also went into effect this year; the law gradually lowers the cap on the amount cities and towns can raise through property taxes to finance municipal services and schools. The intent of the bill was to control escalating property taxes and force communities to analyze and rein in spending, not encourage teachers to strike, said state Senate Majority Leader, M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, a Newport Democrat who designed the bill.

But the property-tax cap was never intended to solve the problem of school financing — that must come from the development of a statewide school financing formula, which Paiva-Weed says she will push lawmakers to focus on this year.

"I think there needs to exist a willingness of our cities and towns to give up some of their control, and a willingness of the state to accept responsibility," she said. "It is my hope we can overcome the natural tendency cities and towns have to keep education local and we can work together to achieve savings."

There's something almost defensive in her feeling it necessary to explain that the property-tax cap wasn't intended to "encourage teachers to strike." The image of a raincoated Peter Falk comes to mind, protesting that he insinuated no such thing.

I may be a simple dabbler in literature, but see, I get nervous when people start talking about overcoming natural tendencies. Maybe I'm paranoid. My wife tells me that I think folks are always out to sell me things. Ah, well, she's probably right. But that's me, and it sure does sound like there's some sort of transaction being proposed here. Control for responsibility. Oh yeah, responsibility and money. Now why would anybody want to buy responsibility?

Savings through consolidation certainly do sound attractive. But one thing I keep coming back to: the town's money and the state's money both come from me, only I see the people who spend the town's money walking their dogs and standing in line at the bank.

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Is consolidation really consistent with conservatism?

I understand that it might result in some savings of administrative costs, etc., but aren't most conservatives interested in maintaining local control to the extent possible?

Would you rather have your local schools run by your own town, or by some bureaucrat in Providence?

And wouldn't we end up with kids getting transported very long distances if we had just one school district?

I think it's a tough sell, and I'm not sure that it's a very good product.

Posted by: brassband at September 5, 2007 10:08 PM

Perhaps my Columbo impersonation threw you off; even so, I'm not sure how it is you came to attribute to me the opinion that I'm arguing against.

Consolidation is certainly not consistent with the correctly libertarian streak in the modern conservative movement, and I get worried every time I hear of the wonders that economies of scale can bring. On principle alone, education ought to remain a local affair (although a voucher system that allowed parents to opt into other districts' schools appears advisable).

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2007 10:14 PM

Local control? What does the school committee control? Really!

One state administration can still provide local control through properly trained and empowered school principals. Kids will still attend the local schools, so there won't be long bus trips to worry about.

It's time to think in terms of central administrative operation, regional educational structures using the existing collaborative districts and a state assessment to the local communities based on a fair formula so that each city or town can project their education assessment each January 1st based on their enrollment data for resident attendees.

Legislate a single health care package, and two contracts, one NEA and one AFT so that each school keeps its union representation.

Not perfect, but it should help redirect money to education and out of administrative payrolls while giving the good Senator Weed the control she seeks. Just check the OMA Salary survey for 2007. The total pay for Superintendents is $4,263,869! Looks like a potential savings to me.

Can it be any worse than what we have now? I don't think so.

Posted by: John at September 5, 2007 10:26 PM

A little follow-up. I wrote a more detailed plan to the Governor, GA leaders, some reps, and others back in June. To date...not one response beyond my district rep, not one phone call, not one request for a conversation to explore the idea, nothing!

It's no wonder the "little people" of Rhode Island don't feel like anything more than spectators.

Posted by: John at September 5, 2007 10:40 PM

Be verrry leery of any consolidation.

For example, one state rep has floated the idea of a statewide teachers contract negotiated by the RI Department of Education.

Think about it - lifetime education bureaucrats, likely unionized themselves, who are UNELECTED and totally UNACCOUNTABLE to the citizens of the state will "negotiate" with NEA / AFT - all the while knowing that whatever the "negotiate" with the teachers unions will have a gravitational pull on their own compensation.

As bad as it is now with school committees, it will like nirvana compared to what RIDOE would be inclined to foist on us.

Those kind of "savings" from consolidation will be analogous to the "savings" that we've enjoyed on our property taxes, for over thirty years now, thanks to the Lottery.

Posted by: Tom W at September 5, 2007 10:54 PM

"Can it be any worse than what we have now?"

Yes. Much worse. Imagine Steve Alves, Charlene Lima and Joey Montalbano negotiating the contract and sending the bill back to property owners. Imagine their reaction to any local objection, however reasonable and well-founded.

Consolidation in this case doesn't mean "consolidate and save"; it means consolidating power for the public labor unions. Sending this power to the next level of far more removed, far less accountable govt is a bad idea.

The only thing I might entertain right now is a state wide health insurance policy, as long as it matches the private sector in cost and benefit - i.e., 20% share of premium, etc.

... oh, and is contracted with United, not the thug managed, thug imposed Blue Cross.

Posted by: SusanD at September 5, 2007 10:57 PM

Could it be worse, John? Absolutely. How could you live in Rhode Island, be talking about giving the state government more power and control, and not be able to imagine their managing to worsen a bad situation?

Consolidate the school districts and then just sit back and watch the shady deals that emerge from that massive healthcare plan. Just watch as union contracts blend right into unmanageable budgets without the stark local interest in municipal budgets. Just watch as the state plays social engineer by shifting resources to powerful towns (even more than they already do). Watch as the hiring process for teachers and administrators becomes even more political. Just watch as taxpayers and parents discover there to be even less accountability.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2007 10:59 PM

So a rational person should conclude that only idiots choose to live where corruption is the standard, change is impossible, and hope is dead!

Shouldn't we all move if it is as bad and hopeless as you all seem to believe?

Posted by: John at September 5, 2007 11:04 PM

Why stop there, Susan?

With a healthcare contract of the size that the entire Rhode Island school system would need, we could surely maximize our savings by requiring that at least a half-dozen insurance companies submit proposals, and we'd get a half-dozen bids each less expensive than the previous.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2007 11:06 PM

Four rhetorical questions:

  • Why is the political aspect of life the sole rational basis for living in an area?
  • Why must choice of region be a rational one?
  • Who is without hope?
  • Can't a guy enjoy fighting through the calamity?
Posted by: Justin Katz at September 5, 2007 11:12 PM

Consolidation won't solve the core problem and will only exacerbate it:

The teachers' union has immense political power and it dedicates that power to getting more money for its members, at the expense of educational missions and without any concern for the standard of living of taxpayers.

Consolidation only makes it easier for the NEA to maintain that political power. And, once gained, taking back that increased political power will become next to impossible.

Why would anybody advocate a course of action which gives the NEA more power?

I would strongly suggest that the real first priority for the state legislature should be to give the local communities the power to implement tangible remedies - meaningful fines and jail-time - to unions and teachers when they strike.

If there were real consequences to bad behavior like strikes, then we would see fewer strikes. And, I predict, towns could find the NEA more amenable to living with contracts that keep spending under the tax cap. Then there would be no need for fancy state spending formulae.

After all, the tax cap only says that government taxes should rise at a rate not to exceed the rate of increase in taxpayer incomes.

Of course, if one steps back from all of our comments - including mine - it becomes clear that all of these suggestions are about rearranging the chairs on an educational Titanic. What we need instead is a fundamental paradigm shift.

As Friedman says, none of these possible changes address the fundamental issue - we are still funding the educational producer (the schools) instead of funding the consumer(the student). Funding the producer ensures no competition and monopolies, especially government monopolies, are notorious for their miserable performance.

The real long-term answer is to ditch the flawed Titanic altogether by implementing real school choice, by funding the students.

More to come in the next few days on the paradigm shift idea.

Posted by: Donald B. Hawthorne at September 5, 2007 11:16 PM

A note on the Rhode Island Supreme Court's thoughts, in 1973:

Posted by: Jon at September 5, 2007 11:18 PM


The political aspect of life is not the sole basis for living in, or leaving, an area. But when it irrationally affects your standard of living and offers scant hope of being corrected, it might make sense to seek a combination of factors that may offer a better opportunity.

Choice of region need not be a rational one, nor should it be an irrational one.

Offering no solutions that by your own rhetoric appear to have any possibility of being implemented, I don't detect the hope in your writing. I detect frustration, outrage, cynicism, and desperation for change. I guess when you put all that into a blender, you may come up with hope, but I'll bet it has a sour taste.

Of course you can enjoy fighting through the calamity. I've been doing it all my life. My kids have moved to other parts of the country and found life to be more balanced, both politically and in all other ways affecting their standard of living. Their experience is what brings me closer to resignation in the face of the RI calamity (or lost cause).

PS - I was the author of the Charter School amendments back in 1997 that opened up opportunities for new charter schools in Rhode Island. I know that change can occur, but the tide is strong and the muscles only get older. Press on!

Posted by: John at September 5, 2007 11:27 PM

"that the real first priority for the state legislature should be to give the local communities the power to implement tangible remedies - meaningful fines and jail-time - to unions and teachers when they strike"

It's simple. If the GA truly had the students' and communities' best interest in mind, they would pass a law tomorrow that said, if your teacher contract is not settled by July 31, all your state aid is rescinded. But give the municipality some leeway and only pull the trigger if the contract is not in place by the first day of school. (No exception. Make my day; make yourself an example.)

Posted by: SusanD at September 6, 2007 12:07 AM

Justin and All,

Consolidation seems like another of those fixes that might not really fix anything at all; just remove more local control,leaving the taxpayers more vulnerable. Definitely a proposition that requires intensive scrutiny.

About vouchers...recently I came across a refutation of the voucher system and I can't remember where I saw it.

Nevertheless,the article made what I thought was a strong arguement against any voucher system to fund education,describing such a system as an expansion of welfare,with no real relief for taxpayers and the looming potential for expanded government control of private schools,just as colleges and universities now must fulfill governmental guidelines to get funding,it would be so with private elementary through high school education under a voucher system.

Please research this more and bring up a deep discussion of it if you think it's worthy. There has always been something that strikes me as not quite right in any discussions of the voucher system. It doesn't seem to hit the mark somehow,the mark being quality, affordable,equitable education,with freedom of choice and parental control instead of governmental mandates.

Posted by: free at September 6, 2007 12:31 AM

>Shouldn't we all move if it is as bad and hopeless as you all seem to believe?

Many have already moved. Many are contemplating it, and many of those ultimately will.

If not now, in the upcoming years (upon us sooner rather than later) as the bills start rolling in for the billions in unfunded state / local pension obligations.

This state is reminiscent of the early chapters of "Atlas Shrugged" - the deterioration has begun and is visible (bad roads, bad schools, poor economy), many "John Galts" have disappeared, yet the public is largely oblivious, and will remain so until it gets far worse ... which it will.

This state has tremendous potential, and the fiscal calamity could be prevented. But this would require a responsible and incorruptible General Assembly, which of course we haven't had for decades, if ever.

Posted by: Tom W at September 6, 2007 12:46 AM

Further,it seems that there is a general acceptance of the idea that teachers must be unionized.


They are not in sweat shop conditions,they are much better off than any one who works or has worked for low wages in the factories here. I know because I have worked in those factories for minimum or just above wages with little or no benefits.

I went to a Catholic elementary school,kindergarten through eighth grade and I wrote down as many of my classmates names as I could remember. I had 48 classmates,although I've probably forgotten a few. We had one teacher in each grade,a nun.

Everyone in my class could read,do arithmetic,diagram sentences, identify geographic landmarks,had an overview of world and US history,an understanding of basic physical science,could be reasonably quiet and attentive during class and also be respectful to the teacher.

I know what I say is true because we had to take turns reading out loud in class,do spelling,arithemetic and other lessons on the blackboard in front of the rest of the class,have our grades read by the nun out loud in front of every one, participate in spelling bees and other drills with the whole class,and sometimes trade test papers with our classmates to correct while the nun read out the anwers. That's how I know everyone in my class could do it.

It had nothing to do with the economic class of one's family,my school didn't charge tuition. My family was poor,yet I did well,as did other classmates who came from families lower on the economic scale.

So,why must public school teachers be unionized? They aren't working in antique industrial conditions or even in modern industrial conditions,which can still be rough on the lowest rungs of workers.

Posted by: free at September 6, 2007 1:33 AM

Re: "It's simple. If the GA truly had the students' and communities' best interest in mind, they would pass a law tomorrow that said, if your teacher contract is not settled by July 31, all your state aid is rescinded. But give the municipality some leeway and only pull the trigger if the contract is not in place by the first day of school. (No exception. Make my day; make yourself an example.)"

SusanD, I like your idea - but with a twist. As I read the above proposal, the community and its taxpayers suffer adverse economic consequences for the NEA's bad behavior. It is not clear how that incents the NEA to be reasonable. I am concerned that it might even incent the communities to cave to NEA demands.

So how about this? Keep the penalty you say but have the legislation clearly state that the NEA and striking teachers will be held jointly and severally liable for any loss in state funding by the community and the community will have the explicit right to enforce that remedy on both the union and its individual members.

That would incent the individual teachers to pressure the NEA to get a deal done and, since the NEA are the deep pockets there, incent the NEA to get a deal done. The context for these negotiations is the tax cap so any deal would have to allow the community to stay under the cap.

Re: "Further,it seems that there is a general acceptance of the idea that teachers must be unionized. Why?"

The right for teachers to unionize is a new development only during our lifetime. It dates back only to the early 1960's. Since then we have roughly tripled real per pupil spending - i.e., adjusted for inflation - all while our public school performance has deteriorated across the USA and, most certainly, in comparison to other industrialized countries.

All unionization has brought us is an outcome where we overpay for underperformance. And trapped the most needy poor children in their monopoly-controlled failures. It is simply unacceptable.

Posted by: Donald B. Hawthorne at September 6, 2007 7:35 AM

Donald,I agree with you about the poor outcomes in our educational system,yet you are still within the box trying to find a way to solve the problems with the union. I'm saying we don't need any teacher's union and I'm asking why unionization of teachers is seen as some necessity.

As for the poor students,I stated that I came from a poor family and had to cope with the problems resulting from that.

To compensate because the only books in my home were a thick encyclopedic dictionary from the 1930's,a series of Popular Mechanics books on plumbing,basic carpentry and the like and prayer books,I went to the library.

Any poor student can do likewise.

I'm reaching the point now of thinking that all public education should be chucked out. I think a major mistake we are making is having the government act as a middleman,collecting funds by force(try saying no,you won't pay and see the consequences) and then distributing them at the government's will.

Posted by: free at September 6, 2007 1:54 PM
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