Budget Crises and the Rule of Teacher Unions

This last May, a California teacher named Michelle Apperson received a pink slip from the Sacramento City schools. Yet she was not let go because of poor classroom performance. In fact, only a few weeks before her dismissal, she received the “Teacher of the Year” award for her school district. According to ABC News and the Huffington Post, a severe budget shortfall forced the district to lay off Ms. Apperson.

Still, the Huff Post neglects to mention an important cause of the incident: California’s teacher unions. When given the choice between renegotiating a favorable contract and simply firing newer teachers, the unions consistently choose the latter. In fact, these unions favor a California state law that compels administrators to make layoffs solely on the basis of teacher seniority. The law gives no consideration to the merit of the teachers that are fired. That explains why Apperson, despite her hard work and creativity, has received pink slips in eight of her nine years with the school district.

Teacher unions have made it clear that they will continue to stand behind the current law, despite the rising current of political pressure. The California Federation of Teachers, in fighting against lawsuits intended to abolish “last hired, first fired” practices, firmly opposed any move to include job performance in the evaluation of teachers. So far, CFT is losing ground. And just a few months back, the state legislative analyst’s office released a report urging California to drop seniority-based layoffs in times of fiscal crisis.

The story of Michelle Apperson is not an isolated one. In Wisconsin, Outstanding First-Year Teacher Megan Sampson and 481 others were laid off in 2010 after their union refused to accept a lower-cost health care plan with the Milwaukee School District. As in California, a seniority system made sure that younger teachers suffered disproportionately from the budgetary malaise. Understandably, many of the displaced educators voiced disappointment that the union left them high and dry.

Last March, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker responded by stripping public employees of the ability to collectively bargain. And in a recall election that pitted the Governor against vaunted government-sector unions, Wisconsinites revolted against those unions and their generous contracts. Walker’s tactics removed the hire-and-fire ability of teacher unions and put it firmly into the hands of Wisconsin administrators—the people actually responsible for maintaining a healthy school system.

Yet the prevailing impulse of our time is to assume — as President Obama does — that government workers simply do not get enough money to do their jobs well. In this view, reducing the money spent on public education is tantamount to kneecapping the children.

But some Californians suppose that the problem rests not with money, but how the union contracts absorb it. That is, Americans face a structural problem, rather than a problem of inadequate means. The fed-up taxpayers of San Diego and San Jose realized this in early June when they decided to cut lavish government pensions down to size, perhaps signaling that reform of teacher unions could also be afoot in the Golden State.

If Californians intend to side with teacher unions in the coming fiscal crisis, they should also think carefully about the incentives of the public-school system. That is, when job security does not coincide with performance but rather with longevity, then it does not quite matter how well a teacher actually teaches.

To be fair, some highly motivated public school teachers do not need the incentive of job security in order to perform well. Yet on the whole, the system of seniority — as defended by teacher unions — does not incentivize exceptional performance. As for Ms. Apperson, her students and their parents appreciate her hard work. California’s teacher unions, by hiding behind contracts and state laws that punish meritorious educators, seem unable to do the same.