California: In Defeat, Unsavory Glory

Yesterday, I posted about the ratings released by Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization, awarding letter grades to states based on the reform efforts they had made in public education. As was noted there, 11 states received Fs, California unsurprisingly among them. The Golden State was probably the only one to generate this kind of reaction, however. From an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal:

… Richard Zeiger, chief deputy superintendent for California, … says a negative critique of the Golden State’s policies is a “badge of honor.” …

Mr. Zeiger claimed to be elated by the failure. He called StudentsFirst “an organization that frankly makes its living by asserting that schools are failing,” adding to the New York Times that “I would have been surprised if we had got anything else.”

Let’s assume for a minute that Zeiger’s criticisms of StudentsFirst are accurate (they’re not — StudentsFirst is far from the first organization to rank California as one of the worst states in the nation for public education. Unless the criteria is pay and benefits, you’ll usually find California towards the bottom of any such list). What kind of public official responds this way? Who glories in being criticized by “the right people” rather than addressing explicit concerns about the health of the state’s schools? Well, a hack, that’s who.

Last year, I wrote a piece for City Journal that garnered a fair amount of attention (and earned me a tremendous amount of hate mail) for its portrayal of the systematic corruption that’s resulted from the power of the California Teachers Association, easily the most powerful teachers union in the nation. Every time that I did an event around the piece, I would get the same question: “How do these people defend what’s happened to the schools?” My answer: They don’t. Because they don’t have to. Since there’s no consequence for failure, why bother justifying your behavior when you can just pound the table and berate your critics? When you have monopoly power, moral suasion is a frivolity.

An example: At one point during the early 90s, the union actually had members physically intimidating people who were signing petitions to put a school choice initiative on the state ballot, as well as forging signatures to throw the whole process into chaos. When the CTA president at the time was called on it, his response was “there are some proposals so evil they should never go before the voters.”

This is why the efforts of education reform organizations like Rhee’s — and policy leaders like Bobby Jindal — are so important. Without them, the system is all too often left in the hands of people who only value the kids insofar as they are a mechanism for acquiring more political power.

  1. flownover

    Michelle Rhee ought to have her husband go over and kick this guy in the rear. Can’t be that far from the mayor’s office to the California Teachers Association building .

    Here is a picture of the building for Kevin Johnson to look for.

    taj.jpg

  2. Merina Smith

    California is a train wreck in general, but many of the schools are good.  As with anything else, it depends a lot on the personel at the particular school and parental involvement.  But I have to agree that overall, unions are ruining California. There is a place for them, but right now they run the show and the results ain’t pretty. 

  3. flownover
    Merina Smith: California is a train wreck in general, but many of the schools are good.  As with anything else, it depends a lot on the personel at the particular school and parental involvement.  But I have to agree that overall, unions are ruining California. There is a place for them, but right now they run the show and the results ain’t pretty.  · 5 minutes ago

    Sorry Merina, there is never a place for unions among public servants.

  4. Troy Senik, Ed.
    Merina Smith: California is a train wreck in general, but many of the schools are good.  As with anything else, it depends a lot on the personel at the particular school and parental involvement.  But I have to agree that overall, unions are ruining California. There is a place for them, but right now they run the show and the results ain’t pretty.  · 8 minutes ago

    Yes, of course. This is not to suggest that every school in California is blighted. There are plenty of great schools in the best neighborhoods. But, once you examine the effect statewide, you’d be hard-pressed to find a place where more damage has been done to education via union influence.

  5. Ross C
    Merina Smith:  But I have to agree that overall, unions are ruining California. There is a place for them…

    I am beginning to think there is not a place for them.  I mean hypothetically I can imagine collective bargaining was useful in changing hazardous working conditions that prevailed in early 20th century (or earlier), but the scale has swung so far over that I think that the unions are a large net negative even to the workers in the industry they represent.  Over and over again we see highly unionized  manufacturing industries shrinking in size until they nearly disappear.

    I have no doubt that the public school system will all but collapse in areas of union domination.

     We need to face up to the fact that there may be a place for unions but it does not appear to be in the US at the present time.

  6. Merina Smith

    My mother spent her career as a teacher in Idaho.  Unions are not nearly so powerful there as in CA.  The union was a great help to her when she had to deal with a very bad administrator, so I have to think there is a place for unions, but they need to know their place and right now they don’t, especially in CA.  In the right-to-work states they are kept under better control. 

  7. Misthiocracy

    The conservative debate over unions, IMHO, rests on certain questions involving the proper definition of terms.

    For example, what do we mean when we use the word “union”?

    When defined as something like, “a voluntary organization whose purpose is to advocate and negotiate with employers on behalf of its members,” then I think there are few conservatives who would object to the legitimacy and potential usefulness of the union.

    After all, in many industries there is an inbalance of negotiating skills between the employers and the employees. The employers tend to be trained in the art of negotiation (a needed skill to find customers, open markets, deal with suppliers, etc), while the employees are trained in their technical skills. As such, why shouldn’t the employees be permitted to pool resources and hire a negotiator of their own?

    (Continued…)

  8. Misthiocracy

    (…Continued.)

    However, there is another definition of “union” which is more like, “a fourth level of government which regulates the careers of employees.”

    This is the definition which conservatives rightly oppose, and which many (most?) labour activists subscribe to.

    I was once told by a unionist that all workers are part of a union whether they know it or not. A union isn’t an “organization” which one “joins”, but rather simply the label for the collective of all the employees in a workplace.

    This philosophy that “the union” is automatically pre-existent is precisely the justification for forced membership and mandatory union dues. After all, according to this definition, opting out of “the union” is like opting out of the human race. It simply cannot be done.

    Right-to-work states merely ensure that unions are defined as “voluntary organizations” instead of being defined as a fourth level of government.

  9. Merina Smith

    I like your distinctions, Misthiocracy.

  10. 3rd angle projection

    Private sector unions? Whatever. Knock yourself out. But if collective bargaining drives the company into the ground, don’t expect the public purse to bail you out.

    Public sector unions? Should never have happened. Jerry Brown wrought the current the situation on California when he was governor in the 70′s, codifying a corrupt alliance between the pols and unions, both negotiating with our money. Gee thanks.

    It’s long past due to re-institute the civil service model for the public sector employees.

  11. Ross C
    Roberto

    Ross Conatser We need to face up to the fact that there may be a place for unions but it does not appear to be in the US at the present time. · 24 minutes ago

    That’s just not how we roll here in California. In the Golden State the place for unions is wherever they damn well please:

    I used to live in Sacramento and I have seen first hand how the public employee unions destroyed Arnold.  It was scary.   In the story you linked to the mediation process is so totally stacked in favor of the union it is not even funny.  Let me predict the future.  The current pay is X, the unions wants X + something.  The mediator will end up somewhere between X and X + something.  So the union is incentivized over time to ask for more and more and the state will back them up to the point where the company can show its insolvency.

  12. Chris Campion

    I just don’t get it.  Why are public sector unions so sacrosanct?  Because they are teachers?  So what?  Is that supposed to provide the mantle of angelic shielding from the realities of the world – because you willingly chose to work in this specific field? 

    The public sector union keeps the 3rd person out of every negotiation – the taxpayer.  Although school boards are supposed to act as some kind of a body in the public interest (and often do), there is no one who is there as part of the negotiations on behalf of those people footing the bill.  Worse, if there’s more state and federal money available, the people in the town the school serves (!) get even less say about what happens in the school.

    Our educational system resembles Brazil-esque levels of confusion, regarding policy, money, unions, the public, and lastly, sadly, children.  The net effect is more money spent on public education than ever in history, with annually worsening scores as a result.  This is the best we can do?

  13. Freesmith

    I’ll grind my axe here.

    I hope everyone who reads this rethinks his knee-jerk support of “merit pay,” the panacea which has been touted for years by conservative edu-crats like Bill Bennett.

    The teachers’ unions have the power in education today. If more money is made available for “merit pay” then the group with the most power will have the most say in how that money is spent. Therefore, “merit pay” will empower the unions, not the teachers.

    And think: if extra money will go to those teachers who are above average, how long do you think it will take for 90% of Lake Woebegone’s teachers to be rated “above average?” Ten years? Five years?

    Conservatives in education should champion many things; but instead of the pipedream of “merit pay” a wiser course would be to insist on establishing “de-merit pay:” if your students aren’t progressing, your pay gets cut. If the situation continues, you get cut.

    Works in the real world.

  14. Ross C

    I understand that it is not true to say that the union does NO good.  If unions stuck to providing these services I would believe differently.  However, like any powerful bureaucracy, over time they demand more and more and provide less and less incremental benefits for the resources they consume. 

    It is common knowledge now about the rubber rooms where teachers too incompetent or dangerous to be let in front of the students were warehoused (with pay) because work rules forbade their dismissal.  In CA I believe Troy has blogged about a commission that reviews the firing of any union state employee at a costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per review.

    So over time (and even in lovely Idaho) I suspect the natural processes of creeping bureaucracy I speak of will destroy far more lives than they ever helped.

  15. Roberto
    Ross Conatser We need to face up to the fact that there may be a place for unions but it does not appear to be in the US at the present time. · 24 minutes ago

    That’s just not how we roll here in California. In the Golden State the place for unions is wherever they damn well please:

    Gerawan complains that its 3,000 workers shouldn’t be bound by a representation election that was conducted 22 years ago among workers who are no longer on its payroll.

    Gerawan says that it tried to negotiate a contract after the election, but that the UFW walked away from the talks after one session. Three months ago, the union sent a letter to Gerawan, demanding a contract and invoking mediation if there was no agreement in 90 days.

    No worries though, the government is on the case:

    …Senate Rules Committee approved Brown’s nomination of Herbert Mason, a retired Fresno professor of farm labor relations, to the farm labor board.

    Mason said afterward that Gerawan “stirred up a hornet’s nest,” but that since there’s no statute of limitations on representation elections, the UFW is within its legal rights.

  16. Roberto
    Troy Senik, Ed.: This is why the efforts of education reform organizations like Rhee’s — and policy leaders like Bobby Jindal — are so important. Without them, the system is all too often left in the hands of people who only value the kids insofar as they are a mechanism for acquiring more political power. · · 2 hours ago

    “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”

    Albert Shanker,  president of the United Federation of Teachers from 1964 to 1985

  17. Merina Smith

    Well, you could all be right Roberto and Ross.  It is far easier to control unions in conservative states, and since all states are not, alas, conservative, they may be impossible to sublimate to the public interest in leftie states.  In fact, I think they are, since they are in bed with leftie politicians in those places in a deep and unsavory way.