Posted by: bkivey | 30 March 2011

Reading the Union Label

Willamette Week is the  largest of the ‘alternative’ newspapers in the Portland metro area, and one I read regularly. Although the politics of the editorial board and mine are worlds apart, I enjoy their restaurant reviews and theatre, indie film, and music listings. When the staff aren’t emulating their target audience of the precociously cynical, snarky hipster, they can do some very good reporting. Better, in fact, than the local paper of record.

In the 23 March 2010 issue an article by WW reporter Nigel Jaquiss titled “Your Teacher is F’d” examines the coming budget showdown between Gov. Kitzhaber and state teachers union head Richard Sanders. The account makes for chilling reading for any state taxpayer concerned about the looming state budget deficit. Like 48 other states, Oregon’s constitution requires a balanced budget, and unlike the feds we can’t print money or borrow it from the Chinese. Something has to give, and from the story, it’s apparent that the Oregon Education Association (OEA) isn’t in a giving mood.

On one side we have Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Democrat who won the statehouse in 2010 for his third term as chief executive and who once famously called Oregon ‘ungovernable’. Much like Jerry Brown to the south, he has gained respect among his political opponents for his willingness to tackle the state’s budget problems in a way that is probably personally distasteful to him. A physician by trade, Kitzhaber has worked in the past to expand the Oregon low-income health care system, but his actions this time around demonstrate that he understands that, at least for now, the era of big government spending is over. A $3.5 billion deficit is hard to ignore.

Of the money in the state general fund, about 75% goes to public-employee compensation. Nearly 40% of general fund dollars go to fund K-12 education. If the state is going to balance its budget, taking money out of these two allocations is unavoidable. Kitzhaber has proposed collapsing all state K-12 education boards into one state board, cutting teaching positions, and having teachers fund more of their health care and pension costs. It’s no longer a question of whether there will be pain, but of how much. If the union holds fast, then more rather than fewer teachers will lose jobs. And to listen to newly installed OEA head Richard Sanders, the union has every intention of holding fast.

The OEA is considered to be one of the most powerful public unions in the country. The membership per-capita contribution to political causes in 2007 was $350, by far the most of any in the nation. In his story Mr. Jaquiss details example after example of the union blocking legislation they don’t happen to like. Usually by outspending opponents, or blocking votes in committees on which it’s members sit. Several examples are given of lawmakers having to curry favor with the union in order to advance legislation, or of being cowed into inaction because of perceived union displeasure. In a very real sense the OEA controls 40% of the state general fund. This is an unhealthy amount of power for any organization to have over the legislative process and taxpayer money, but in heavily Democratic Oregon, such abuses have gone unremarked. Until now, when the money has run out.

The current fiscal difficulties seem completely lost on Richard Sanders, who talks and acts like what he is: a life-long old-school Northeastern union organizer. Imported from Massachusetts in January to head the OEA, his responses to the budget problems and the governor’s proposals come straight from the ’60’s. The problem is, this is the ’10’s, and the political and fiscal landscapes are radically different.

A sampling of his thoughts from the article:

On Kitzhaber’s proposal to determine teacher lay-offs based on merit rather than seniority:

 “Quality is very subjective. There is no fair way in the current system for principals or a district to decide which teachers are better than others.”

You mean like private business does every day of the week? Merit-based proposals have been shot down by the union for decades. If there isn’t a ‘fair’ system in place, Mr. Sanders has only his own organization to blame. Gov. Kitzhaber has promised that there will be teacher lay-offs. It’s a near certainty that some talented and effective young teachers will be furloughed while some older and less effective teachers will keep their jobs. Are students really well served if a talented teacher finds another career and never goes back to teaching? I’d say not, but the union will do fine.

On charter schools:

“I’m not sure the corporate class as a whole wants an educated society. They are looking for a foot in the door to overthrow democracy.”

Spoken like the true community organizer Mr. Sanders used to be. Would this, perchance, be the same ‘corporate class’ from whose activity every single dollar of government money comes? The same ‘corporate class’ made up of hundreds of thousands of middle-income Oregonians? ‘Looking to overthrow democracy’? That’s rich considering the OEA’s history of blocking education legislation proposed by the people’s representatives. The fact is that charter schools have outperformed government schools everywhere they’ve been tried. Mr. Sanders demonstrates again that his agenda is not with the education industry’s customers, but with the industry itself.

On the governor’s proposals, Mr. Sanders states that his members “want some hope.” The hope and change he mentions could be written blindfolded by anyone who has listened to a liberal speech the last seventy years: new taxes on the rich and reduce corporate tax breaks. Nary a mention of the union membership accepting compensation packages in line with private industry, a move that would save union jobs. Mr. Sanders styles proposed cuts in his membership workforce or benefits a “focus on the wrong problem.” I’ve got news for you, if your organization controls 40% of the state general fund and you resist needed cost structure reforms, you are the problem.

The article mentions that Mr. Sanders is counting on Oregonian’s love of their teachers and schools to prevail in the upcoming budget battles, but he may well be overestimating that affection. ‘Education fatigue’ has been setting in around the state for years, as voters get the feeling that every time they turn around, the schools are right there with their hand out. Oregon spent $9700 per student in 2009, and several school bond measures have failed in recent years. The love is not unconditional. As people struggle to make ends meet, they are increasingly asking themselves “How much is enough?” and “Why can’t we get better results for the resources we’re investing?”

Unfortunately for Mr. Sanders and the OEA, many of the traditional proponents of increased education funding have come to grips with the situation and are asking those very questions. In the 2010 election the voters sent a plurality of politicians to Salem that promised to cut spending, so the traditionally heavily Democratic House is no longer safe haven. Gov. Kitzhaber and others have shown the flexibility and willingness to deal with the new reality, while the OEA has not. The very clear message from them to Oregon taxpayers is F’k You.

Reference Note

I usually provide links to original material cited in my posts, but my browser wouldn’t display the webpage on which the source article appears. There appears to be some sort of security issue. You may have better luck.

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