I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Monday, June 16, 2014

The @starledger's Reformy Fantasyland

I really can't tell you how grateful I am to have Bob Braun blogging; for a while there, it felt like I was the only one who cared to point out that the Star-Ledger, Bob's former paper, was writing education editorials that were both massively ignorant and callously dismissive of the needs of children in New Jersey's cities.

Bob's skewering of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board (SLEB) includes a history lesson on the civil actions that led us to the segregated apartheid schools we have today. This is a history of which the Star-Ledger's editorial writers remain blissfully, willingly ignorant. They foolishly continue to believe the primary issue in urban education today isn't segregation or adequate funding, but teacher quality:
New Jersey reformed its teacher tenure laws two years ago, but didn’t touch the practice known as "last in, first out," which protects absolute seniority rights in times of layoffs. That’s where the teachers’ union drew a red line. 
This means that schools facing layoffs in the next few years will be forced to purge younger teachers — even the most gifted and hardworking ones. The main victims of this policy are poor kids. Teacher quality is much more meaningful for them, because they don’t come pre-loaded for success. 
Why should a state statute protected by the union be allowed to trump children’s constitutional right to a quality education? 
This California case is exactly the kind of lawsuit that the Education Law Center should be bringing. The ELC was right to take action in the name of funding inequity nearly 30 years ago. But what is it going to do about seniority rules, now?
How ignorant is this? Let me count the ways:

1) Why isn't the S-L questioning the premise of this argument: that schools must face layoffs in the next few years? Are we really facing a demographic bubble that requires fewer teachers? Because I haven't seen any evidence of it. Or is the problem that politically-connected charter schools are taking more and more of the market share of urban districts, taking some students out of district schools and putting them into economically (and often, racially) segregated charters?

If that's the case, the "inevitable"* layoffs aren't inevitable at all, are they?

2) How does the S-L propose to identify "talented" younger teachers? Test scores? SGPs? I don't really have to post more links proving how bad they are, do I? OK, fine...

Or perhaps the S-L is confident that state-appointed superintendents and/or politically connected school boards can be entrusted with the ability to decide who stays and who goes. Joe DiVincenzo, Brian Stack, and George Norcross are licking their chops at that thought. Just imagine: a David Wildstein running every urban district in the state, unencumbered by worker protections, free to lay off whichever teachers they choose.

Sounds like teaching will be a great career move, huh?

3) If we take away tenure -- which teachers value at up to 50 percent of their salaries -- are we going to replace it with more money? If not, are we going to let teacher quality just slide?

I am always amazed at how folks like the SLEB think there are just gobs and gobs of "talented" young people waiting to get into a profession that pays more for benefits, makes less in salary, has seen its pensions deteriorate, and is treated like crap in the media. One of the few perks for making less money was some small guarantee of freedom from political interference; now the S-L wants to take that away as well.

This can't continue: you can't keep degrading the compensation of teachers without affecting the teacher labor pool. Why would the S-L want to take away tenure, which teachers value and which costs taxpayers nothing, when they know the laws of economics dictate it will negatively impact the supply of potential high-quality teachers?

Which brings us to the most obtuse part of this nonsense:

4) No one -- not the Star-Ledger, not the reformy-types, not the politicians, not the academics who supply them with their rationales -- has ever shown any evidence that significant numbers of superior teachers are laid off due to seniority protections. The idea that this is some sort of serious problem is just not borne out by the facts; it is all nothing more than conjecture and spin.

Even if you buy into the Hanushekian claims about "ineffective" teachers (you shouldn't), and the Chettian claims about a single teacher generating over a million bucks in salary increases (you shouldn't), there still is no evidence that getting rid of tenure and seniority can actually change the overall quality or distribution of teachers.

There is no evidence that the overall quality of teachers is suppressed by these workplace protections. Only in the fevered imaginations of the SLEB and other reformy-types can you take away tenure and seniority, not replace it with anything else, and have more and better teachers clamoring to get into the doors of crumbling schools that lack air conditioning and are full of children living in abject poverty.

It's possible one day the stubborn union-bashers at places like the Star-Ledger will grow up and get rid of their foolish, dangerous fantasies. That day is not today.

The Merit Pay Fairy Says: "I'll leave youse a quarter under yur pillow, SLEB!"

ADDING: I join with many others in extending my deepest condolences to the Moran family.

* Those are irony quotes, not actually quoting quotes.

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