Union Out of Touch?

A battle is shaping up between the teachers union and the school district in Philly. The Philadelphia union is known to be a tough adversary that bargains hard in its members’ interests. That is hardly surprising and should be admired and even applauded. That is, after all, what a union is supposed to do. One of the points of contention in the current negotiations is that the district is proposing that the union members pay part of the cost of their health insurance premium. The union also is outraged that the district wants to abolish seniority rights that let experienced teachers decide where they’ll work. According to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the union leaders believe the district’s proposal violates their “most fundamental rights.” The striking thing about the union’s reaction to the district proposal is how oblivious the leadership seems to be to the situation of most Americans. How many American workers contribute nothing toward the cost of their health insurance? How many workers are able to decide what their work assignment will be, without bowing to the wishes of their superiors or the need of the enterprise to decide how best to make use of their talents? Meanwhile, of course, the rising costs of health benefits are eating up greater and greater shares of local budgets. And there is a growing consensus that poor children and those in greatest need academically are routinely taught by the least experienced, least able teachers.

Fine story in the Orlando Sentinel, examining the effect of poverty on kids’ academic achievement. Richard Rothstein’s new book, Class and Schools examines this link in detail. Accepting that poverty matters, however, shouldn’t let schools off the hook or be used to justify low expectations, poor teaching, weak discipline or substandard conditions. Indeed, the schools serving poor children have to be better in every way than even those serving the middle class and the affluent. Rothstein argues, however, that school reform alone, no matter how robust, cannot close the achievement gap. He calls for efforts to raise wages, stabilize housing, establish school clinics, set up pre-k programs and offer after school and summer programs. The pricetag would be $156 billion annually, a figure he acknowledges is probably not politically viable.

Rudy Crew seems to be off to a fast start in Miami, laying out his plans for a uniform curriculum and other measures to the Miami-Dade County principals. According to a report on the meeting in the Miami Herald, Crew frequently invoked nautical metaphors and said, essentially, that those who are not on board should voluntarily walk a gang plank. “Save yourself the embarrassment and save me the trouble,” he asked them. “You’re going to be good or you’re going to be gone.” He also told them not to expect any more money with which to do the job.

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