Want to see where education in America is headed if we continue to allow public employee unions to trample taxpayers? Have a look at Illinois. This week brought a firestorm over news that the head of the Illinois Teachers’ Retirement System had broached the idea of reducing pension benefits for retired teachers. In the resulting media frenzy unions got the word out to members and taxpayers footing the bill for public employees that the benefits are chiseled in stone. Laws are one thing. Coercion is another. The week drew to a close with the Chicago Teachers Union threatening a strike over contract renewal and perceived bad behavior by the City of Chicago.
Just to the north of Illinois, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker faces his own reminder of what happens when unions gain too much power over public employees and dupe taxpayers with appeals to worker rights and fairness. A June recall election occasioned by budget trimming that included collective bargaining rights will have a lot to say about the direction of organized labor’s stranglehold over states.
Turmoil incited by Illinois teachers’ unions was old news to Arne Duncan long before he bailed from the Chicago school system for the big time in Washington. From his federal perch Duncan is busy reinventing teaching as an exalted, over appreciated, and ultimately unaffordable occupation. He has adopted the union strategy of raising charges of unfairness and inequality, telling teachers they are undervalued and unfairly compensated (see: How Democrats Are Stealing Education From Your Children). Claiming that a study on teacher pay was insulting, Duncan compared the earnings of teachers and lawyers:
The McKinsey report found that starting teacher salaries have not kept pace with other fields. In 1970, beginning New York City lawyers earned $2,000 more than first-year teachers. Today, a starting lawyer there can earn three or four times as much as a beginning teacher.¹
The big problem with our Education Secretary’s approach to teacher pay, aside from the fact that states like Illinois have no extra spending money, is the same problem his boss has with understanding how the private sector works. Arne Duncan and Barack Obama seem incapable of understanding the connection between work and profit. Good lawyers can make lots of money for their firms, often work outrageous hours to pull down their big salaries, and would never consider a display like the protest raised by the Chicago Teachers Union when members were asked to work a longer day for more money (see: Union Stance Ridicules Duncan’s Collaboration Efforts).
Teachers are not special, at least not in the sense that bureaucrats like Duncan portray them. They do not risk their lives like first responders, who will be next in line if teacher salaries go up. Teachers may be hard working, dedicated, and caring, but like children they have become sacred cows dangled by legislators when opportunity is ripe and money scarce. Tax dollars that pay teacher salaries only go one way, from taxpayers’ pockets to teachers’ wallets, and post-retirement benefits are a ruinous giveaway from which we receive no value. Say what you want about the gains we will reap from future generations taught by outstanding educators, when states are broke we cannot afford to pay higher salaries. Private schools traditionally offer lower teacher compensation. Why do government schools pay more than the private sector? Simple. Taxpayer dollars have no value to government, which can always hold out its hand when its wants more.
A war is being fought in states like Illinois for the hearts and minds of residents who will be forced to reduce their standard of living to prop up an overly expensive, overly entitled public sector. The debate over teacher pay and benefits is not about kids. It is not about teachers being treated poorly. It is not about America’s future. It is about Democrats rewarding unions for their support. When Illinois passes its next tax increase and the money is still not enough to foot the pension bill for teachers whose salaries have escalated because we bought into nonsense spouted by politicians and bureaucrats, residents will have no option but to pay up or leave. As long as we are naïve and foolish enough to tolerate the agreement between government and unions to seize whatever they can to further themselves things are never going to change. Teachers are valued, but there is a big difference between the value placed by taxpayers who support our schools and the value set by politicians and unions with something to gain.