The following is a letter I submitted to Insight Magazine in response to an opinion by Justin Van Zandt attacking teachers unions and seniority rules.
On March 21, Justin Van Zandt made several incorrect claims about teachers unions. He placed responsibility for seniority entirely on unions when, in reality, seniority rules are negotiated with and agreed to by school districts. Therefore, either school districts also support seniority or they find it to be insignificant compared to other contractual issues.
Van Zandt says unions accept nothing but seniority as the sole criterion for making layoff decisions. This is also untrue. The first priority is curricular need. For example, if too few students sign up for biology at a school, they may need to let a biology teacher go. Because biology teachers generally do not have English or history credentials, the teacher cannot bump a less senior English or history teacher. She could bump a less senior biology teacher at another school or, if she had a second science credential, she might be able to bump a less senior chemistry or physics teachers. As a consequence of these complexities, teachers with seniority are often laid off in favor of less experienced teachers.
Van Zandt also falsely accuses unions of blocking performance from being used as a criterion in hiring. Unions have very little to do with hiring. Indeed, until someone is hired, the union does not even represent them. Hiring is done by administrators and is based on a host of factors such as interviews, references and past performance. A candidate with lousy references or poor past performance is unlikely to be hired and there is nothing the union can do about that.
He also incorrectly asserts that unions block teacher performance from being used as a criterion for promotions. Most districts use teacher performance as the primary, if not the only, factor in making promotion decisions. California has very clear and sensible standards for the teaching profession which teachers must master and demonstrate in order to earn tenure and in order to keep their jobs. These standards are developed with the collaboration of the teachers unions. The unions support their usage in evaluating teachers as they promote sound pedagogy and create an objective way to assess teachers.
Like Mr. Van Zandt, I am also a father concerned about getting the best quality of education for my son. However, the notion that unions protect bad teachers and block reform is a red herring. I am much more concerned with the obsessive and wasteful abuse of standardized testing that is forcing some schools to drop science and arts to make room for test prep and to impose homework on kindergartners. I am much more concerned with the $20 billion that has been cut from public education over the last three years and the likely additional cuts that will come next year when Gov. Brown’s tax extensions fail to be approved (or make it onto the ballot). I am much more concerned with the continued refusal of the state’s 80 billionaires to pay their share of the taxes, by far the biggest cause of the state’s continued budget problems.
Most of all, I am concerned with the declining standard of living for most Californians, as familial wealth, more than any other factor, influences academic success. Poor children are much more likely to have low birth weight, iron deficiency anemia and lead poisoning, each of which can impair cognitive development. Lower income parents read less to their children contributing to a vocabulary and pre-literacy achievement gap before kids have even started kindergarten (see “Inequality at the Starting Gate,” by Burkam and Lee, or “Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,” by Hart and Risely). Financial insecurity increases stress and the overproduction of cortisol, which can impair memory and learning.
As a father, teacher and union member, I not only want the best for my child, I want better living standards for all working people. I want increased funding for all schools. I’d like to see decreased class sizes and increased course offerings. We should be hiring more librarians and nurses, not firing them. We should not only be paying teachers more so we can attract and retain the best, but we should be paying all working people more so that everyone has a decent life, good quality food and healthcare, and the time to enjoy it.