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Unions are fighting for teachers, not their students

It’s common sense that when faced with a budget deficit, it’s time to find ways to cut unnecessary spending. So when the Buffalo School Board needed to confront a $10.5 million deficit, that’s what it tried to do. It identified low-hanging fruit: a $5 million set-aside for plastic surgery coverage for teachers. Surely teachers could do without taxpayer-funded tummy tucks and face-lifts – particularly if it meant the children of Buffalo would have a sufficiently funded education. Right?

Wrong. The Buffalo Teachers Federation took the issue to court and won a temporary injunction allowing the cosmetic surgery rider to continue through the summer, effectively putting the rider on hold until an arbiter can make a decision on the union’s grievance (or the board backs down).

Funny enough, union leaders said they would be willing to give up the rider through negotiations for a new contract, but they haven’t come to the table to negotiate a new contract since 2004.

What’s not so funny, though, is that taxpayers have been forking over some $5 million every year for the rider. A 2012 article in the Atlantic found that 100 teacher layoffs could potentially have been prevented if the union had agreed to suspend the rider for just one year.

The Buffalo teachers union’s attempt to cling to the cosmetic surgery rider at the expense of educating children verges on the farcical, but it represents an unfortunate pattern of behavior. All around the country, teachers unions are prioritizing their own interests, even when it diverts resources away from the classroom and leaves local taxpayers in the lurch.

In Chicago, for example, the State Legislature recently inked a deal to pick up $200 million in pension costs and direct $100 million to Chicago Public Schools. The district is on the brink of financial ruin.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is surely feeling the pain (along with Illinois taxpayers) of providing this costly bailout to the school district before it could get its own house in order. It was a political sacrifice. But as the editorial board of the Chicago Sun-Times pointed out, the one group that has yet to feel the pain and join in the spirit of shared sacrifice is the Chicago Teachers Union.

“The contours of a fair new union contract have been on the table for months,” the editorial board wrote, ticking off a list of benefits: “It provides net raises to teachers over four years, phases out over two years a 7 percent pension contribution that CPS [Chicago Public Schools] now makes on members’ behalf, and reinstates ‘step and lane’ raises based on a teacher’s continuing education and experience.”

Yet the union wants more, and has threatened to strike if it doesn’t get it.

Similar examples of this kind of behavior, prioritizing the union’s interests over what’s best for students, have popped up in Philadelphia, where the teachers union complained about how the school district filled a remarkable 99 percent of teaching vacancies because many new recruits got jobs before veteran teachers; and in Florida, where the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association, filed a lawsuit to try to shut down a tax credit scholarship program that funds scholarships for roughly 80,000 students in secular and parochial nonpublic schools. A judge ruled that the plaintiffs had no standing to sue, but the union has vowed to take the lawsuit all the way to the State Supreme Court.

The teachers union agenda was perhaps most painfully apparent during the “walk-ins” that unions and their supporters staged across the country last February. The demonstrations were ostensibly focused on ginning up support for more spending on public education, but organizers took plenty of jabs at charter schools despite their successes and cost-effectiveness (and despite the fact that charters are actually public schools, too).

In other words, the walk-ins amounted to an assertion of union power, which is the real issue at stake here.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Consider what recently happened in Madison, Wis., where Act 10 has given school districts the authority to change health benefits for teachers without interference from the union. Four years ago, the Madison teachers union staged a “sickout” in protest of Act 10 when it was moving through the legislature, shutting down schools for four days. But when the Madison School Board decided last June to have teachers start paying a small percentage of their health care premiums, it met minimal resistance. Only one teacher showed up to voice opposition.

Teachers are not selfish. They get into their profession not for the money or the perks but to prepare children of the next generation to lead successful and fulfilling lives. It’s time for the bureaucratic unions representing them to start reflecting their members’ selfless ambitions.

Nicole Neily is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a nonprofit that publishes public-interest journalism at Watchdog.org.

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