Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wisconsin Woes

I suppose it is about time I said something about Wisconsin.

I have spent most of the last few weeks listening.  Mostly to a lot of hotheaded responses on both sides.

On one end of the spectrum, liberals accuse conservatives of inventing and even creating budget deficits in order to keep the working man down in favor of fascism,  greedy corporations, and the great anti-feminist conspiracy.   Some compare the striking teachers to the demonstrators in Egypt. Others, who appear to have forgotten some details of world history, compare the Wisconsin teachers to the Solidarity Movement in Poland.  (Wait, wasn't the solidarity movement working against collectivism?)

Even some of my fellow conservatives have let their tempers override their reason. Some accuse teachers of being greedy statist shills, and distort information about their compensation, suggesting that they make $80,000-$100,000 per year, conveniently never bothering to mention that this figure includes the estimated value of their benefits. The Madison school district website states that their salary ranges from $32,913 to $64,681.  A fairly typical range for a public school teacher salary schedule. Rachel Alexander at TownHall reports that the average salary in Wisconsin is around $56,000.  Depending on whom one asks, the national average is somewhere between $40,000-$50,000 per year.


This self-described "Crazy Schoolmarm" will now try to offer a sane reflection on the issue from the perspective of an educator.

When I initially entered this field, it was with full knowledge that I would be making much less  money than friends in other fields with similar education and experience. I assumed I would be driving used cars, and renting a small apartment for most (if not all ) of the rest of my life.   Contrary to rumor, my home state of California does not pay a higher salary to its public school teachers to compensate for the cost of living. In fact, because of the cost of living, I expected that if I were ever able to own a home, it would not be until my retirement.   In fact, I considered myself fortunate that I could even afford to pay rent on my own 500 square foot apartment while I taught in that state, instead of living with relatives or half a dozen roommates.  (My apartment was smaller than my classroom, by the way.)   I have two things to thank for my ability to rent that quiet apartment where I could retreat to grade papers in peace. One is the highly sensible upbringing I received from my parents. The other, I must suppose, is  the teacher's union, whose machinations led, no doubt, to the very affordable health benefits in my district which freed up more of my monthly budget  for rent.

This would probably be the right time to mention that I have been a (reluctant) card-carrying member of the California Teacher's Association (CTA), and therefore also of the NEA.

You are probably asking, "So, how did a nice conservative Catholic blogger like you end up in a union like that?".  Read on.

California, like Wisconsin, is not what we call a "Right to Work" state. What this meant for me as a public school teacher was that union dues were deducted from my paycheck whether I joined the union or not. The only way to have any say in how this money was used was to (yes, you guessed it!) join the union! This way, I could check the little box on the membership form that told them to keep my money out of political activity, and I had a vote. Unfortunately, my vote would not be enough to change the Union's socially liberal bias.  As Black Adder points out in his post at American Catholic, this does not exactly honor one's right to freely associate. I would have much preferred to take my money to the  Association of American Educators, which offers similar membership benefits, without the liberal politics.

In principle, I am not actually opposed to Teacher's unions, so long as they do what all unions were originally meant to do, which is protect their members from unjust treatment in the workplace.  Those who have never worked in a school may not realize how intensely dysfunctional and even hostile internal school politics can become, and the level to which unprofessional behavior can, in certain unfortunate cases, dominate a school and drive out skilled teachers.  (In fact, I would guess that this is the greatest reason for most problems with teacher retention.)

In practice, however, I have mostly found that the dysfunctional internal politics in schools has merely spread to the union.  As a result, I felt I needed a union to protect me from my union, more than from my employer. The problem is that the mainstream teacher's unions have been overstepping their bounds for some time, and function more as ideological advocacy groups than as professional associations protecting the rights of workers and the integrity of the profession at the same time.   (Did I mention that we were sometimes requested to picket against legislation, regardless of our personal opinions?--I quietly stayed out of that, by the way.)

When working as a public school teacher, I often wondered how much the district was paying for the highly affordable (for me) health benefits I mentioned before. There is, after all, "no such thing as a free lunch".  I wondered how the state was able to afford it. Now I know.

It couldn't.

California now faces a problem similar to, and perhaps even more dire than, that of Wisconsin.  High cost of living and a troubled economy continue to contribute to declining enrollment in public schools. Declining enrollment means less funding, and less funding means a system-wide budget crisis, and severely reduced job security for teachers.  Even before I left, schools were pink-slipping many teachers every spring, just in case they couldn't afford to keep them the next year. Shortly after, there was speculation that some teachers might have to be payed in IOU's!

As in Wisconsin, the CTA often demands that the state continue the dubious practice of spending money it doesn't have.  Many state employees forget that the state's money comes from taxpayers, including themselves. Others do not forget, and actually ask for increased taxes.  The problem is, taxes can only go so high before everyone starts to suffer. This is usually when they start moving somewhere else, as my husband and I did, and the declining enrollment problem only gets worse! If I were still living on my own in my home state, even given the tightness of my personal budget at the time, I would have been willing to pay a higher premium on my health benefits, if it meant a greater likelihood that I would actually still have a job and said benefits in future years.

As far as I have been able do discover, the cost of living in Wisconsin is considerably less than that in California, making it much more likely that someone, even in her first years in the classroom, will be able to support herself there on her take-home pay.  A slight increase in one's health care premium is, under the circumstances, a small price to pay for increased job security, especially if one is still able to eat and have a roof over one's head.  Furthermore, interrupting the education of thousands of children, and even using false doctor's notes (video link) to do so, is poor role modeling and in violation of what should be the generally accepted ethics of the profession.

There is, of course, the question of collective bargaining rights. Governor Walker's bill does limit these. So far as I can tell though, it does not do so sufficiently to warrant the outrage we have seen. In fact, it looks like it will do something to protect union members from misuse of their money, and prevent unions from making unreasonable demands on the state budget. If you are interested, here is a summary of what the bill will do, and if you are really interested, the full text of the actual bill (a very lengthy PDF document).

In short, I believe the following:

Public workers, like other workers have the right to unionize. What they do not have is the right to  force  dues out of public employees who do not wish to join them, and then to use that money for ends contrary to the consciences of those from whom they obtained it. They do not have the right to make demands or perform actions that are contrary to the public good. Since public worker strikes often mean serious harm to the public good, I do not think striking is a moral option under most circumstances, including those in Wisconsin. (See what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about strikes here)

The state, as an employer, does have the duty to respect the rights of its employees, and during the budgeting process should make a reasonable effort to pay them a just wage. It also has the duty to protect the society in general, and the economic welfare of the taxpayer, and part of this is keeping an eye on the budget and not taxing the private sector out of existence.  It is wrong, as Chris Christie tried to point out to the New Jersey firefighters,  for politicians to make promises of benefits and perks for which the state cannot pay, leaving future generations to deal with rising debt and tempers.

A good salary and great benefits are very welcome things, but not if they lead to general ruin.

Sanity restored.


Back to business.

Related reading:
A Statement by the Bishop of the Diocese of Madison

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