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Waiting for Superman September 24, 2010

Posted by Ken in Uncategorized.
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In a story over at the news/opinion website The Blaze, I commented on the current state of public schools and the promise of charter schools on a thread discussing the new movie “Waiting for Superman”, and since I spent a fair amount of time on the response, I thought I’d post it here for your enjoyment:

I live in NJ and work in public education (IT, not in the classroom), and I ran for the local school board a few years ago. I feel I understand both sides of the “teacher union debate”.

Once upon a time, teachers felt they were victimized by principals and the administration that could fire teachers at will (seemingly), unions helped remedy that fear, but their protections have in the minds of many in the community have gone to far. I agree with the community and feel that the teachers now run the buildings, and the pricipals are forced to sit by and tolerate bad teachers rather than dedicate countless hours to attempt to get rid of a bad teacher.

Once upon a time, teachers were poorly paid, earing less than similarly-educated professional earned, unions helped remedy that situation, demanding market-rate wages for teachers. In the minds of many in the community the compensation scale has been tipped to favor the teachers and over-compensate them. Starting teachers (those who, for example, just graduated from a teaching college with no experience beyond “student teaching”) earn $49K/year, and under my districts current contract realize 6-7% raises annually. I agree that the comensation levels are inflated and don’t reflect either short or long-term market realities.

Once upon a time, teachers either had no pension or their pension was very minimal – unions helped resolve those wrongs and current teacher upon retirement earn a lifetime pension that is calculated by taking the number of years in the union, divided by 55, and then multiplied by the previous three-year average salary. It is not unusual for a teacher with over 18 years in teaching to be earning $90K/yr, and if a teacher with 35 years teaching were to retire, the calculation would be:

35 / 55 * $90,000 = $57,272,72/yr pension

That seems like a fair, non-pauper pension – in fact it seems a bit generous to many, especially those in the community that do not have pensions in their jobs who pay taxes to fund these pensions. I agree with the community, and think the remedy lies in the adjustment of the pay scale first, and if needed a reconsideration of the divisor of the calculation.

Once upon a time teachers had poor healthcare coverage, but unions stepped in and adressed that so that now teachers enjoy (at least in my district, which is not special with regard to the scope of health care coverage for teachers) high-quality, low-co-pay health care coverage and (in my district) contribute a minimal amount towards the cost of their coverage. As healthcare costs have escalated and the community has experienced rising co-pay and employee contributions in their families, teachers have been blissfully immune in most cases, arguing that a cut in the scope of benefits or an increase in co-pay or contributions is in reality a pay cut. Teachers (at least in my district) negotiate healthcare benefits as a defined level of benefits ignoring cost. I agree with the community,a nd I am actively working with my school district to adjust their contract negotiations to handle healthcare benefits as a “benefits bank” where cost is negotiated on the basis of employer contribution levels, allowing the district to get a handle on the cost of healthcare coverage.

Are these pressures hurting the students, I’m not sure – I believe that higher pay and benefits attract better teacher candidates, but simply paying teachers ever-increasing salaries and premium benefits doesn’t guarantee a better experience for the child in the classroom.

Are Charter Schools the answer? Not sure, but they side-step a lot of the issues many community members have with the current situation and appeal to many. Charter schools offer a choice, and with that choice comes a certain amount of risk – parents choosing to enroll their children in a Charter School need to understand the risks and the possible benefits before deciding what is right for their child.

Link to story with comment on theblaze.com

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