Friday, November 9, 2007

Don't Blame Individual Teachers

Interesting opinion piece today by Kyle Olson of The Education Action Group:

Detroit News: Counter union influence on school boards (11/09/07)

I received an email in response to it, asking, “How do people let teachers get away with this?

I don’t think that’s really a fair way to frame the question, because I see a clear distinction between teachers, and the union that represents them.

I believe most individual teachers want to be in the classroom, with kids, helping them to learn. I believe most of them, quite frankly, want to be as far away from this firestorm as possible.

They deserve our support.

The MEA, on the other hand, drives issues that have absolutely nothing to do with educating our children. They are all about adult issues, and this type of activity is part of their mission.

They deserve scrutiny.

We need to keep in mind that teachers are citizens too, and have every right to support the candidates of their choice. But the coordinated effort by the MEA PAC to influence – or manipulate – elections goes far beyond that. It’s part of a larger statewide strategy conceived by the union leaders, and not by individual teachers.

Admittedly, there are a few teachers who not only encourage this type of union activity, but also take it even further. For example, some will use class lists to call or write parents at election time, using materials paid for by the union PAC (see the example to the right). It’s a deplorable practice, but one I believe is only practiced by a relatively small number of teachers.

And while a larger number of them may do their part as outlined in the union strategy, I believe many are driven to do so out of fear instilled by the MEA.

I honestly don’t see individual teachers as the problem. If teachers have any responsibility here, it’s simply that they choose their leaders poorly.

It’s the leaders of the MEA who give teachers a black eye with the type of behavior outlined in Mr. Olson’s piece.

Through the power of the internet, and the reporting required through campaign finance laws, people are starting to see who is pulling the strings behind the curtain.

I have pasted the article below in case the link doesn’t work.


Counter union influence on school boards
Kyle Olson

Imagine if you had the opportunity to choose your boss -- the person who would set your pay and benefits. You would take advantage of it, right?

The state's largest school employees union, the Michigan Education Association, has been doing that for years through school board elections -- including Tuesday's scattered voting. It has figured out that if the union issues endorsements and hands out contributions, union officials will find its friends sitting at the table come contract negotiation time.

This should worry voters, particularly in these tough economic times when tax dollars need to be stretched. In Rochester Community Schools, for example, the MEA Political Action Committee contributed more than $3,000 each to trustees Michelle Shepherd and Timothy Greimel in 2005 alone. The union PAC also paid nearly $1,000 for mailings to voters, according to campaign documents. Both candidates were elected and were key votes in approving the latest contract.

In Tuesday's elections, reform-minded Steve Kovacs was defeated by union-endorsed Beth Talbert. With Kovacs off the Rochester board, there will be one less voice asking tough questions on spending priorities.

School board elections typically are low-turnout affairs. A 2006 nationwide study by Terry Moe of the Hoover Institution found that in the typical school election, roughly 9 percent of the public shows up to vote. By comparison, 20 percent of teachers who live in the district (but work elsewhere) vote on Election Day. Teachers who live and work in the district are four-and-a-half times more likely to vote.

Add on top of that family members and friends, and it's not difficult to see how the interests of taxpayers get overwhelmed at the polls.

Candidates who earn union endorsements will be the most sympathetic to the union's case and least likely to look for savings through bidding competitively for health care or bidding for noninstructional services. The union has become increasingly sensitive to the plight of the Michigan Educational Special Services Association, its insurance affiliate, and heading that off at the pass -- at the board level -- is the strategy.

The profileration of front groups does not help the situation. A quick search of the Secretary of State's campaign finance search page shows the MEA has more than 20 PACs registered to its name. Keeping track of the money that flows through virtually every county to influence the outcome of school elections is difficult to do.

Our group tracks these things. Union involvement is a clear indication of who it thinks its friends will be in labor talks.

There are several actions Michiganians must take to get better control of public education:

• Know your school board candidates, who has endorsed them and who has contributed to their campaigns.

• Determine whose interests the candidate will represent: taxpayers and parents' or the union's.

• Vote for candidates based on who will stretch dollars as far as possible.

Ultimately, taxpayers hold the power in their hands to demand reform of public education spending in Michigan. But they must know their candidates and vote accordingly to ensure their wishes are granted and more dollars are freed up for students.

Kyle Olson is vice president of Education Action Group Inc., a nonprofit group in Muskegon that works with school boards and taxpayers.


Bill Milligan said...

I must protest your recent blog entry championing Kyle Olson (for all intents and purposes). In regards to the question "How do teachers get away with it?" I will respond with my own question:

How does Education Action Group get away with what it does? Here's a group incorporated by Eric Doster, the General Counsel of the Michigan Republican Party--a lawyer who works for a firm in Lansing that has "many business and health care clients"--that exists for the sole purpose of attacking the MEA and MESSA insurance (gee, no conflicts of interest there, eh? Nah!); a group that is funded by "private and corporate sponsors." A group that takes great pains to hide the above information. Why? I don't know. You ask them.

Enough already. How "do teachers get away it?" Well, let's define "it": free speech, the right to peaceably assemble; the right to protest; the right to vote for candidates of our choice; the right to counter anti-worker rhetoric by groups like the EAG under the disguise of their corporate sponsors who are too afraid to show their faces and their true political colors themselves.

I also take exception to what you're implying about the MEA and how it instills fear into its members and how it controls and manipulates its poor members. That's patronizing to me, as a teacher, and insulting. It implies that anyone who is loyal to the MEA or believes any of what the MEA leadership says is a duffus, someone unable to act or think for himself or herself. The "we love teachers--just hate the MEA" paraphrase is a line I've heard repeated by you, by Olson, and by Tom Casperson (to my face), so it's obviously a rhetorical strategy spoken of in the circles you all inhabit. And it's weak and transparent: Why, won't you teachers have a better time of it and be more able to fully teach to your abilities if you didn't have to pay $600 a year or so in union dues, become at-will employees, and simply take whatever school boards dictate to you?

There are always examples to find that reinforce our views. I have no doubt there are examples of MEA members feeling intimidated to tow the company line, or members who are unhappy with their MEA representation. Only the most totalitarian of political regimes don't have open disagreements among members. But I also have no doubt there are MEA members who remain MEA members for the sole purpose of reporting back to their base camps on the other side of the fence what goes on (hey, if you got to pay the dues anyway...know what I mean?) So no doubt you'll find the examples you want to exploit. The MEA has a lot of members.

Where I would take exception to your claim is the inference that because you and others can find an example here and there of a disgruntled MEA member that it represents some widespread dissent and/or leadership abuse in the MEA. I can understand why you would want to think that.

In our school, we've always bargained in good faith and it's built right into our contract that we all must be proactive agents to seek health care solutions that consider both cost and quality/stability. There is zero--zero pressure--from our local uniserv or our school's internal MEA leaders to contribute to PAC. In fact, a very small percentage of our members give to PAC on a regular basis. Some years I've done that. Some years I haven't. No biggie.

I have children in the public schools. I don't want them being taught by at-will teachers who are afraid to do or say things or who have the constant and distracting fear of administrators arbitrarily dismissing them or harassing them. That environment won't encourage learning. Control by an elite ruling class being able to arbitrarily "do as they will" with workers probably warms the hearts and minds of those inhabiting corporate board rooms, but it does little to promote democracy and empower the common people.

I suggest the real patronizing that's going on is by "concerned citizens" like Kyle Olson, who wants us to believe that the only thing standing between the education of our students and mountains of money for each of these students is the MEA.

Yeah, right, okay. That and the trillions of dollars being siphoned off to Iraq. And Afghanistan. And...

Olson's article is also telling in that the biggest complaint he seemingly has is that some legally-run and legally-voted elections didn't turn out the way he wanted them to turn out.

Good grief.

Thank you for this opportunity to respond. Free speech is a wonderful thing.

Mike Reno said...

The MEA-fear thought is one that I've had teachers explain to me... I didn't just make it up. For example, I just heard a story about a teacher that chose to "opt-out" of the political contribution piece of their dues, and now has the union enforcers in her face. (I'm not talking about additional PAC contributions... I'm talking about the law that addresses the use of union dues for political purposes.)

I've heard stories of the internal conflicts professional teachers have felt when they've been pressured to participate in union demonstrations during contract negotiations.

I've seen the cards that the local PAC sends out to it's members during elections, which literally say, "Save our benefits, vote for Joe". Hardly a thoughtful endorsement. It sure seems to me to be designed to guide those that are willing to accept instructions rather than independent thinkers. Wouldn't you find something like that to be a bit insulting? And doesn't it make you wonder, given that they are so effective?

The MEA is taking education down a path of self-destruction. They pursue a single-minded goal without regard to the damage it can cause to a district. Their demands oftentimes result in young teachers losing their jobs. The union leaders responsible for the decisions are comfortable "eating their young" because they are able to bring home the bacon to the rest of the members, and can blame someone else for the loss.

And I've heard the "without the union we'd be abused" philosophy, which assumes that principals and superintendents are irresponsible leaders, unaccountable to anyone. (To some extent the unaccountable piece is true, because school boards are largely populated with rubber-stamping clones, which is another problem I rally against!)

By it's very nature, a union breeds mistrust. The need for a contract implies that "management" is only out to take advantage of "labor." As a professional, I'd find it insulting to work under such an arrangement, and be viewed as "labor".

You may feel strongly about EAG, but I think they would've been formed if the MEA PAC wasn't using it's muscle in board elections. I view EAG as an effort to provide some counterbalance to the MEA PAC.

Bill Milligan said...


You yourself suggest the EAG exists as a counter to the MEA; in other words, a check-and-balance. But then just a few sentences earlier you chide the MEA for wanting to be that same sort of "check" to school boards by it not simply trusting school boards and administrations to have 100 percent of the control and 100 percent of the say in labor decisions. Why, there's no reason on earth not to give full control over to these entities, you suggest--and implicitly rebuke the union for wanting to ensure there's a check-and-balance in these matters.

I'll leave out the history lessons in this country about such things and simply point out the above contradiction and let it go at that.

Mr. Olson too laments the fact the MEA and the common worker has any voice (if you read his opening line and translate it).

It's a rather convenient spin to suggest the MEA is this well-oiled, all-power machine and simply tramples everything in its path (including its own members) and that patriotic people like Olson and the EAG exist as some meager grass-roots entities left to fight the big, bad monster in guerrilla fashion. Hey, I wasn't on the tarmac shaking Dick Cheney's hand last September. I doubt Mr. Cheney has a clue who I am. Or Eric Doster. Or the Mackinac Group. Or the Michigan Republican Party. Or the corporate interests that fund the EAG. OR...

You get the idea. I'm a first-generation college student in my family, a person who up until his early 30s filed tax returns that met the federal guidelines for poverty level; the son of man with a 9th-grade education who climbed telephone poles for 35-years (God rest his soul) and who, when he retired, got a cheap watch and a pat on the back by his employer (this for a man who busted his hump everyday and missed only enough work days to count on one hand in 35 years). But his union got him a liveable pension and health care. I walked the picket line with my father as a child and I remember lean times in our house when his employer put the screws to the union and tried to break them. I don't need to be reminded about the need for checks and balances.

Let me summarize the two biggest complaints you and Kyle have as I see it: 1) The MEA, by virtue of existing, allows its members to be seated at the bargaining table as active members--along with school board members and administrations--instead of 100 percent of all power, control, and say being in the hands of a small, elite group representing only 1 faction. 2) There were some legally-run and legally-voted on elections recently where you both didn't like the results of the vote.

Fair enough.

One other correction to Olson's piece: MEA teachers, like me, are also taxpayers. I'm not sure of why he tries to separate "union" from "taxpayer" but I pay my taxes like everyone else. And probably more so in taxes, proportionately speaking, than some people and entities in this State who view unions as a plague.

Let's be honest. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

The MEA is not nearly as nasty of a menace as some would have us believe nor are these reform minded folks as pure in idology either.

The truth lies in a middle ground.

Bill Milligan said...

I also find it interesting that it's bad and evil when teachers exercise their right to vote for candidates of their choice--but it's apparently okay and dandy (which in a democracy it certainly is) if an anti-union, anti-MEA person sits on a school board.

You can't have the argument both ways. You can't complain about the MEA sending fliers out in the mail and then applaud when a third-party inserts itself directly into the collective bargaining in the Holton district with its own campaign spin.

It's like my brother used to do to me as a kid: club me over the head and then go crying to mom that I was picking on him and being unfair ;)

Anonymous said...

I will say that for all the lamenting that goes on about the big, bad MEA and its pr machine that there seems to be a pretty slick and extensive anti-union public relations campaign (that extends far beyond the surface target, the MEA)going on. Heck, Mike has links to many other board members who parrot the "reform" mantra (re: down with the union and the working person).

I think if this onion were truly peeled to its core the average citizen might be a bit shocked at just who the real bullies are and who the real victims are.