Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Quote of the Week (Teachers' Edition)

To tee up this week's Quote of the Week, we first need to introduce you to Michelle Apperson. Ms. Apperson, a 6th grade teacher in Sacramento, just had a very big month--first, she was honored as Sacramento's "Teacher of the Year". Then, she was laid off.

So, either the people who give out the "Teacher of the Year" award in Sacramento are sorely mistaken, or something else is going on here. Guess which is the case?


"It hurts on a personal level because I really love what I do. But professionally and politically or economically, I get why it happens."
                                         - (Former) Sacramento Teacher of the Year Michelle Apperson

It seems that Ms. Apperson is too diplomatic to actually say why it happens, so I'll step in for her here. It happens because California, like many (or most) places in our country, has a rule in place that ensures that teachers are laid off based on seniority alone, regardless of performance. Ms. Apperson didn't have seniority, so nothing else mattered. She's gone.

These sorts of rules--which are of course championed by teachers' unions from coast to coast--are devastating our nation's education system at a time when it can ill afford any further strains. Time and time again, teachers' unions have fought for greater benefits for themselves (like, for example, lucrative pensions that can't be funded), with little regard for who will have to pay the price down the road. In this case, it's Ms. Apperson (and Sacramento's students) who are paying the price for the unions' negotiated spoils.

I fully appreciate the potential benefits of unions, but in recent years it seems that many of them have been doing more harm to their organizations than good (Detroit certainly comes to mind). It's one thing to fight over the allocation of revenues or profits between management and labor, but quite another when these negotiations begin to sink the whole ship--if a company goes bankrupt, nobody gets paid. Furthermore, I think that public unions are a strange and ugly animal, and I share FDR's belief that they probably shouldn't exist.

Part of the knee-jerk reaction to Ms. Apperson's dismissal was a call for an overhaul of the way that education is funded in this country--in fact, there's a quote in the Yahoo article that I cited which argues exactly that point. But that idea couldn't be more wrong. This isn't a matter of funding, it's a matter of spending, and of what we choose to spend our money on. Do we choose to spend it on the most senior teachers, or on the most accomplished? Do we choose to spend it on current teachers, or on retired teachers in the form of bloated pensions?

No matter how we raise our money, or where we raise it from, there's ultimately only so much to go around, and we simply can't afford to be wasteful. This goes for all forms of government spending, including education, defense, healthcare, infrastructure, etc, etc, etc. Unfortunately, when budget crises hit, we tend to cut in the worst possible places, using the worst possible methods. So we lay off successful teachers, we stop maintaining our roads, and we end up costing ourselves significantly more money in the long run as a result.

Ms. Apperson's case is only the most recent example of an unintended consequence of government budget-cutting. The simple fact is, the more we insist on ignoring the REAL sources of our budgetary problems (at the federal level, it's Medicare, defense spending, and Social Security; at the state level, it's almost always those un-fundable teachers' pensions), we'll end up cutting all of the wrong things and driving ourselves further and further into the ground. We can't nickel-and-dime our way out of these budgetary quagmires--we need to take on the big problems, rather than counter-productively chipping away at the small-but-productive government programs (like, say, NPR) that always end up being easy targets.

If our retired teachers care as much about children now as they did back when they were teaching, then they should be willing to sacrifice at least some of their pensions so that teachers like Ms. Apperson can keep their jobs. But of course, they won't be doing that any time soon, will they? So Ms. Apperson is out of luck, and so are our children. Good times.


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