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Pension Pilfery

A Kinder and Gentler Teachers Union?

The unions are trying to take the “we’re in it for the kids” shtick to a new level by declaring that they now collectively bargain for “the common good.”

Last week, The American Prospect posted “Teacher Unions Are ‘Bargaining for the Common Good,’” which claims that unions across the country are “expanding their focus to the broader community.” All this is code for, “We don’t want to come off as selfish, so while we are still going to push for our typical me-first (and only) union agenda, we are going to try to deceive the public into believing that we really care about kids and taxpayers.”

According to the piece, public employee union leaders and community organizations gathered in Washington, D.C. in 2014 and came up with a 3-point plan: use the bargaining process as a way to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector; work with community allies to create new, shared goals that help advance both worker and citizen power; and recognize militancy and collective action will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reduce inequality and strengthen democracy.

The lofty but ultimately meaningless verbiage led the writer of the piece to conclude that “The time had come, in sum, to politicize bargaining.”

Politicize bargaining?! That’s all collective bargaining in education is and ever was – pure, unadulterated, no additives, not-made-from-concentrate – politics. The union sits at a table with school board members and hashes out contracts that, more often than not, are detrimental to students, good teachers and taxpayers. Collective bargaining agreements inhibit creativity and treat teachers as interchangeable widgets. Additionally, the taxpayer gets to foot the bill for goodies like Cadillac healthcare plans that the union – and frequently their bought-and-paid-for school board – collude on and ratify.

There is a ton of evidence that the cuddly, kind and caring teacher union concept is a fraud. Here are just a few recent examples:

In last week’s post, I wrote about a situation in Yonkers, NY where a union president and vice-president are both caught on video trying to help a teacher who claimed to have physically abused a child while using a racial epithet, and subsequently fled to Mexico, unannounced, for two weeks. (It was actually staged by investigative journalist James O’Keefe.) As all concerned parties investigate the union leaders’ responses, the Yonkers Federation of Teachers has asked the taxpayer subsidized school district to continue paying Paul Diamond, the union vice-president, his salary while he performs his union duties for the 2016-17 school year. Not unique to Yonkers, this phenomenon, known as “release time,” goes on all over the country and is an absolute outrage. It’s a practice that allows a public employee to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay, all the while giving the union a free worker. The employee’s activities include negotiating contracts, lobbying, processing grievances, and attending union meetings and conferences. Diamond will not spend one minute teaching. No evidence of “citizen power” here.

Next, a school district in Illinois just awarded its teachers a 10-year contract that includes a 40 percent salary increase over its term, preserves a pre-retirement, 6 percent yearly pay spike to boost teachers’ pensions, an increase in sick-days from 15 to 24 per year, and a freeze on health insurance and prescription drug costs for district employees for the 10-year period. “Shared goals?” In what universe?

On the state level, we have a situation in California that doesn’t involve collective bargaining but certainly calls into question whose “common good” is being served. Contra Costa Democratic Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla’s AB 934 would change both seniority and tenure as we know it. The bill includes a provision that offers ineffective teachers extra professional support. If a teacher receives a second low-performance review after a year in the program, they could be fired via an expedited process. It would also increase the time for a teacher to attain tenure (or more accurately “permanent status”) from two to three or four years, depending on their performance. Additionally, seniority would no longer be the single most important factor in handing out pink slips. This is hardly radical stuff and would certainly make for a more effective teaching profession in the Golden State.

But the most powerful special interest group in the state, the California Teachers Association, is fighting the bill. Blithely casting the needs of kids aside, the union first claimed the bill “would make education an incredibly insecure profession.” (Yes, just like every other profession in the world.) In a subsequent post on its website, the union went bonkers, claiming, “Corporate millionaires and special interests have mounted an all-out assault on educators by attempting to do away with laws protecting teachers from arbitrary firings, providing transparency in layoff decisions and supporting due process rights.” And that was just the beginning. To read the rest of this bizarre rant, go here. But in any event, we know whose posterior CTA is trying to protect, and it has absolutely nothing to do with “reducing inequality.”

And then there is the pension situation. In California, the state teachers’ retirement system is currently experiencing a $70 billion shortfall. Is CTA willing to accept some responsibility and work to make adjustments for the common good? The union’s response to the nightmare that will ultimately fall on the shoulders of the already beleaguered taxpayer is to try to kill any reforms, maintain the miserable status quo and blame Wall Street and “corporate greed.” “Strengthening democracy?” Hardly.

Finally, last week in National Review, former Florida governor Jeb Bush laid out a plan to save America’s education system. His excellent piece included such basic ideas as letting parents choose from a marketplace of options, including traditional neighborhood schools, magnet schools, charter schools, private schools, and virtual schools, with education funding following the child. He wants to weed out failing schools and reward good and great teachers for hard work and results. But each of these ideas is fought on a daily basis by the teachers unions, since they would lose much of their power and income if Bush’s ideas were to be implemented on a grand scale.

“Bargaining for the common good” is just a touchy-feely catchphrase which shouldn’t fool anyone. The teachers unions are not acting in anyone else’s best interest. And there is little good about them, common or otherwise.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Let’s Deep-six Prop. 30

The signatures for an initiative that would extend 2012’s “temporary” tax increase in California are due today.

Four years ago Californians voted in Prop. 30, a “temporary” tax, to pay back schools “from the years of devastating cuts.” But as I show here, there was hardly any devastation; in fact, our spending had continued to be quite robust. The measure jacked up income tax on people with incomes exceeding $250,000 through 2018 and increased sales tax on all of us through the end of this year. But, the Beholden State teachers unions are trying to get an initiative on the 2016 ballot that would continue the higher income tax through 2030. (The sales tax increase would expire as scheduled.) Earlier this month, California Teachers Association president Eric Heins told the union’s State Council that “…we need to gather 900,000 signatures to get our measure on the ballot. We are about 60 percent there, and we only have about three more weeks.”

Today, in fact, is the deadline. If enough signatures are gathered, the extension has a good chance of success. As reported by EdSource’s John Fensterwald, a Public Policy Institute of California poll found, “…among all Californians, 64 percent support the extension, 32 percent oppose it and 4 percent are undecided. Among likely voters, 62 percent back it, 35 percent oppose it and 2 percent haven’t decided. By party affiliation, 82 percent of Democrats support it while only 32 percent of Republicans do.”

When I read poll numbers like this, I always wonder if the people questioned know what we actually spend on education. My guess is that many don’t. A recent Education Next poll, which included a question about that issue, is instructive. The school districts in which their survey respondents resided spent an average of $12,440 per pupil in 2012 (the most recent data available). But when asked, the respondents estimated per-pupil expenditures in their local school district, they guessed, on average, just $6,307 – about half of what was actually spent. (By the way, these dollar amounts would be considerably higher if expenditures for transportation, capital expenses, and debt service were included.)

Should Prop. 30 (or any future such tax increases) make it on to the ballot, I would ask voters to consider the following:

  • The unions will tell you that the tax is only on the wealthy, whom they claim don’t pay their fair share. But a look at the actual numbers tells a different story. A report issued by the Congressional Budget Office in 2012 shows that the top one percent of income earners across the nation paid 39 percent of federal individual income taxes in 2009, while earning 13 percent of the income. Hence, it’s clear that the rich are already paying considerably more than their “fair share.”
  • Courtesy of Cato Institute’s late, great Andrew Coulson, we see that between 1972 and 2012 California’s education spending (adjusted for inflation) has doubled, while our students’ SAT scores have actually declined.
  • The latest study on the relationship between spending and achievement, recently conducted in Michigan, found no statistically significant correlation between how much money the state’s public schools spend and how well students perform academically. Mackinac Center Education Policy Director Ben DeGrow, who coauthored the study said, “Of the 28 measurements of academic achievement studied, we find only one category showed a statistically significant correlation between spending and achievement, and the gains were nominal at best.” He added, “Spending may matter in some cases, but given the way public schools currently spend their resources, it is highly unlikely that merely increasing funding will generate any meaningful boost to student achievement.”
  • Unconditional money poured into public education from the private sector doesn’t help either. In 2010, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public schools, which was matched by another $100 million from unnamed donors. As documented in The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, a book about the gift, the money went up in smoke, with the teachers union playing a big role in vaporizing it. As reported by the New York Times, Newark Teachers Union leader Joe Del Grosso “demanded a ransom of $31 million to compensate for what he felt members should have received in previous years — before agreeing to discuss any labor reforms.” The new labor contract accounted for almost half the $200 million. In a review of the book, Cato Institute’s Jason Bedrick wrote, “The union boss… made the back pay a condition for even holding the negotiations. ‘We had an opportunity to get Zuckerberg’s money,’ Del Grosso later explained, ‘Otherwise, it would go to the charter schools. I decided I shouldn’t feed and clothe the enemy.’” But it wasn’t only the unions that abused the gift. As Bedrick says, “The Prize demonstrates in depressing detail just how difficult it is to reform public schooling in the United States. Laws, regulations, and labor contracts favored adult jobs over kids’ education and this entrenched bureaucracy was difficult to change—especially because reforms met opposition from special interests and their political allies.”

With a debt of over $1 trillion and counting, California clearly has a spending problem, not a too-little-tax problem. The taxpayers must take action. First, we all need to know specifically where our edu-bucks are being spent. You can start at the Ed-Data website for general expenditures. Do some digging to find out how teacher union (and all public employee union) pensions are bankrupting cities across the state. For that kind of information, Pension Tsunami is an invaluable resource. Perhaps most importantly, communicate with legislators and demand school choice. Among other things – just as in business – competition lowers prices while increasing product quality. And God knows we would benefit from both.

Randi Weingarten and other union leaders have a prized talking point: “You can’t fire your way to a teaching force.” It’s a ridiculous claim, which I debunked last week. And at the same time, they erroneously believe we can spend our way to success. But they make no real case for this, because there isn’t one. It’s time for all of us to stop falling for the feel-good fairy tales. Just saying “No!” to the Prop. 30 extension – should it get to the ballot – would be a great place to start.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Teacher Union Pension Flim-flam

The public employee pension problem isn’t new, but a teacher union leader’s defense of it has sunk to new depths.

According to the Federal Reserve, public employee pensions in aggregate nationally are in serious trouble. Currently totaling $5.8 trillion, they are underfunded by $1.7 trillion. While all these pensions are draining public resources, Don Boyd, director of fiscal studies at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, charges that the teachers’ plans are a disproportionate part of the problem. And in a recent US News & World Report piece, “America’s Bankrupt Schools,” Lauren Camera sounds alarm bells, explaining that “Pension plans could be the culprit behind broke big-city school districts,” and goes on to detail the bleak fiscal situation that now burdens Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago.

Teachers’ pensions are funded to some extent by teachers themselves but the bulk of the payment is supplied by the school district (the taxpayer) and the local and state government (the taxpayer). It’s a “defined benefit” set-up whereby the teacher, upon retiring, receives a fixed monthly amount for life…no matter how much he or she has actually contributed to the plan.

While it is true that local and state governments are responsible for the looming disaster, the influential teachers unions have much to say about these policies and are leading the charge to maintain the unsustainable status quo. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which represents many educators in the most fiscally challenged cities, claims, “People become schoolteachers knowing full well they will not command riches like in the private sector, but when they retire they can take comfort in knowing they have a pension to support them…The real culprit of the school systems’ trouble has been state governments’ support for expanding charter schools, voucher plans and other school choice policies,” which she argues have eaten into the budget for traditional public schools. She adds, “There is a common thread in how the Philadelphia crisis started, what happened in Michigan, and what’s happening in Illinois, where there is abandonment by these Republican governors or legislatures of urban city school districts.”

Where to begin?! In one fell swoop, she plays the “poor teacher” card, blames legislators who try to help kids to escape their failing public schools (which her union rules over) and Republicans. Of course, she omits the fact that every city and some states that are underwater are run by Democrats. As for her first claim, the myth of the underpaid teacher has no basis. Perhaps the most respected study to date, conducted by researchers Jason Richwine and Andrew Biggs (in which they account for all variables – including the fact that teachers work on average for 180 days, while private industry workers toil for 240-250 days) found that workers “who switch from non-teaching jobs to teaching jobs receive a wage increase of roughly 9 percent, while teachers who change to non-teaching jobs see their wages decrease by approximately 3 percent.” And that doesn’t include the very generous “Cadillac” healthcare plans that most teachers have and don’t pay for. So it would seem that teachers do quite well compared to other workers, even before their pensions are accounted for.

Weingarten’s comments about school choice are especially egregious. As explained by the Friedman Foundation’s Martin Lueken, “First, the states Weingarten cites are experiencing the worst pension crises, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois, do not even have strongly funded private school choice programs. Michigan has none, and fewer than 3 percent of the state’s students in Pennsylvania and likely fewer in Illinois are currently using any private school choice program.” He rightfully points out that schools of choice do not siphon public funds. “The truth is that school choice programs can improve the fiscal health of public school districts. Between 1990 and 2011, there were 10 private school choice programs in operation. Those programs saved a total of $1.7 billion. Another fiscal analysis on the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program demonstrated net savings of $37 million in FY 2009 from the program.”

Unmentioned in Weingarten’s misguided explanation was a prior classic. She is on record saying that, “Every dollar paid out in pension benefits puts $2.37 back into the economy.” Here the union leader blithely ignores that the same economic activity would be generated by taxpayer money if it were not diverted to pensions in the first place.

Another outrage that has been rarely acknowledged in the pension discussion is what is euphemistically called release time or, in some circles, “ghost teachers.” It’s a practice that allows public employees to conduct union business during working hours without loss of pay. These activities include negotiating contracts, lobbying, processing grievances, and attending union meetings and even out-of-town conferences. It has cost the state and federal governments billions to date, not including the pension time the “ghosts” rack up doing work for their union. Thankfully, reports about abuses in Michigan, Connecticut, Philadelphia and elsewhere have been brought to light over the past year.

Via legislation or initiative – whatever it takes – public sector employers must be made to set up 401(k) or “defined contribution” retirement plans as exist in the private sector. In this arrangement, the employer, employee or both make contributions on a regular basis, but there is no additional taxpayer involvement. However, until 401(k) plans are implemented – and the unions will fight tooth and nail to keep that from happening – so much of the money that should be spent on education, especially in our most blighted cities, will go into the pockets of not only retired teachers but to various other public employees…ghost and otherwise. And all the while the teachers unions claim that everything they do is for the children. In this case (and in so many others), they are doing it to the children, not to mention the ever-more-beleaguered taxpayers.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

When Union Bosses Become Employers

Sanctimonious labor leaders treat their employees very differently than their members.

While tales of union hypocrisy are as common as instances of Donald Trump sticking his Ferragamos in his mouth, there is one facet of union two-facedness that is under-reported – the role of union as employer. As mentioned in my post a couple of weeks ago, when union becomes management, it acts like any company trying to protect its bottom line.

In June 2014, the Association of Field Service Employees was upset that its contract had expired, and management had been slow to agree on a new one. Mike Antonucci points out, “This wouldn’t be all that unusual, except management is the National Education Association and AFSE is one of the unions representing staffers.” Clearly photos of picketing workers had to be an embarrassment for NEA, but when the bottom line is at stake, even the largest union in the country becomes a tough-minded employer.

When it comes to pension plans, public employee unions (PEUs) insist on defined benefit pension plans for its members. This means that boom or bust, retired government workers get paid the same amount of money each month in perpetuity. If there is a shortfall – and there invariably is – the taxpayer is on the hook for the difference. (To read about public pension issues and the havoc they wreak, go to PensionTsunami.com.) In a defined contribution plan – the 401(k) is typical for many employees in private industry – workers and their employers set aside a certain amount each month and that money is invested. When the employee subsequently retires, they are entitled to whatever money has accrued in their retirement account.

You would think that staffers who work for PEUs would be “entitled” to a defined benefit pension also. This is rarely the case, however, with the scenario in Philadelphia being the norm. As Watchdog.org reporter Evan Grossman writes, “Pennsylvania labor union leaders blast 401(k) plans they offer their own staff.” Typical of union leaders, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan has long railed against using 401(k) retirement plans for PFT members as a way to curb skyrocketing pension costs. In fact, he and hundreds of thousands of teachers from Philly have been and will be recipients of a defined benefit pension and fight any bill – like Senate Bill 1, which would have moved teachers into a more taxpayer-friendly 401(k) plan.

But what about the 34 office workers employed by PFT? Yup, they are enrolled in a 401(k) plan. And the union leaders have never explained – because they can’t – why defined benefits are good for its members but not for its own staff.

As is well-documented, teachers unions all over the country insist on seniority and tenure “rights” (though these days, union leaders have taken to referring to tenure as “due process”) for its educators. But in March, the California Teachers Association up and fired Katie Howard-Mullins, president of California Staff Organization (CSO), the union for “professional departmental and Regional UniServ Staff.” No reason or explanation was given by CTA for its action. Whether or not Howard-Mullins had tenure or seniority didn’t matter. She got the boot. But CTA members, whether they are pedophiles, sexual assaulters or just plain lousy teachers – are provided much better treatment and much more protection.

CSO called CTA on its hypocrisy in its newsletter, saying that the union did not use progressive discipline, a “hallmark of a positive labor-management relationship” in dealing with Howard-Mullins. CSO summed up its position by encouraging its members to talk to CTA board members and let them know that “the principles of restorative justice, due process, and progressive discipline are not just good for students, not just good for teachers. Those principles should be applied to the people who stand with you every day to make your union stronger.”

Makes sense. But when you are a powerful union, you get to behave any way you want. Fairness, openness and due process are principles that only others must abide by.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

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Important note for those of you in Southern California: At 3pm on Sunday, September 27th, the California Teachers Empowerment Network, along with the Association of American Educators, will be hosting an informational event in Long Beach. We will examine the Friedrichs and Bain lawsuits which could fundamentally alter the state of education nationwide, affect teacher freedom, and substantially change the political landscape in California.

I will moderate a panel discussion featuring lawyers and plaintiffs from both cases, and an audience Q&A will follow. The event and refreshments are free but seating is limited so registration is necessary To access a poster for the event, go here; to attend, go here.

 

LA Teachers Union: Striking Out?

UTLA is planning to walk out over a mess that it helped to create.

The case is being built for a teachers’ strike in Los Angeles. The next step in the contract negotiation process is mediation, whereby a state-appointed mediator will try to get the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) to reconcile their differences. If no progress is made during those sessions, scheduled for March 26th, April 6th and April 15th, the fact-finding stage is next. Anything that comes out of this part of the process is not binding, but could be influential in the last step in which the district makes its final offer. At that point, the union can accept the deal, or reject it and call for a strike vote.

There are a number of issues on the table, but the main sticking points are as follows:

UTLA wants a bigger raise than LAUSD is offering. The district’s offer is 5 percent, but the union, after originally asking for 17.5, has lowered its demand to 8.5 percent, retroactive to July 2014.

The union wants smaller classes. Due to budgetary constraints, the district wants latitude in determining the number of teachers on the payroll. The union wants the district to commit to a hard and fast teacher-student ratio. Fewer teachers, of course, translate to larger classes.

The union does not want an imposed teacher-evaluation system. In light of a lawsuit settled in 2012 that mandated substantive teacher evaluations, the district came up with a simple four-level teacher-evaluation plan which it instituted in 2013. But the union pushed back successfully, claiming the district single-handedly imposed the process, prompting an administrative law judge to rule that LAUSD had to repeal it. The decision came in response to an unfair labor practices charge that UTLA filed three months later. The union is demanding to be a part of any new evaluation system for its teachers.

Moving away from the bargaining table, the leaders of the two warring factions have gone public with their case. In January, LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines called the union’s latest demands “entirely unrealistic” and asserted that they raise “serious ethical and equity issues” for the district. He pointed out that

… all the district’s other unions have agreed to new contracts within the current economic landscape, he chided UTLA for its bargaining stance over 16 negotiating sessions, saying, ‘It is regrettable that the current UTLA leadership has gone in an entirely different direction.’

UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl has been mouthing off to the press all along, lambasting the district and everything else he can think of. At a rally in downtown LA last week, throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, he bloviated,

The recession, the cuts to the bone at schools, the attacks on public service, the increasingly savage racism and economic inequality that our students face, John Deasy for three years, all of them have set us back. And we are not going to take it anymore.

Okay, now here is the reality: LAUSD is mired in fiscal purgatory. Dealing with a $160 million deficit, Cortines said just 11 days ago that he has already begun cutting programs for next year, and layoffs are next with the first round of pink slips due to go out March 15th. (Worth noting: $160 million is almost the exact figure LAUSD is paying to the victims of one teacher – sexual predator Mark Berndt, whose wretched legacy owes a nod to the teachers union which traditionally has insisted on laws that make it practically impossible to get rid of incompetent and debauched educators.) When asked what’s most likely to be cut, Cortines said, “Everything.” LAUSD officials added that giving the union everything it is asking for would pile another $800 million of debt on the district.

If layoffs become necessary, Cortines will be painted as the goat, but it is the union that bears the majority of the responsibility. In good economic times, UTLA – and most teachers unions – demand that school districts use up all available resources to hire more educators. Then, when the inevitable economic downturn hits, layoffs become necessary. Also, it’s not just teachers who are hired when the economy is robust; more support personnel are invariably a part of the package.

The fiscal situation is even bleaker for the district than the $160 million deficit and additional $800 million the union is demanding the district spend. Due to recent legislation, school districts in California now have to come up with a greater proportion of retired teachers’ pensions. This will cost the district an additional $1.1 billion over the next seven years. The annual salary for LAUSD teachers who have taken some professional development classes and taught for 10 years is $75,592, which the union says isn’t enough. But while union leaders whine over what they deem to be paltry salaries, they never mention the additional perks a teacher gets like a comprehensive healthcare package and a defined-benefit pension. When those costs are added in, that ten-year teacher’s total compensation is more like $90,000. Not bad for 180 days work.

Also, teachers – the good ones, that is – could be making considerably more if not for the industrial-style step-and-column way that unions insist its teachers get paid. With no nod to quality, mediocre and worse teachers are paid the same as the good and great ones

Regarding the smaller class-size demand – LA has about 640,000 students and 31,000 teachers, which means about 20 kids per teacher, not exactly an overbearing number. If some teachers’ classes are too large, then rebalancing becomes the issue. While it’s true that there are instances where some kids benefit from more individual attention, it is by no means universal. The most extensive study on the subject was done by Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek in 1998. He examined 277 different studies on the effect of teacher-pupil ratios and class-size averages on student achievement, and found that only 15 percent of the studies indicated an improvement in achievement, while 72 percent showed no effect at all. Worse, 13 percent found that reducing class-size actually had a negative effect on achievement.

But class size and teacher pay are related. If you lopped off the bottom 10 percent lowest performers from the district, the remaining (better) teachers could get a hefty raise with just a few more kids in each class and no additional outlay from the district.

It’s important to note that the entire collective bargaining process is not beneficial for many teachers and their students. Thomas F. Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli finds that, “Teachers in non-collective bargaining districts actually earn more than their union-protected peers—$64,500 on average versus $57,500.” Petrilli adds that “there is some evidence … that non-collective bargaining districts drive a harder bargain when it comes to health care.” He also points out that collective-bargaining districts focus on seniority, protecting various benefits associated with longevity rather than pushing for higher pay. These tenure and seniority “benefits,” which clearly are unfair to good teachers and their students, are what Judge Rolf Treu was referring to in his recent Vergara ruling when he said. “The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

In 2012, Chicago teachers – already the highest paid teachers in the country while working the fewest hours of any other big-city school district – went on strike. Stanford’s Terry Moe wrote at the time,

Collective bargaining is not fundamentally about children. It is about the power and special interests of adults. In Chicago and elsewhere, the teachers unions are in the business of winning better salaries and benefits, protecting job security, pressuring for restrictive work rules and in other ways advancing the occupational interests of their members. These interests are simply not the same as the interests of children.

Not to say that school districts are perfect. Far from it. But ideally, their mission is to promote the interests of children, while unions are there to serve their rank-and-file – the good and the bad, it’s all the same to them. The teachers unions may blather about the children, but ultimately they are there to serve the adults. And that’s causing big problems in Los Angeles and everywhere else these unions have power.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

California’s Public Sector Union Pension Secrecy Lobby

Last month, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) announced that it would post the names and pension amounts of its retirees. But after the Retired Public Employees Association of California (RPEA) objected, CalPERS quickly pulled back from this pledge. RPEA leaders made what amounted to a novel and troubling argument about why vital public records should remain sealed: releasing pension information, they said, would subject pensioners to criticism, which government retirees simply should not have to bear.

“It’s a good thing CalPERS . . . delayed a plan to post a database online displaying the specifics of all the pensions it administers,” wrote George Linn, RPEA’s public relations director. “Posting unvarnished numbers like that without context would not inform the public, it would only open hardworking middle-class public servants to another round of attacks from Wall Street critics looking for their own political gain.” Linn argued that California taxpayers already have plenty of information about pensions. If they did some research, he went on, they’d learn that the “average public servant in our state retires on just $26,000 a year,” that public-school teachers don’t earn Social Security, and that governor Jerry Brown’s pension-reform plan last year “dramatically reduced government employees’ compensation.”

Linn’s facts are mostly disinformation. For starters, that $26,000 figure is about three times the average pension in the private sector. Further, the data used to compute the average go back decades—before the massive retroactive pension increases of recent years—and include everyone who has worked in the public systems, even if only for a short time. Such a massive data set tends to obscure the particulars of today’s pension formulas, which remain astonishingly generous. Many state firefighters, for example, get the “3 percent at 50” pension benefit that the preponderance of California public-safety workers enjoy—3 percent of their final year’s pay multiplied by the number of years worked, available at age 50. And that’s before applying the common pension-spiking gimmicks that can push the pension well above an individual’s final working salary. As a result, a California firefighter’s average total compensation—salary plus benefits and overtime—is about $175,000 per year.

Linn’s right that most teachers receive lower pensions than many other public employees, and they don’t get Social Security benefits (they opted out years ago). But his claim that Governor Brown’s pension-reform plan will cut back public-employee compensation is fantasy. The pension plan—passed in the waning days of the legislative session to gin up support for a tax increase—applies only to new employees and is far more modest than the governor’s original proposal, which would have created a hybrid defined-benefit and defined-contribution plan for new state workers.

In objecting to the CalPERS data release, Linn and his allies are trying to prevent informed debate. But voters can find the information elsewhere. The California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, for example, has been running its $100,000 Pension Club database for several years. “Our $100,000 Club database has had about two-million page views since being put online in 2009 and I haven’t heard of any reports of problems from those retirees on the list,” said CFFR vice president Jack Dean, who also runs pensiontsunami.com. California newspapers regularly publish pension data, too.

Defending its change of heart, CalPERS cited pending legislation that would amend the state’s Public Records Act to wall off pension data from public scrutiny. Pension officials would love to see that happen, of course, but it’s unlikely that such a measure would survive a court challenge. To prove constitutional, argues Terry Francke in the San Jose Mercury News, such legislation “would have to adopt findings demonstrating necessity, when all the proponents’ announced rationales for such secrecy have been argued to the appellate courts and found unpersuasive.” Francke, who serves as general counsel for the First Amendment advocacy group Californians Aware, noted that courts have widely rejected another argument that public pensioners make—that releasing the information would expose seniors to scams.

Indeed, the courts have repeatedly rejected attempts to shut down the release of information from the state’s various pension systems. As U-T San Diego reported in June, “Courts in seven California counties have ruled in favor of releasing pension data for retirees. Retirement systems in three counties appealed these rulings, with no success so far.” The courts recognize that this is bona fide public information that taxpayers need to ensure proper oversight of the state’s unfunded pension liabilities—which can only exist, after all, through taxpayer-backed debt. Yet the secrecy lobby continues to wage this fight based on emotional arguments.

It’s unclear why CalPERS proposed creating its own database in the first place. It’s even more difficult to understand the push for secrecy, given the court record and the availability of similar information elsewhere. California public employees already enjoy myriad privileges, but immunity from criticism would take their special treatment to a whole new level.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune. Write to him atsteven.greenhut@utsandiego.com. This column originally appeared in City Journal and is republished here with permission.

State Sponsored Thievery Continues in Plain Sight

Teachers and other public employees use “air time” to pick your pocket. The California State Teachers Retirement System tries calming words. David Crane tells the truth and loses yet another job.

Saying that the state teachers’ retirement system is underfunded is the understatement of this or any year and now, CalSTRS is giving us specifics. On December 27th, it said,

“Recent media reports have suggested that to solve the unfunded liability the state will have to increase CalSTRS funding by $3.8 billion a year for 30 years for a total of more than $114 billion. Although this is an accurate statement based on current projections, achieving adequate funding can occur several ways that would be phased in over time. The CalSTRS $56 billion funding shortfall can be managed, but it will require gradual and predictable increases in contributions.”

In fact, saying that the shortfall has to be “managed” is like saying that World War II had to be managed. No, the reality is that there has to be major destruction and rebuilding, no matter how unpopular this will be with the beneficiaries of the theft, their unions and their kick-the-can-down-the-road buddies in Sacramento who are occasionally known as legislators. Tinkering around the edges and “managing” the problem will do little.

But even before we start dealing with the restructuring, we must stop the rampant gaming-the-system that continues to make a horrible situation even worse. We’ve all heard stories of public employees who retire, collect a big disability pension, but take another job at full pay displaying no signs of their disability. Even a healthy teacher can retire, still continue to work and collect $31,200 a year while receiving a full pension.

But there is one abuse that has received very little attention: purchasing service credit or “air time.”

Air time fleeces taxpayers in 21 states including California. It means very simply that public employees can plunk down some cash and purchase “years on the job” which can add a significant amount of money to their pension. In fact, pensions can be boosted up to 25% using this scam. Dan Pellissier, a adviser to California’s previous governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, paid $75,000 in 2004 for five years of work credit. When he turns 55 in 2015, he will get a pension of $61,536 a year — almost $13,000 more than if he hadn’t bought air time. That’s $320,000 extra by the time he is 80.

For teachers, the results can also be dramatic. The CalSTRS website does a bang up job letting teachers know how best to game the system and screw the taxpayer…er, I mean, the website does an excellent job of explaining teachers’ “air time” rights. In a simple two page document, they explain just how it works for “Rick.”

“This year, if Rick purchases one year of service credit when he is 32 and his highest annual earnable compensation for the last three years is $35,000, his $100 extra a month will cost $5,950.”

So if Rick retires at 55, he will get a $100 extra a month for the rest of his life. The $5,950 he paid to buy air time will be recouped after just five years of retirement. So beginning at age 60, the taxpayer begins to pay Rick that extra $100 a month. If Rick lives to be 80, the taxpayer will be on the hook for an extra $24,000. Keep in mind that there are 755, 000 potential and actual abusers in CalSTRS and another 1.6 million in the California Public Employee Retirement System (CalPERS), where air time is also a reality. Hence while that $24,000 might not seem like an outlandish figure, there are over 2.35 million people in CA with the ability to take advantage of this state sponsored thievery. If just 10 percent of the states’ workers do what Rick does, the taxpayer is dinged for another $5.65 billion.

That the pension mess in California is spinning out of control is a given, but if you are in a position of power and dare to talk about it, be prepared to lose your job. David Crane, a Democrat, was appointed to the CalSTRS board by Arnold Schwarzenegger, but was denied confirmation in 2006 after repeatedly questioning the solvency of the system. He was told that the job of trustees is “only to protect members’ benefits,” not to worry about the long-term effects of the benefits on the state budget.

The nerve of Crane!

Then, a year ago, Crane was appointed as a University of California Regent but was just excused from that position because of his incorrect thoughts on the importance of curtailing some collective bargaining “rights” for public employees.

David Crane is a latter day Paul Revere. But if the American Revolution took place in modern Sacramento, he’d be tarred and feathered for essentially not minding his own business. Never mind the looming fiscal disaster that is around the corner for all of us in California. Let’s just not talk about it.

About the author: Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.