Letter to the Editor

Support the students, not the unions

Thursday, July 25, 2013

As states, municipalities, and families continue to struggle to balance their budgets, the political influence of public-sector unions has received more scrutiny. In Nebraska, fire and police unions have been under an especially close microscope, while the state teacher's union has, so far, escaped detailed examination.

The Nebraska State Educators Association -- the teacher's union -- is one of the biggest players in Nebraska politics. More than 85 percent of Nebraska teachers belong to either the state union or a local affiliate, constituting the 19th highest unionization rate in the country. The NSEA specifically has roughly 28,000 members and brings in $467 per teacher every year.

Nebraska's teachers unions have a significant impact on state policy and are heavily involved in the political process. In a ranking of teachers unions by state, Nebraska's unions are the 26th most powerful overall, beating out those in neighboring states.

But for political involvement, however, Nebraska's unions are 13th, contributing the 5th highest for contributions to state candidates over the past decade, and the 8th highest for donations to political parties. Last year's Platte Institute study on campaign finance in state elections from 2006-2010 revealed the NSEA's Political Action Committee spent more on "negative independent expenditures" than any other single PAC, and provided the majority of funding for the political activities of Nebraskans for Responsible Government, a labor-affiliated PAC.

Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission (NADC) reports have a total of nearly $170,000 in NSEA contributions to specific members of the State Board of Education and to all but one member of the Legislature's Education Committee in the most recent elections.

This political activism has paid off for the NSEA, with 59.6 percent of education dollars from local, state, and federal sources go to teacher salaries and benefits; only New York has a higher allotment.

Such benefits include a defined benefit pension system that promises an overly optimistic eight percent rate of return on investments. When the predicted return is not made -- and several investment firms predict returns to only be around 5.6-6.1 percent over the long term -- state taxpayers are left on the hook. The union's power can even be seen when despite a desperate need to reform public pensions this year, the Legislature only passed an NSEA-supported short-term fix which does nothing to address the long-term structural problems, and even overrode Governor Heineman's veto to do so. At the same time, union supported raises in teacher pay across numerous local districts outpaced inflation between 1999 and 2009. The average Nebraska teacher salary of $47,368 is the 34th highest in the nation, but when adjusted for cost of living it rises to 28th. To put that in perspective relative to Nebraska students, the Science and Engineering Readiness Index ranked Nebraska 43rd in preparing students in math, science, and engineering with a 1.97 score on a 1-5 scale in 2012.

Unions have also been major players in the policy process on education and tax issues. The NSEA was a key member in the coalition opposing the tax reforms introduced by the Governor in both 2012 and 2013. They were also staunch opponents of Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh's bill to allow charter schools in Omaha. Since the bill was killed in committee, Nebraska remains one of only eight states that still do not allow charter schools. Similarly, the union has consistently and effectively opposed other school choice legislation such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships that would empower low-income children to choose better schools than what might be otherwise be available. Efforts to pass tax credit scholarship legislation failed in both 2011 and 2013.

The dead-on-arrival nature of any educational choice legislation opposed by the NSEA demonstrates how their political activity positions their lobbyists to obstruct needed educational reforms. A recent study from the American Action Forum made the claim that collective bargaining in general has been an impediment to student achievement, noting that students in right to work states tended to out-perform their counterparts in states where collective bargaining is mandatory. For example, students in the heavily unionized cities of Chicago and New York saw half of their 4th graders below national math standards in 2011, and one-third of 4th graders in those cities were also below reading standards. Conversely, Charlotte and Austin, in right-to-work states of North Carolina and Texas, respectively, had a majority of 4th and 8th graders exceeding national standards in both math and reading.

The strong influence of the teachers union on Nebraska educational policy cannot be understated. Unions can provide valuable services to their members, but their activities now go far beyond simple job protection for their members and have prevented Nebraska from enacting reforms that would benefit under-served student populations. It is time for Nebraska's policymakers to prioritize parents and students above lobbyists for Nebraska's politically active teachers union.

-- The Platte Institute for Economic Research is a research and educational organization dedicated to improving the quality of life for all citizens of Nebraska by advancing sensible, well-researched solutions to state and local economic policy issues. References and information are available here.

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