California’s chronic fiscal crisis should prompt a substantive debate about the limits of government and the folly of an expansive welfare state. Instead, leaders of the 325,000-member California Teachers Association are using the struggle to close the Golden State’s $15.4 billion budget deficit as an opportunity for some political street theater. The powerful National Education Association state affiliate is spending this week highlighting California’s “state of emergency,” with large rallies planned in Sacramento and around the state Friday to agitate for billions of dollars in higher taxes.

The union’s timing is not by chance. Governor Jerry Brown will unveil his revised budget on May 16, and deep cuts to the K-12 education budget could mean widespread teacher layoffs as early as next month. Californians can expect heavy doses of union demagoguery this week and in the coming months, as Brown works to forge a deal with Republicans who unequivocally oppose any income- or sales-tax hikes, “temporary” or otherwise.

For the teachers’ union, kids are the best props. Already we’re hearing the familiar nostrums: “Cuts hurt children,” “What’s good for the teachers is good for the students,” and “Don’t sacrifice our kids’ futures.” What the CTA really means is, “Tax the rich,” “Give us more money,” and, above all, “Save our jobs.” At first, the union considered more drastic action to make its point. Among the tactics union organizers contemplated: Attempting to close a major freeway route; having students and parents picket and occupy schools overnight; and protesting in front of recalcitrant legislators’ homes and businesses. CTA planners also suggested some downright silly schemes, such as turning fire or earthquake drills into “budget-crisis-response drills”; staging dancing contests to showcase the positive impact of teachers and the arts on students; and working with a suitably progressive company like Ben & Jerry’s to make a labor-themed ice cream to sell at demonstrations and in stores.

After Sacramento-based teacher-union watchdog Mike Antonucci wrote about the outlandish union plans last month, however, bloggers picked up the story and it went viral, embarrassing the union. The CTA decided to tone down its activities. “Alas,” quipped Antonucci, “we shall never know the taste of ‘labor-union flavored ice cream.’” In lieu of serious disruption, the union has resorted to more moderate hijinks, holding a sit-in at the state capitol throughout the week to show how state budget cuts will destroy schools and shatter communities. Local union affiliates also plan a telephone campaign to inform parents about the budget cuts and invite them to attend rallies, and they also hope to recruit “flash mobs” to demonstrate at strategic community locations.

Similar union tactics have worked in the past, but this year may be different. Californians already pay some of the highest state income taxes in the country. Sales taxes in some cities and counties now top 10 percent. Few voters desire to pay any more, as a failed ballot initiative in 2009 showed. That measure, part of a special election then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger called to resolve the budget crisis, was essentially identical to the plan Brown and the CTA endorse now.

Yet legislators and the governor could embrace several reforms to restore money to education and save teaching jobs—without raising taxes. Here are a few:

Kill the archaic seniority system. The current system disregards teaching quality in favor of longevity when it comes to making staffing decisions. If we must lose some teachers, why not let the poorest performers go first? Hoover Institution senior fellow and economist Eric Hanushek says that eliminating just 7 percent of bottom-performing teachers would dramatically improve education outcomes, while saving millions of dollars on salaries. Yes, class sizes would increase somewhat, but children would get better teachers. Not a bad trade. At the same time, we might debunk the small-class-size-is-always-better myth.

Stop over-hiring teachers. When economic times are good and school districts’ treasuries are flush, unions urge them to hire more teachers. Of course, when the economic cycle slows and the extra revenue disappears, many who benefited from the boom receive pink slips.

Support the growth of charter schools. They get the same or better results than traditional public schools at about two-thirds of the cost.

Reform the retirement system. Change the California State Teachers Retirement System from its current defined-benefit structure to a defined-contribution plan. A 401(k)-type plan for retirement would shift the responsibility for teachers’ retirement from the taxpayer to the individual teacher. As Marcia Fritz, president of the California Foundation for Fiscal Responsibility, recently wrote: “California taxpayers would save billions of dollars that would flow to public schools, community colleges and universities if state and local public employees retired with benefits comparable to those provided to employees of Silicon Valley’s top companies. Teachers’ jobs would be saved and school programs spared.”

The CTA, of course, rejects all of those proposals. The union’s continued political dominance depends on maintaining the status quo. The same folks who declare a “state of emergency” refuse to give an inch on any real reform that would improve education while saving taxpayer dollars. Keep that in mind when the union trots out students as political human shields and demands that beleaguered Californians pay, and keep paying, until it hurts.


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