Why Chris Christie picks on teachers

I don’t write about politics per se here, and I have no intention of turning this into a political blog, so bear with me on this first part.

I’m voting for Romney. It’s a done deal. I’m not sure who the Republicans could have put up that I wouldn’t have voted for. Mitch Daniels would have been best, but the wife he twice married refuses to deal with the river of media crap she’d face. Whatever. My reasons have nothing to do with Romney per se; I have voted Republican since 2008 when the Dems turned too far left for my liking. I am so not a fan of the current president; I’ve thought him a phony since he first showed up in 2004. (He shouldn’t take it personally. I’ve only ever voted for one candidate who won, and while my esteem for both Bushes and Reagan is higher than the absolute loathing I hold for Obama, Clinton remains the only president of my adult life I’ve ever liked. Which is different from agreed with; I rarely do that with any politician. There, have I alienated all sides sufficiently?)

And, as my various posts have made clear, I’m not protected by a union. I haven’t worked anywhere long enough to get tenure. I can get canned any time of the year, with no warning. I still pay my dues, which is annoying, but not as annoying as the paperwork to get the money back. If I didn’t have to belong to a union I wouldn’t, although I’ve never met a local union rep who wasn’t helpful, realistic, and honest, even if they are, surprise!, always recommending a straight Democratic ticket vote.

I am thus not particularly disposed to be annoyed at Republicans or protective of unions. So it should perhaps mean something that Chris Christie’s little rant on teachers thoroughly disgusted me.

A teacher, a firefighter, and a cop are sitting in a bar watching the Chris Christie speech. When Christie thunders “Real teacher tenure reform that demands accountability and ends the guarantee of a job for life regardless of performance!”, the cop and the firefighter turn to the teacher and ask, “Jesus, what’d you do to piss him off?”

Yeah, it’s been a while since anyone’s pointed out how hard it is to fire cops or firefighters. Haven’t heard anyone cry out that every citizen deserves “the best cop in America” on their doorstep when their house is robbed, or “the best firefighter in America” when Fluffy gets stuck in a tree. No one mentions that cops and firefighters have jobs for life regardless of performance, or that that “life” job is even more expensive because they usually retire earlier and are far more likely to take disability. Cops and firefighters don’t get promoted on merit, and they get raises every year on a step chart even if they just phone it in. Anyone want to talk about the number of cops who look the other way for bribes and sexual favors? Thought not. While everyone knows that parents are likely to hold a low opinion of public schools nationally while loving their local schools, when has that ever been true about cops or firefighters? And hell, firefighters don’t even actually fight fires any more.

Please do not interpret this as a broadside against either cops or firefighters. Cops in particular, please do not hunt me down and give me speeding tickets in your secondary primary role of revenue agents. (Kidding. Kind of.) And yes, being a cop can be dangerous, but it’s dangerous in the same places where being a teacher is primarily about checking for gang colors and guns, and it’s relatively safe in the same areas where being a teacher is actually about, you know, teaching. And of course, actually fighting a fire is dangerous but how often does that happen and anyway, cops and firefighters get a hefty premium precisely because of the increased danger of the job, perceived or genuine.

But the reality is that the three jobs are strikingly similar. They have a relatively low barrier to entry but nonetheless require a high degree of skill and creativity. They are jobs that can’t really be learned except by doing. They require intellect, but not the sort that elites have, or look upon with favor. They are therefore jobs that the elites tend to opine about with a slapworthy degree of condescension, and jobs in which senior members display a distressing sense of entitlement to benefits and guarantees long since lost to the private sector and soon to be lost to the more junior entrants to the profession.

So what’d teachers do to piss off the Republican party while it leaves cops and firefighters alone? Or, as Lenin via Steve Sailer puts it, “Who? Whom?”

Yeah, well, unions, obviously. That’s not the big reveal, that cop and firefighter unions are, traditionally, most likely to support Republicans while teachers, the single biggest occupation in America, pour their millions into the Democrat coffers. And it may or may not be significant that Republicans might be making nice, that firefighters and cops both have been endorsing Democrats lately in large part because the Republicans had been talking tough on cutting government, or that Scott Walker conspicuously left these occupations out of his legislation.

No, the one I wonder about is whether or not teachers were targeted first because cops and firefighters are almost entirely white males, and teachers are mostly white females.

Because it certainly is odd, isn’t it, that the Republicans have a “woman problem” and they are spending all this time attacking an occupation that’s 60% female? Just a little? Around the edges? But what made me wonder about gender as opposed to pure union money is the readiness of the Democrats to attack teachers unions, that pro-reform progressives are lately attacking tenure, bad teachers, the need to bring in “new blood”, and so on. Why would these progressives attack their own, unless they could see that there’s play in attacking government workers? So then, they need a target. Would they have picked teachers, one of their most powerful and loyal donor unions, if teachers weren’t white females?

Eh. I know someone is going to see this as an identity politics bleat, and I don’t mean it that way. We can’t ever escape gender. We sure as hell can’t escape race. I also don’t think any gender bias is deliberate, like the Republicans got together and said hey, what’s the demographically safest union for us to bash? I do think it’s….interesting, and I think the Republicans might want to mull any potential advantages of maybe a little equal opportunity union bashing. The irony, of course, is that teaching is far more male than law-enforcement/firefighting is female. (And yet, while it’s common to call for improved teacher quality by bringing in more males…..yeah, you get the idea.)

But sure, it’s unions, mostly.

Back to my disgust with Chris Christie. It wasn’t the pandering to unions, or any kind of outrage at the use of gender politics, whether a product of my imagination or otherwise. If Mitt Romney were going to tell the truth as Christie so vehemently declared, then he’d talk about all public worker pensions, instead of picking the politically safest group to attack. But what else is new?

Of course, the Republicans aren’t actually interested in improving schools with choice, accountability, and standards. They need the reformer support and enthusiasm, they need white parents, and think they’ll get it with this rhetoric, which ties in neatly with their desire to weaken teachers unions (and do they realize that teacher unions are a whole bunch of white parents? Probably not). That is, yes, I think it’s a CYNICAL PLOY. Heaven forfend.

Democrats, of course, are entirely innocent of all this behavior. Let us all laugh. Ha ha!

No, it was the linkage of bad performance to goal of cutting government costs that just nauseated me. If every teacher, cop, and firefighter was doing a bangup job, pensions are still a huge problem. Salaries and the Baumiol Effect, still a huge problem. Even if teacher quality were a problem—and it’s not—transforming teacher quality wouldn’t do a thing to cut costs. Nor would higher standards, school choice, or accountability. The only way that attacking school quality brings about lower costs is if the results kill the unions and kill the protections, so that labor costs plummet. And again, I’m not against this, if that’s what’s needed, but it won’t help improve the schools.

The problem with our schools isn’t standards or choice or teacher quality. The problem with our schools isn’t money or poverty. The problem with our schools is our expectations, and the pointless demands we make of kids who don’t want to and/or can’t do the work.

So take all the usual political crap, throw in genuinely screwed up solution offerings that won’t fix a thing and ultimately make education even more expensive or, more likely, destroy public support for educating the hard to educate. Um, yeah. Also not new. So why, again, am I particularly bothered?

Back to Lenin and who, whom. I wasn’t a teacher for the other elections. I’m not upset or defensive at my ox being gored, but it’s a lot harder to hear this spew when I see the results of the near-criminal expectations that both political parties have put on schools, teachers, and the students, and the crap we have to go through even to pretend to follow the moronic mandates they legislate.

So nuts to you, Chris Christie. But hell, what do you care? Mitt’s got my vote anyway, because frankly—and oddly—I’m still banking on the unions and the public to stop politicians from doing permanent damage to our schools. Here’s hoping.

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32 responses to “Why Chris Christie picks on teachers

  • Roger Sweeny

    The problem with our schools is our expectations, and the pointless demands we make of kids who don’t want to and/or can’t do the work.

    You are absolutely right. However, for decades we teachers have shouted from the rooftops that these expectations are perfectly realistic. Teachers, we say (as do our friends in the ed schools), are professionals. We have special skills and techniques. We can teach anyone anything. Moreover, we can do it in interesting, engaging ways. This is, of course, crap.

    We have overpromised and underdelivered. Is it really surprising that many people now say, “You haven’t done what you said you would do. The problem must be that you are inadequate teachers. We have to get better ones”

    People hold us to impossibly high standards. People think these standards are reasonable because the organized teaching profession says they are.

  • Jordan Trejo

    Great post!
    Do you think part of the reason politicians are leaving cop and firefighter unions alone is because it’s much easier to play on our fears in opposing those measures? Cutting funds from education is less obviously connected with our basic need for survival, i.e. we’d fear being robbed, murdered, burned alive in our home, etc., than the idea of having fewer officers and a poorer police/firemen force. The fact that we’ve done little to amend our bloated prison system and ridiculously expensive/misguided war on drugs is testament to that fact.

    • Hattie

      Possibly, but I also think that going after the cops would open a massive can of worms, above and beyond debating the War on Drugs. If you question the cops=heroes mindset in terms of what they’re paid, at some point you have to at least mention civil liberties. There are plenty of people out there who are both smart enough and interested enough to connect the dots.

      Not only do the police unions harm the states, financially speaking, the police have far too much power. So does the judicial system. So do the politicians. So do the unelected bureaucrats. It’s all interconnected and they all depend on each other. Take down enough police powers and at some point we’re going to move on to the other Powers That Be.

      So it’s best to leave that one alone.

  • Pincher Martin

    “So nuts to you, Chris Christie. But hell, what do you care? Mitt’s got my vote anyway, because frankly—and oddly—I’m still banking on the unions and the public to stop politicians from doing permanent damage to our schools.”

    You’ve identified no “permanent damage” that will happen to schools without the presence of unions. All you’ve done is question the political motives of the people arguing for educational reform because you know their claims are suspect and based on shaky evidence.

    Educational reform may not help better educate the kids, but it will certainly help public finances by marginalizing unions. It costs too much to educate children in large part because unions, whose primary purpose is to help their many members secure good benefits and privileges, make it too expensive to teach them.

    So while the political rhetoric on educational reform might be characterized as ill-informed and even dishonest, it still can serve an important purpose. Are teachers’ unions necessary for a good educational system? Can we get largely the same job done more cheaply without them?

    If you’re going to promote the idea that teachers’ unions are doing the educational system a lot of good by keeping the reformers out, you ought to have some evidence for this. I see none here. Instead, you seem to have become an inversion of the poorly-informed educational reformer. Just as many of them argue that unions are the biggest obstacle to a better education for our children, you in turn argue that the unions are the key to preventing permanent damage being done to it.

  • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

    Excellent post, ER, especially your last five paragraphs. One of your best posts, if not the best, since I do write about the edupolitik.

    Your reader, Roger Sweeney gets it (I’ve opined the same repeatedly to all who will listen), unlike Pincher Martin who believes unions are the source of the fiscal problems facing states, cities, and municipalities.

  • Pincher Martin

    Dave the math teacher,

    They are a source. I never claimed they were the source.

    Besides, you didn’t answer my question. What “permanent damage” comes from getting rid of teachers’ unions? Don’t be shy about providing details.

    • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

      Hi Pincher.

      I’ll start out by saying that teachers unions need to evolve in many ways. They should not protect gross negligence, clear incompetence, or other malfeasance. However, it is a “baby and bathwater” issue. Teachers unions enforce due process as a means to minimize witch hunts, false allegations, political favors, and etcetera as a reason to remove teachers from their classrooms, or career, which forever marks the accused unfit to teach, irrespective of the facts.

      Why do you have such a bone to pick with teachers unions?

      I say this as someone who has only been in a union for one year, or less than 5% of my time working, so I have no entrenched allegiance to unions. However, I have seen the necessity for them.

      Countering your assertion that teachers unions make public education too expensive, I posit that if all public teachers were removed and replaced by the “free market,” the cost of education would increase precipitously, assuming the same expectations, demands, and regulatory mandates were imposed on the new wave of teachers.

      Dave

      • Pincher Martin

        “Why do you have such a bone to pick with teachers unions?”

        You didn’t answer my question, but let me go ahead and answer yours.

        They hinder productivity in the field. They raise the costs of education without any measurable improvement in student outcomes. Education is the most expensive budget item for nearly every state and local government, and unions are a major political force in nearly every state at preventing any rational discussion of cutting education costs.

        “Countering your assertion that teachers unions make public education too expensive, I posit that if all public teachers were removed and replaced by the “free market,” the cost of education would increase precipitously, assuming the same expectations, demands, and regulatory mandates were imposed on the new wave of teachers>

        It’s easy to posit something you can’t prove. Budgeting for public education is notorious at underestimating the costs of schooling. They go out of their way to hide the costs to parents. Private schools can’t do that.

      • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

        Pincher: You regale yourself by claiming others don’t answer your question(s), while believing all the while that your points are fact-based. I’d rather discuss how to improve education with someone who objectively sees both sides, well at least sees both sides, which for some reason, you seem unable to do. Best.

      • Pincher Martin

        Unbelievable, Dave.

        This discussion has hardly began. The basic framework of the debate has barely been laid out. And you’re already complaining that it isn’t tilted enough in your favor to continue?

        All of my points are fact-based. Inflation is rampant in public education. Inflation should be expected in a field where teachers’ compensation goes up, but their productivity doesn’t increase. And, yes, productivity is lagging in public education — even ignoring this source’s questionable view that, ceteris paribus, student achievement can be boosted significantly. Bill Gates jokes that we essentially teach kids the same way we did half-a-century ago. Try finding another field you can say that about. Public school costs are mainly driven by labor costs (both teachers and administrators), not by infrastructure costs and not by growing student needs. The growth in teachers and other instructional staff have far outpaced the growth in student enrollment over the last forty years. When including pension benefits, “[p]ublic school teachers are … paid roughly 42 percent more, on average, than their private sector counterparts.” Why? They don’t provide a better result.

        I would have thought a math teacher might avail himself of his subject matter to better understand the budgeting numbers and economics behind his chosen career.

        I’m still waiting to hear how teachers’ unions are preventing “permanent damage” being done to the nation’s schools.

      • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

        Sorry, Pincher. It seems more like a tirade masked as a debate than a discussion; and simply incorporating references does not a fact-based position make. BTW, your condescending and bullish style leaves much to be desired. I’d rather spend my very limited free time in discussion with someone more open-minded. Peace.

      • Pincher Martin

        Dave, I understand it’s not easy for you to answer any of the questions I asked or rebut the sources I provided. I also appreciate your need to maximize the time you spend with those like-minded people who are already in agreement with most of your views on education and simply need to be instructed as to the best way to defend them. Like most people who counsel others to be more “open-minded”, you prefer segregated ideological company. And like most teachers I’ve met, you prefer to be the disseminator of information and packaged views and not the consumer of it.

        As a parting comment, let me say that I find it amusing you would speak of my “condescending and bullish style” when the very first comment you made here mentioned me by name to instructively point out to the audience how wrong I was about a view I had never expressed.

        Apparently, after having stuck a banderilla in this bull’s side, you now find you don’t like playing the matador as much as you thought you would.

      • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

        My apologies, Pincher, if I offended you by mentioning I disagreed with your initial comment on this post, or by using a different article of speech, which did change your comment slightly, but not entirely.

        It seems that you see discourse as a win-lose situation, with a winner take all outcome, which view I do not share, which is why I decided not to further engage with you on the issue, per se. You can cast my decision any way you like, if that salves your perceived banderilla barbs. I hope you find peace someday.

      • Pincher Martin

        “I hope you find peace someday.”

        Not likely, but thanks for the sentiment.

        Peace out.

  • educationrealist

    I actually disagree with Roger; teachers never overpromised. It’s even hard to argue that progressives overpromised,since they don’t even like test scores and never promised equal outcomes.

    Pincher,

    I don’t think it “costs too much” to educate children, and to the extent it does, most of those educational costs are caused by special ed. There are plenty of costs associated with education, but teacher labor costs aren’t the big part. Much bigger is the additional head count required for special ed (all their additional “support” classes) and the requirement of “college for all”, which means students need to take 6 classes a day for 4 years. In earlier years, students would take far fewer classes once they hit their junior year–and, for that matter, many of them quit school at 16. These increased costs aren’t about the price of a teacher per se, but about the fact that our demands for education means we want more of them–much as the class size reduction issue of the oughts led to more teachers.

    I think pensions are a big problem, but aren’t pensions an issue with or without unions? It’s not unions that guarantee us pensions. In fact, I don’t even think it’s unions that make it impossible to fire teachers, since government workers had a lot of job protections before unions.

    As many people have pointed out, states with teacher unions actually have better results than right to work states, so it’s hard to argue that unions cause quality issues. I suspect the difference is due more to population demographics and certainly don’t believe that unions *add* to educational quality. I just think they are unrelated.

    Eduformers are not terribly interested in pensions, and while they are very much against special education if you push them on it, they aren’t stupid enough to call for an end to special ed spending in public. What they are interested in, first and foremost, is eliminating teacher job protections, in changing a teaching position to one in which principals can fire a teacher instantly.

    What eduformers envision is something much like today, except getting rid of those pesky bad teachers. But that’s not what will happen, because
    the flip side of firing teachers is the ability of teachers to sell themselves to the highest bidder.

    Here’s what I envision as a likely outcome if teacher tenure is eliminated. First, without controls, it will lead to tremendous job discrimination against older teachers. No one cares about that, obviously, but don’t kid yourself: the government is set up to file age discrimination investigations, and investigate them they will. Once it becomes clear that teachers are paid by education units, and that the older a teacher is, the more education units, something will change. Let’s assume that what changes is the removal of payment by step and column, so that teachers can negotiate their own salaries.

    This will lead to tremendous insecurity for *schools* that no one is anticipating, particularly at the high end, as they will compete ferociously for talent (as they perceive it). And at the low end, without job security and guaranteed raises, no one–NO ONE–will want to teach. Worst of all for eduformers (in the scenario I posit), the middle classes won’t all be able to get teachers of the best quality, and their labor costs will go up while all their very best teachers get stolen by the richer districts.

    So when eduformers talk about killing unions, they are really talking about killing job protections for teachers. If this has the outcome they anticipate, no problem. But they’ve been wrong about everything else, and it’s very likely they’re wrong about this. I see no way of removing job protections for teachers that doesn’t also involve negotiated salaries.

    That’s why I’m counting on unions and the public interest to stop this.

    What really needs to happen to make education cheaper, is a) revamp pensions, including for existing workers and retirees, b) examine the astonishing waste of special ed, c) reduce the number of wasted courses that kids take because of our idiotic insistence on college for all.

    Jordan–I think that’s some of it, but notice that they are rhetorically elevating the job of teacher as extremely important, while ignoring cops and firefighters. Either teaching is AS important, or cops and firefighters are MORE important,in which case, shut up about how awesomely important teachers are.

    • Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

      ER: The over promising comes from publishing documents, such as the California Standards for the Teaching Profession (“CSTP”), implying that teachers can simultaneously manage all of the details contained therein. Superman, Superwoman, or a super hero of anyone’s choosing could not fulfill those obligations in today’s classrooms. At least, that is how I interpreted Roger’s point.

    • Pincher Martin

      “I think pensions are a big problem, but aren’t pensions an issue with or without unions? It’s not unions that guarantee us pensions. In fact, I don’t even think it’s unions that make it impossible to fire teachers, since government workers had a lot of job protections before unions.”

      You’re kidding, right?

      “As many people have pointed out, states with teacher unions actually have better results than right to work states, so it’s hard to argue that unions cause quality issues. I suspect the difference is due more to population demographics and certainly don’t believe that unions *add* to educational quality. I just think they are unrelated.”

      I never claimed that private education would lead to better results. I think it’s hard to argue it won’t lead to lower costs, and that two of the ways it will lower costs is by adding flexibility to the market for teachers and reducing their political leverage in state capitals.

      BTW, pointing out that states like Massachusetts have better education outcomes than states like Mississippi, and attributing it – even ever so slightly – to the presence of teachers’ unions in the former and right-to-work laws in the latter is kind of a discussion-killer, don’t you think?

      • educationrealist

        Since I said exactly the opposite–that I do NOT believe unions result in better education–it appears you are the one not thinking. I am saying, throughout, that unions appear to be orthogonal to quality.

    • Roger Sweeny

      I agree that if you talk to an individual teacher, off the record, they will not overpromise. In fact, they will directly contradict that “given enough resources, a good teacher can teach anyone anything.”

      However, I don’t think that is true of the unions or the ed schools. When NCLB was passed, I don’t remember any union opposition of the sort, “these are impossible goals.” What I remember hearing was, “These are wonderful and possible goals. However, we need a lot more money.”

      Of course, when I say that the “organized profession” said, “a good teacher can teach anyone anything,” I don’t mean they were saying that a first grader can learn calculus. They were saying that with good teachers, everyone could read at grade level, or everyone could graduate high school–to pick two examples from your marvelous “The Fallacy at the Heart of All Reform.” In fact, isn’t the fallacy at the heart of all reform the idea that “with the right resources, a good teacher can teach anyone anything, within reason”–and then letting wishful thinking define “within reason”?

  • John Foster

    First of all, “pension problems” are a red herring. Pensions are EARNED DURING YOUR WORKING YEARS. They’re not some Big Bonus—like you get some years at Christmas—that you get as a “payoff” when you retire.

    No. Pensions are deferred compensation. The money in your pension was earned BY YOU, at the time of your service—over the 20 or 25 or 30 years that you worked. The only reason there are “pension problems” is that too many—mainly—Republican governors started using them for everything imaginable, including current expenses, often to be able to stick to a “Tax Cut Pledge” that they committed to during their campaign. Then, years after they’re gone, voters begin hearing a specious narrative from governors about how “Pensions Are Killing Our Taxpayers!!!”

    In New Jersey this is particularly egregious. Why aren’t we hearing about the Kean and Whitman and now Christy administrations, pilfering those pension funds, or “just borrowing them” in a shell game to fool the voters and look like a “tax cutter”?

    My understanding is that it’s illegal to touch pension funds, or to use them to “cover your bets” or “leverage things” or for “collateral”. Why isn’t THIS the issue?

    Again, pension funds aren’t the problem. Those are earned at the time. The compensation is delayed and not distributed until many years later. And, if managed correctly, the state will SAVE money as opposed to what would have been paid, directly, at the time it was earned.

    Pensions aren’t some “Golden Parachute” or “Lottery Winner” that retirees just get handed as some “reward”. Rather, it’s the money they made, day in and day out, for many, many years in their job.

    Switching to another form of compensation, like a 401K, wouldn’t alter when this money was earned.

    And if states can’t meet those obligations, then one or both of these things happened: 1) Someone at the state used those funds for other things and/or 2) Someone at the state invested those funds in something too speculative and too unpredictable and the funds then lost money.

    It’s really pretty simple. Why do people continue to blame the pension recipients—who are just getting the compensation they’ve already earned?

    • educationrealist

      Thank you for the lesson on eggsucking to all the grandmas in the room.

      Pensions are increasingly unworkable. It’s not the teacher’s fault, nor was I blaming them. But certainly, they were promised a fortune–much more than the taxpayers who will be footing the bill–because politicians wanted the union money and union votes. This is uncomplicated. At some point, government workers are going to have to lose the defined benefits plans. Promises? Please. Why should taxpayers be required to hold to unfair promises when corporations skated from theirs? Teachers and other government workers will have to accept that times change, and their promised money was overly generous anyway. I just don’t want current retirees to continue to get massively huge payments when new teachers will get very little. It’s the current retirees who were overpromised.

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