Monday, June 7, 2010

Letter to the Editor

Wrote this letter to the Washington Post editors awhile back. Didn't get published... (OK, so I broke almost every rule required for publishing) But with the Apple Ballot for 2010 out I thought I'd let it rip:

Recent editorials in the Washington Post that question the power exerted by MCEA over the local political system correctly highlight the extensive influence of special interests in our local system of government but miss the mark in their attempt to cast blame on MCEA for their successful capitalization of this system. The authors blame an actor in the system, instead of the system itself, and in so doing miss two larger more significant points: 1) Boards of education should not be elected and 2) the MCEA does not represent what is best for education.

Much like the Supreme Court of the United States, a school board should thrive as an independent body free from the direct influence of the public. The framers of the U.S. Constitution created an independent judiciary to interpret the laws created by the legislative branch and enforced by the executive. The framers concern: an elected judiciary would try to please the public and other interests instead of upholding the principles of the Constitution. Likewise, an elected school board cannot focus on its goal, improving local educational systems, while at the same time pandering to special interests in order to win their electoral support. School board members can either cater to the desires of interests and get elected, or choose to focus solely on better education in spite of those interests, and face the bitter reality that they cannot win without that support. It is however, a problem with the system created, and not a problem with the interest groups that use the system.

The second issue is that MCEA’s “apple ballot” is commonly associated with what is best for education, and as an endorsement by all or most teachers in Montgomery County. The MCEA has worked hard at creating this perception, but it is fundamentally untrue. At best the MCEA has the tacit approval of a large majority of teachers to negotiate for higher salaries and benefits, and at worst it represents a small minority of politically active teachers who have the implied but not literal support of the majority of teachers they claim to represent.

No matter the percentage of teachers who generally support union policy, let there be no doubt that the union represents teachers, not education. And despite the unions extremely successful marketing campaign that advertises the contrary, what is best for education and what is best for teachers are two distinct and often incompatible ideas. To cite a brief example, MCEA spends an extraordinary amount of time and resources advocating for ideas like due process rights for under- performing teachers. In so doing the union argues that they are actually fighting for equity and fairness for all teachers under pressure by their employer. However, the effect of this negotiating has been to create a laborious two year process for removing contracted, under-performing teachers. Instead of initiating this process, most principals either A) do nothing and allow the teacher to advance toward retirement or B) apply alternative modes of pressure (multiple class preparations, no classroom ect.) in hopes the teacher will make a voluntary lateral move to another school. After all, any teacher that is initiated into the dismissal process must stay at the school where it was initiated throughout the process. The result is that there exists an abundance of under-performing teachers who are “protected” by the system, and who decrease the quality of instruction that is delivered to students. Furthermore, these same protected and under-performing teachers will not be dismissed as they should be when Montgomery County is forced to eliminate school based positions during the current fiscal crisis. Instead, the county, to the detriment of education, and by policy negotiated and advocated by MCEA, will remove teachers who were “last hired” and untenured. In some cases, these younger teachers will be some of the most promising teachers in the system.

We cannot fault interest groups and unions from doing all within their power to influence policy in a lawful way. Rather it is up to law makers and elected officials to pass new laws that protect the people from their undue influence. It is unfortunate that most often law makers are too self-interested to engage in this debate, after all, the law makers we ask to change the system are the same ones who have already successfully negotiated it. However, we should also know what unions are and are not, and be conscious consumers of information rather than puppets manipulated by thoughtful and well researched marketing designed not to inform, but to propagate agendas.

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