Playing Politics with Education: Teachers Union Throws Students under the Bus

Nevadans will find out this month whether the Clark County School District (CCSD) qualifies for a $40 million grant from the federal government’s “Race to the Top” program. The money would provide high-tech tools and programs at 63 schools to help 41,000 students with limited English skills. It would fund 46 new jobs for teachers and support staff, as well as expanded teacher training. In a district where a large number of students don’t speak proficient English, this money could make a big difference in helping our kids succeed in school.

So, did the local teachers union (Clark County Education Association) work together with school district management to make sure we had the best chance of getting this grant money? No. In fact, the union did everything possible to sabotage the district’s efforts, and it took intervention by the governor to get the grant package completed before the federal deadline.

The Obama administration set the scene for this confrontation by effectively giving teachers unions veto power over the grant application process in their districts. The rules state that the local union must be given a full and equal role in preparing a district’s application. Why was the grant process set up this way? It should be clear to anyone that despite fancy titles like “Education Association,” the teachers union seems to be more concerned with job security, salary increases and benefits than it is with education. Yet the Progressives in Obama’s Department of Education made sure to look out for the interests of their union cronies in setting up the grant process.

In order to comply with the federal rules, CCSD invited the union to participate in drawing up the grant application, but they refused to cooperate. The union bosses insisted that the district “had not engaged in any genuine attempts at collaboration,” despite the fact they were asked seven times between July and October to participate. The real reason may have been their ongoing feud with the school district over salaries and benefits. When warned by CCSD last year that fulfilling their salary demands would force the cash-strapped district to lay off 1,000 teachers, the union dug in their heels. They were upheld in the courts and nearly 1,000 teachers were laid off. Now that they are in arbitration for the next contract, the union suspended all joint ventures with CCSD in March 2012 in what district spokesperson Amanda Fulkerson called “vendetta politics.”

Despite the union’s refusal to cooperate, more than 1,600 teachers acting on their own attended stakeholder meetings to help in drawing up the grant application. These teachers cared enough about their students to ask for financial help for them, even if it meant opposing the union bosses who were trying to use $40 million worth of leverage to get what they wanted in future negotiations. As the final deadline approached, Governor Sandoval volunteered to mediate between the two parties to get the deal done, and the contract application was sent off to the Department of Education with just a few hours to spare.

Several lessons can be learned from this sad example of extreme self-interest. First and foremost, it was a mistake for the federal government to give union bosses the power to hold the district hostage, which is exactly what happened. Politics should have no place in deciding who deserves to get money for education. Secondly, the teachers union leaders have demonstrated once and for all that they care more about their own power than about the children in Southern Nevada’s schools. The good news is that there are many dedicated teachers willing to fight for the students in their care. They are the ones who deserve our support.

Originally published in Nevada Business Magazine:

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