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February 1, 2010

1) NEA's New Math Miscues. Last Friday, NEA heralded the release of its annual Rankings & Estimates report by sending out a press release (embargoed until today) that claimed "inflation over the past decade has outpaced teachers' salaries in every single state across the country." This didn't sound right to researcher Jay P. Greene, so he scrutinized the report and couldn't find a single statistic to back up this claim. On the contrary, NEA's numbers revealed that teachers' salaries had increased 3.4 percent over the past decade, after adjusting for inflation.

On the NEA web site, accompanying the press release, the union posted a video of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. (It has since been removed, and if you want to see it, go quickly to in case NEA deletes it from YouTube.) In the video, Van Roekel repeats the claim, and says, "In constant dollars, from 1999 through 2009, the average salary for a public school teacher increased 3.4%. Over those same 10 years, inflation increased by 29.6%."

Both of those sentences may be true, but "constant dollars" means corrected for inflation. Whatever you think about teacher salary levels, NEA made a fundamental error. Twelve hours later, the union distributed a corrected press release, changing the original claim to read, "adjusting for inflation, average teachers' salaries declined in fifteen states over the past decade." Then there a couple of quotes from Van Roekel about how terrible this is.

Now some of you may be wondering how such an obviously bogus claim passed through the gauntlet of NEA staffers who researched, proofread and edited the report, as well as making it past the communications department, Van Roekel's assistants, and Van Roekel himself, who, after all, was a high school math teacher for many years. We can speculate all we want, but the likely reason is that NEA made a similar claim last year, without challenge.

In releasing the previous Rankings & Estimates, NEA stated, "Over the decade from 1997-98 to 2007-08, in constant dollars, average salaries for public schoolteachers declined 1 percent while inflation increased 31.4 percent. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia saw real declines in average teacher salaries over those years, adjusting for inflation."

I'll let NEA sort out the accuracy of its numbers, but one thing is certain: If last year there were 26 states below the inflation line in teacher raises, and this year there are only 15 states below the inflation line, then teachers had a pretty good year. But it doesn't jibe with NEA's agenda, so the union doesn't spin it that way.

There's more. If you dig through the report, you'll find that in 2008-09, America's schools experienced an increase in K-12 enrollment of 72,879, and an increase in the K-12 teacher workforce of 28,415. During a recession year, America hired an additional two teachers for each additional five students.

It's difficult to hand out exorbitant raises while we continue our teacher hiring fetish. But that may be ending. The last wave of the baby boom echo is almost over. NEA estimates K-8 enrollment will increase by a minuscule 1,148 students nationwide next year. Layoffs by least seniority will have the effect of greatly increasing the average teacher salary. I don't think addition by subtraction is the kind of pay hike NEA had in mind.

2) The California Legislature Enjoys Life in Slumberland. "There's going to be a tendency on the part of our people to be in denial about all this," U.S. Senator Evan Bayh (D-Indiana) told ABC News after the Massachusetts special election, but "if you lose Massachusetts and that's not a wake-up call, there's no hope of waking up."

Senator Bayh, welcome to California, or, as we like to call it, Slumberland.

In 1905, legendary cartoonist Winsor McCay created a comic strip called "Little Nemo in Slumberland," in which a young boy would have all sorts of fantastic adventures in his sleep. Just as some peril was about to befall him, Nemo would wake up, usually in a tangle of blankets on the floor at the foot of his bed, safe and sound.

California legislators seem to be banking on something similar as they live out their fantasies in the state Capitol.

The state budget is perennially in the red (this year's deficit is some $20 billion) and the state teachers retirement system is short $43 billion.

But that's in the real world. Back in Slumberland, the California Senate spent its time passing a bill to create a government-run, single-payer health care system. The bill's author admits it will cost $200 billion, but that it could be paid for with "existing state and federal money and a payroll tax, coupled with increased efficiencies from a government-run system."

Are these the same efficiencies that gave us a $20 billion deficit?

It's highly likely that Gov. Schwarzenegger will veto any such bill to reach him, and the legislature doesn't have enough votes to override. Still, it's clear that the state's lawmakers aren't planning to end their dreams anytime soon, and should trouble arise, they're confident they'll awaken safe and sound at the foot of their gerrymandered beds.

3) When in Doubt, Empty the Magazine. The Churchill County Education Association in Nevada has fewer than 300 members, so union officers probably lacked on-site PR advice about the fight they picked last week. Nevertheless, once it erupted you would expect them to have second thoughts.

Nope. They kept firing away.

If you didn't catch this story last week on Intercepts, first, shame on you. The short version is that student reporter Lauren MacLean wrote a mild story about parent complaints that the audition tapes of some choir students hadn't been submitted for a competition. The union felt this was an unfair indictment of teacher/choir director Kathy Archey and filed a grievance, demanding a halt to publication of the school newspaper. On advice of legal counsel and in deference to First Amendment precedent on such issues, the school published anyway, and the story went viral quickly.

National attention for quashing newspaper stories isn't normally high on a teachers' union wish list, but CCEA continued to strike while the irony was hot. In interviews with the local Lahontan Valley News, union officers pressed their case.

"It is inappropriate and disruptive to the teaching-learning environment to air parent complaints about teachers in a school newspaper. By allowing the article to run, the district violated its own policies and showed a lack of common sense," said CCEA President April Chester. "The district violated its own policies assuring confidentiality of personnel matters and fair and objective teacher evaluations."

Superintendent Carolyn Ross noted the obvious: "This is not a teacher evaluation, this is a student article."

Margie Nuttall, CCEA teachers' rights co-chair, said the district "allowed misinformation and speculation to just mushroom," adding that MacLean "is a very talented young lady, but she is a child. I think our children sometimes have more zeal than knowledge."

Well, you can get pretty good odds on which party in this dispute has more zeal than knowledge, but if MacLean is lacking in knowledge, maybe she needs some new teachers.

4) Last Week's Intercepts. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from January 25-February 1:

*  NEA in Middle of the Pack of Trusted DC Groups. Despite my best efforts, only 53% of adults say they are "familiar" with NEA.

Nevada Union Teaches Students About Prior Restraint. Preaching to the choir, literally.

Pot and Kettle Partisanship. Moody blues.

Teachers Unions Have Good Day After Bad Week. Money cures all ills.

Oregon Fallout: Union Proposes Similar Tax Hikes in Hawaii. Hide your wallets, blue state denizens.

5) Quote of the Week. "Unions think differently. It is part of the ideology of unionism that everyone in the group is paid under the same rules. No favoritism. And so, when the Editorial Board had a visit from Washington Education Association leaders Jan. 19, I expected a statement about fairness when I asked: Why shouldn't math and science teachers be paid more, if there is a shortage? And I did get something like that answer from WEA President Mary Lindquist: 'We have traditionally not been supportive of singling out one group.' Then she had another answer. She said, 'It's also a gender issue. It means you're paying men, by and large, more than you're paying women'-- because a higher proportion of math and science teachers are men." - Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times. (January 28 Seattle Times)


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