Teacher unions in 20 Colorado school districts have spent more than $5.8 million in taxpayer dollars on union activities in the past five years, from union presidents’ salaries to paid teacher days off. Collective bargaining agreements between unions and these districts compelled tax funding beyond the dues collected from teacher payrolls.
Colorado closed a $500 million deficit in 2011 and expects to have a similarly sized deficit in 2012.
The Denver Post reviewed budget documents from the largest 20 Colorado school districts, finding direct funding for union activities ranged from $1.3 million in Douglas County School District to zero in Mesa County Valley District. The Post reported its $5.8 million total is a conservative estimate because some districts do not track the costs.
There is no evidence funding union activities with taxpayer dollars boosts student achievement, said Ben DeGrow, senior education analyst for the Colorado-based Independence Institute. Because there no positive effect on students, he said, the legislature should end these subsidies, especially with schools facing budget cuts.
“It’s time to stop taxpayer-funding union business,” DeGrow said. “We need to seriously look at legislation that ends the practice.”
Because so little information on taxpayer funding for union activity is available, the legislature should order an audit in order to uncover more specifics, DeGrow said.
Minimal Accountability for Unions
As outlined in collective bargaining agreements, most of these funds pay for union leader salaries and paid release days for teachers—paying teachers for days off to engage in union activity. DeGrow said he has found most of this money is allocated to unions with little oversight.
“Generally speaking—and it varies from district to district—union officers do not have to report to anyone. They are not accountable to the public,” DeGrow said.
In 2010, Colorado legislators debated Senate Bill 91, which proposed changes to teacher tenure. Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts, Jefferson and Denver, used taxpayer-funded release days to lobby in the state capitol against the bill.
Taxpayer dollars also fund paid leave for teachers to vote on officers and bylaws at the Colorado Education Association’s organizational meeting in April.
“The union is a self-interested organization focused on benefits for its members,” DeGrow said. “Quite often their benefit doesn’t coincide with the public interest, and the public should not be paying for that.”
‘Districts Agree’ to Pay
State Sen. Bob Bacon (R-Fort Collins), former chair of the senate education board, does not agree the money is improperly spent. He says districts choose to spend their money this way and basing decisions on “outside opinion” indicates a narrow, uninformed view of how Colorado schools function.
“The districts agree that it is worth it. Should we take some outside assessment?” Bacon asked. “It isn’t as though they are paying for the union president’s salary so they can do what they want.”
Bacon said cooperation between teacher associations and administrators can help avert expensive legal problems.
“Investment in solving problems saves billions,” he said.
Little Return for Money
Some of the funding pays for union-sponsored teacher training. This kind of training is generally very low-quality, said Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Terry Moe. Unions offer the training mainly because teachers get credits for it and are paid more as a result, he said.
“It’s all about teachers getting paid more. The quality doesn’t make a difference, and the courses don’t amount to much. It’s basically a boondoggle,” Moe said.
The solution, he said, is not to get rid of the training but to improve it. But without accountability, the Colorado unions have no incentives to improve this taxpayer-funded training.
“School districts are under more pressure now than ever before to boost achievement,” Moe said. “Good. There are now stronger incentives to boost the quality of education. Unions don’t have those incentives. They want to make sure that nobody ever loses a job and that teachers get paid as much as possible. Unions protect teachers.”
“Colorado teachers unions under fire for taxpayer subsidies from school districts,” Denver Post, December 18, 2011: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_19571617
Image by Parker Michael Knight.