Teachers Union Is Key Obstacle to Good Education, Ad Campaign Says

Published June 1, 2007

An advocacy group’s creative outreach has attracted unfavorable attention to the teachers union in one New Jersey city, the first stop in a planned national campaign.

In March, the Washington, DC-based Center for Union Facts began posting the message across Newark, New Jersey that the teachers union protects bad teachers at the expense of quality education. The message is featured on several billboards, including a mobile billboard attached to a vehicle, and 100 bus tails.

“You definitely can’t be living in Newark and not have seen it,” said Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the Center for Union Facts.

The signs direct readers to a new Web site, ProtectingBadTeachers.com.

Choosing Targets

Founded in 2006, the center aims to educate the public about union leader corruption and abuses. The organization turned its focus to education earlier this year.

“We think teachers unions are responsible in large part for many of the failing public school systems in the country,” Longwell said.

The center plans to bring its aggressive teachers union advertising campaign to different parts of the country. “Others should know we could be coming to their city sometime soon,” Longwell said.

The center chose to launch its campaign in Newark because its schools’ performance ranks “at the bottom of the barrel,” Longwell said. Research the center has conducted indicates that despite per-pupil spending of more than $20,000 per year, fewer than 40 percent of Newark students graduate with a standard high school diploma.

According to the New Jersey Department of Education, Newark’s graduation rate is closer to 70 percent, but the center’s research indicates many students counted in the total were passing only an eighth-grade equivalency exam.

In the past four years, only five tenured teachers have been dismissed–or about one a year of 3,850 employed.

“In any other business, if you had a 38.8 percent success rate, people would be fired left and right,” Longwell said.

Focusing Attention

Newark Teachers Union (NTU) President Joseph Del Grosso does not believe the center’s charges about protecting bad teachers are fair. He said NTU does not deserve the special attention it has received.

“I think there are far worse unions in New Jersey,” said Del Grosso. “I don’t think the criticism applies to Newark as much as it does to many others.”

While disputing the center’s quoted graduation rate, Del Grosso said the district’s academic performance is hampered because nearly 25 percent of its 41,000 students are classified as special-needs.

“It does make our test scores go down, but it’s our obligation in public education to teach all students,” Del Grosso said.

Hiding Abuse

The Center for Union Facts highlights several cases in Newark of tenured teachers removed for verbal abuse, physical maltreatment, or sexual harassment of students. In some instances, they were released with extra pay and a seal on their records so they could work with children for future employers who would not know their past conduct.

“[Teachers union leaders] are taking mandatory member dues from teachers and are using their political and financial heft to protect bad teachers and hold back the really good teachers,” Longwell said.

Spreading Blame

Del Grosso contends district leaders are primarily responsible for hiring and training teachers. He said hundreds of Newark teachers are removed during their three-year probationary period and never receive tenure.

“Why does it take so long to figure out if someone is a bad teacher?” Del Grosso asked.

NTU, Del Grosso added, has sought unsuccessfully during collective bargaining to negotiate systems of teacher peer review and merit pay into the contract.

Dan Gaby, executive director of Excellent Education for Everyone (E3), a school choice advocacy group based in the city, said his group plans to publish a comprehensive analysis of the Newark teachers contract to highlight its abuses and cost to taxpayers. E3 shares the center’s opinion of the teachers union as a chief obstacle to effective school reform.

“We know they are responsible for the mediocrity of education in this state,” Gaby said.

Causing a Stir

Del Grosso said the center is entitled to its opinions, but he calls its campaign more of an annoyance than an effort to fix the problems in schools.

“Organizations like these, they’re just flies,” Del Grosso said. “They’re not going to create dramatic change because they’re not part of the dialogue. I think their agenda is not a very good agenda for public education in New Jersey.”

NTU, Del Grosso said, is willing to “put our money where our mouth is,” citing the union’s partnership with Seton Hall University to implement a $100,000 transformation of the poorly performing Newton Street School.

But Gaby said the billboard exposure has started to awaken and empower Newark residents.

“It obviously caused quite a stir, because the union is used to being a frightening presence that silences everybody,” Gaby said. “I think that’s just the beginning of people waking up to what a toxic presence the union is everywhere.”

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

Center for Union Facts’ teachers union campaign site, http://ProtectingBadTeachers.com