Thursday, August 8, 2019

Indian Hill, Free To Teach, And How To Bust A Union

If you are a teacher in Pennsylvania, you have probably heard from the folks at Free To Teach (I'm sure there are at least two of them) about how much better your life could be without a union. Their most recent letter includes an example of a district where teachers are happily existing without any connection to the state or national unions.

Free To Teach has been around for a while. It's an operation of the right-wing Commonwealth Foundation which is in turn connected to the State Policy Network, and it's all tied to ALEC and Koch funding. It's the same old gang of people who would like to see unions go away-- particularly those damned teachers unions that provide so much support for the Democratic Party. If you want more details, I've gathered them here.

This time, FTT director Keith Williams wants to tell us about a district he visited-- Indian Hill Exempted School District just outside Cincinnati. It's one of the highest achieving school districts in the country, and they dropped out of the national and state unions five years ago.

They have some facilities, too.
That process apparently involved the help of John Concannon, a lawyer who served as the district lawyer for Cincinnati schools for years. You can read his relatively unthreatening FAQ about the process here; it includes all of the usual reassurances that the teachers don't really need the sorts of protections that the unions offer.

But upon closer examination, Indian Hill Exempted Village School District is a good example of how you really bust a union. Let me tell you a story.

For years, folks from the national union tried to unionize one of our local grocery stores. It never, ever came close to succeeding. The owner of the store paid his workers really well. Beyond that, he treated them with kindness and respect, didn't jerk them around, didn't make them work under crappy conditions, and regularly accommodated their needs outside the job. The employees' stance was simple: What would a union get for us that our boss does not already give us freely? The boss didn't run his business this way in order to keep the union out; that just happened to be one of the side effects.

Let's take a look at Indian Hill Exempted Village School District.

They serve about 1,900 students, who are spread over four schools; those schools are separated by grade bands, not geography, because the district is small. They serve mainly three communities:

Kenwood, Ohio, is 2.3 square miles, includes a little over 3,000 households. Median family income-- $74,511. 1.6% of families below poverty line. 89% white.

Camp Dennison, less than half a square mile with a population under 400.

Indian Hill Exempted Village. A bit over 18 square miles. A little more than 200 households, with a household median income (per 2000 census) of  $179,356. 92% white, less than 1% black. 

In 2002, the Robb Report ("Your global luxury resource") rated it the "best place to raise a family" saying it attracted "well-heeled parents seeking a quiet, safe setting to raise children." Half of the students are labeled gifted. High school student body is 82% white, 8% Asian, 4% Black, 2% Hispanic. Nobody seems to have numbers on free lunch students. Teacher student ratio is 13:1. 53 teachers in the high school. Tons of AP classes and test-takers. Graduation rate is 97%. Average salary is $71,908 (Ohio average is $56, 928). They keep winning awards for being a great place to work-- not a great school, but a great place among all employers.

So, Pennsylvania teachers, as you contemplate this example, consider just how much this district does or does not look like yours. Small, compact, white, wealthy, high-achieving, community supported, with a relatively small teaching staff-- does this sound like your district?

Look, I have never been and will never be a die-hard uncritical fan of the teachers unions; they can be obnoxious, wrongheaded, and focused on issues that don't matter to your local. But it would be foolish to trust the good will and interests of school district management. You will note that Indian Hill School District teachers did not drop all thoughts of a union-- they simply gave themselves a raise by dropping out of unions that tied them to a whole lot of teachers who are poorer and generally worse off than they are (and who don't have access to a friendly edulawyer). They said, "We've made it to the top of the ladder, and it is costing us money and effort to stand around holding onto it so that everyone else can climb up."  That may be a sensible and practical decision (though time will tell), but it's not a decision available to everyone.

In short, Free To Teach's assertion that since Indian Hill teachers ditched the union, your local can, too, is like saying that since LeBron James can skip exercise for a few days, you might as well sit on the couch binging on Cheetos and Top Chef. The real message is, "We don't like unions, and we hop you will quit yours."

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