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Why Everybody Wants a Government Job

Howie Carr recently detailed some results from a Massachusetts inspector general report looking into the goldmine of unused sick time in the public sector, including some of the arguments for lavish pay and benefits.  Here’s a particularly trenchant juxtaposition:

On page 8: “(We must) pay a reasonable salary to the staff we have so that we could retain them.”

On page 13: Inability to promote younger hacks because “the only opportunities for advancement come about when someone leaves, which is an extremely rare event.”

Both of the above can’t be true. Either they’re leaving because they’re not getting paid enough or the jobs are so great that vacancies are “extremely rare.” Lack of turnover — it’s not a terribly pressing problem most places in the DPS like, say, the food court at your local mall.

When the Tiverton School Committee appeared before the Budget Committee last year and complained that its teachers are among the lowest-paid in the state, I asked how difficult the district finds it to be to fill positions.  Frankly, I don’t think most people involved with state or local government understand why those two points should even be connected.

As with other negotiations in which local government engages, people in office tend to negotiate against some abstract vision rather than with a focus on their constituents’ interests.  Without a profit motive, as private entities and businesses have, and with an apathetic electorate, they have no incentive to pull very hard in the tug of war.


Teachers’ Chronic Absenteeism: Another Area of Bad Performance for RI

Summarizing research for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute by David Griffith, Jacob Grandstaff writes:

Griffith defines “chronic absence” as when a teacher misses more than ten school days for “sick” or “personal” leave. When he compares public school teachers with charter school teachers in this area, the difference is quite glaring. Public school teachers are almost three times as likely to be chronically absent as charter school teachers, 28 percent to 10 percent. This is true in 34 of the 35 states that have a large percentage of charter schools. In eight states and the District of Columbia, public school teachers are at least four times as likely as charter school teachers to be absent.

The study finds the gap is the widest in areas that require public school teachers, but not charter school teachers, to bargain collectively. It also shows that it is not an issue of public schools, but of unionization. Unionized charter school teachers are twice as likely to be chronically absent from work as non-unionized charter school teachers.

According to the study, of the 35 states plus Washington, D.C., Rhode Island is the 4th worst for chronic public school absenteeism.  Add this to the mountain of evidence that the Ocean State’s public school system is not designed primarily for the benefit of our children.


CCRI Union: Students Will Have to Wait, We Won’t Innovate!

Watching government agencies like the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) attempt to maneuver around their labor unions can leave a private-sector observer scratching his or her head.

The college was all set to introduce a short, three-week semester in winter for interested students.  It was offering faculty an “overload” rate (which is like overtime) of $87.50 per hour, without affecting the pay and overload arrangements of their regular work, and some employees had agreed to the deal.  Then their labor union stepped in, and the plan is on hold.

In the private sector, management decides to try something, and if it can pull together the clients and the employees, even if it means hiring more on a contract basis, it gives an innovation a whirl.  What’s the union’s game, here?

The Providence Journal’s G. Wayne Miller reports the union’s excuse thus:

But CCRI Faculty Association president Steven D. Murray, in a YouTube video posted a week ago, objected.

“The college has unilaterally decided to offer courses in developmental math, developmental English, a course in human anatomy, all very difficult courses to accomplish in 15 weeks, let alone three weeks,” he said.

“The faculty who teach these courses tell me that to try to compress them into three weeks is academically unsound. They have similar J terms at other colleges, but our student population is very different than those other colleges. And we want to do what’s best for our students.”

That explanation has an air of plausibility until one realizes that this is college we’re talking about.  Nobody has to take the courses, and advisors should be able to dissuade those who aren’t ready.  Moreover, the program could attract new students, whether from other institutions or just from the private sector.

Perhaps Murray’s reference to “faculty who teach these courses” provides a clue.  Maybe the regular teacher of one of the courses won’t be the one teaching the “compressed” version and wants to protect his or her territory.  The union may also fear that the market will conclude that regular courses are unnecessarily extended.

Whatever the unspoken rationale for the objection, the bigger puzzle remains why our society uses government for anything that doesn’t absolutely have to be handled by it.


A Policy That Puts Students First

Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., is the president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, which works with almost 50 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).  He had some strong statements to make to Allysia Finley for the Wall Street Journal.  Here are a few key points:

The root problem, Mr. Taylor explains, is that traditional public schools are failing to prepare students. In “economically fragile” communities, many low-income students graduate from high school without basic literacy, and those admitted to HBCUs often need remedial classes. That presents HBCUs with a dual challenge. “When you show up to my college, I’m in trouble and you’re in trouble,” Mr. Taylor says. “I can’t get you through, and the feds are holding me accountable for graduation rates. And you’re frustrated because you feel like you were shafted for 12 years by the secondary-school system—and you were.” …

He adds that “I don’t suggest that charters or vouchers or any of the other options are the panacea.” But he insists that if “you know that the traditional public school system is failing your children, to say, ‘I’m not going to do anything but pour more money into something I know is not working,’ should be criminal. And I know that’s a strong word—but it should be criminal because you are stealing children’s lives.” …

“We are nonpartisan,” he emphasizes before rushing off to give a keynote speech on criminal justice at the Charles Koch Institute’s Advancing Justice annual summit. “I hope we all start thinking: What’s in the best interest of the kid? If we let that be sort of our compass, our guiding light, then you don’t care what the union wants. You don’t care about what the NAACP wants.”

That’s really the key question, isn’t it?  The only question, ultimately, for public schools.  Revisit a post of mine from 2015 quoting former teacher union head Marcia Reback, who acknowledged that her job was to represent the teachers, not the students.  As Steiny related, “when their interests diverge, she said, ‘I represent the teachers.'”

And yet, our education system — our entire political system, in Rhode Island — is built with a tilt in their favor.  Somebody has to put the students first.


Supporters of Big Government Often Work in Big Government

By the way, further to my  post, yesterday, something that Molly Ball writes incidentally in her Atlantic essay about Democrat groups’ touring flyover country to understand the natives is worth a moment of attention (emphasis added):

The report is short, covering only three big takeaways from the seven listening sessions Third Way conducted. The first is the importance of hard work; the second is the need for a strong workforce. The third, described in a section entitled “Just Get the Hell Out of My Way,” is locals’ purported antagonism to big government. “Whether the question is about immigration or banks, taxes or welfare, the people we spoke to generally felt that government policies were irrelevant to their daily lives,” it states. This view is made to sound like one that was broadly expressed, but in fact, we mostly heard it in just one session—the group of curmudgeonly farmers. Almost all of the quotations in this section are drawn from that group. There are no quotations from the people we met who were pro-government, such as the teachers and laborers and activists, who voiced concern that local, state, and federal government ought to be doing more to take care of people.

By “laborers,” Ball is referring specifically to a table of men who were members of Laborers International Union of North America and other construction unions.  So the people she lists as “pro-government” are employees of government, workers whose largest source of employment is government building, and people who are (for pay or otherwise) occupied with pushing government policies.  That is, the people who think “government ought to be doing more to take care of people” are largely employed in… helping government to do so.

That isn’t really surprising.


Political Monday with John DePetro, No. 31: Sick Outs and What It Means to Be a Democrat

For my weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WADK 1540 AM show, last week, the topics were the Warwick sick outs, my ethics complaint, Josh Miller’s view of the Democrats, Raimondo’s remorse for hurting journalists’ feelings.

Open post for full audio.


Fighting Words in 2017 Rhode Island

Two stories in the statewide news right now strike me as similarly hinging on how people should react to things said about women.  The first is Katherine Gregg’s follow up report in the Providence Journal on the saga of Democrat Party Vice Chairman Joseph DeLorenzo and his expressions of doubt about progressive Democrat state Representative Teresa Tanzi’s allegations of sexual bribery in the legislature:

Having been roundly criticized by other Democrats, from Gov. Gina Raimondo on down, and urged to apologize by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, the 75-year-old DeLorenzo issued this statement: “I sincerely apologize to everyone for my recent unfortunate remarks.

“As a husband, father of two daughters, and grandfather to two granddaughters, I never meant to minimize the problems of sexual harassment, which is a very serious issue,” he said.

Now juxtapose that with Steph Machado and Shawn Towne’s WPRI mention of a union firefighter’s return to work after an unexpected, paid month-long vacation following an altercation with another firefighter:

According to a police affidavit, [Deputy Chief and union head Paul] Valletta and Lt. Scott Bergantino got into an argument about overtime, and Bergantino made a disparaging remark about Valletta’s mother.

The affidavit states Bergantino told police, “Deputy Chief Valletta approached him and pushed him up against the chalkboard, punched him in the head two times, and then threw him over a recliner and onto the floor.”

From what I’ve seen, however much Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo may want to insist he “belittled” Tanzi, DeLorenzo’s offense was simply expressing doubt about an allegation that another adult — a public figure and politician.  Much of the Democrat Party in Rhode Island has called for his defenestration and will continue to shun and attack the 75-year-old supporter of their party.

Bergantino, on the other hand, allegedly made actually belittling and aggressive comments about a different woman — who was not a public figure, as far as I can tell.  Sure, Valletta crossed the line into physical violence, but by the party’s standards, it would at least seem understandable that he would do so.  Moreover, men have historically been able to move on, even to bond, after such exchanges of words and blows.


Parents of Special Needs Students and School Budget Battles

Entirely by way of connecting observations from multiple districts, this detail of Katie Mulvaney’s  article on Superior Court Judge Susan E. McGuirl’s ordering Warwick teachers to stop their sick-outs is worth lingering over:

Ellen F. Polo, head of the Robertson parent teacher organization, said she is fully behind the teachers, as are 80 percent of the parents she knows.

“I fully support the teachers,” Polo said Monday, citing the union’s push for smaller class sizes and concerns about compromising special-education services. “If there’s a strike, I’d support it.”

The district has been eliminating teaching assistant positions that are crucial to meeting students’ needs, said Polo, whose oldest daughter is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism.

I’ve noticed that the parents of special needs students are often prominent supporters of (even warriors for) local school districts, backing the regular push for more funds all around.  They are understandably grateful to the district, generally, and the teachers in particular, and they have incentive to push back against budget pressures.  One such parent estimated on social media that her child receives $100,000 worth of services annually from the local school system.

Most Rhode Islanders will agree that these are services we should support, although the specifics of what and how should, of course, always be under review with an eye toward improvement and efficiency.  Similarly to school building maintenance, however, the fast ratchet of personnel costs that politically active labor organizations have succeeded in building into the budgets of government, including schools, ensure that budget pressure never ends and everything always feels insecure.  (Indeed, a general sense of insecurity is necessary for unions and other special interests and political organizations to maintain their influence.)

Personal gratitude notwithstanding, reforming our education system so that its focus is more convincingly on the students and their families shouldn’t be seen as a threat to those with special needs students.  Indeed, NAEP trends show that “disabled” students are losing ground in Rhode Island, having fallen from above average, among states overall, to below average.  Holding on to the status quo, that is, carries more risk than working together to find a new path.


Warwick Teachers Now Go After the Little Ones

Warwick Schools’ strange rolling illness — which apparently hits large numbers of teachers one school at a time for just a single day each time — has now moved to the elementary schools, with students far too young to be left without some sort of care during the day.  Three schools for small children are closed today with no notice, at least one of them because of teacher absences.

That is, the event appears to be a deliberate “sick out” as a consequence of the district’s unionized labor force.  The public could reasonably see that as a form of actual illness, at least a mental illness akin to membership in a cult.

I think it was Gene Valicenti on WPRO who asked the local union leader, Darlene Netcoh, whether the union planned to hit one school at a time.  She professed no plans that were technically union-approved, but the rumors appear to have been accurate.  One wonders whether the district closed two other elementary schools as a preventative measure.

The bottom line is that this sort of thing simply shouldn’t happen, and the only reason it is allowed to happen is that the school district can take money from taxpayers whether or not they use the service.  Taxpayers can’t stop paying the bill.  Parents can only seek more-reliable options if they are willing to move or pay for private education above and beyond their taxes.  And the labor unions are part of a formidable national network dedicated to preventing our political system from working against their selfish interests.


A Side Benefit of Giving Away Retirement Bonuses

Katherine Gregg notes, in a Providence Journal article, an interesting side effect of Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s plan to pay off long-time state employees to retire.  Gregg notes that the administration is assuming that 426 state workers will retire under the program, receiving $8.94 million in “retirement-incentive payments” and another $4.57 million in pay for unused time off from their years of employment.

[The plan] will also, coincidentally, turn state government into a hiring factory in the six months leading up to the 2018 elections.

So, heading into a statewide election for legislators and the governor, 426 union members will be happily flush with cash and another estimated 252 will have received seats on the state payroll gravy train.  That’s a nice little bonus effect of retirement incentives.

Of course, we shouldn’t accept the governor’s estimates.  Pushing employees into an underfunded pension plan may result in some near-term savings, but in the long term, it’s a terrible idea.  Taxpayer dollars go toward these pensions, and with people living longer and longer and government employees’ pay on ratcheting scales, we’ll only end up paying multiple people at a time for each job.

These sorts of buyouts are a bad idea when the idea is just to save money, and the impulse exposes a much more problematic fact of government.  Think about it:  If these employees are so far from worth what they’re being paid that we’ll give them bonuses up to $40,000 to get rid of them, why are we paying them so much in the first place?  If that’s not an indication that we need huge, systematic reform, then nothing is.

That point highlights the only time that buyouts might be reasonable in principle, which is when doing so is part of a system-wide fix.  But nothing is being fixed, in this case.  The governor’s just looking for a short-term budget trick that comes with some political benefit.


Warwick School Conditions and Problematic Personnel

The local news media is all a-buzz this week with reports that the members of the Warwick teacher’s union have shut down another school with a “sick out,” this time Veterans Junior High School (affecting even younger children than those whose lives the teachers disrupted last Friday at Pilgrim High School).  This part of John Hill’s report in the Providence Journal should raise additional questions:

Warwick Teachers Union President Darlene Netcoh said if the sick calls were a job action and not due to actual illness, the move had not been sanctioned by the union.

“It’s not an organized sick-out,” she said. “There was no vote.”

She said Veterans has had health issues in the past, with parents complaining about conditions in the building.

Upon inquiry from The Current, Hill replied that he’s working to verify Netcoh’s claim about the junior high’s especial difference from other Warwick Schools.  The superintendent’s office provided The Current with the following statement:

We have received no formal complaints from parents or staff of health issues related to the condition of Veterans Jr. High School.  In response to numerous unspecified statements, the District contracted with an independent agency last year to test air quality levels in the building.  All tests came back within normal ranges.  Additionally, substantial work was done over the summer replacing the school’s heating system with a new, state of the art heating and air conditioning system.  This work has resulted in significant improvement in the air quality as well as the movement and flow of the air in the building.

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s recently released assessment of school buildings in Rhode Island actually rates Veterans as being in the fourth best condition of the district’s 21 schools, with a repair-to-replacement ratio of 40.6%.

To be sure, that rating is not desirable, falling in the report’s “poor” category, and Warwick’s schools overall are fourth worst among Rhode Island districts.  Far from excusing the teachers’ labor union action, however, this fact suggests that more of the city’s limited resources should go to building repair and maintenance than to problematic personnel.


Janus vs AFSME: One Of The Most Important Constitutional Cases Of Our Lifetime

Mark Janus is a child support specialist with the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services. He advocates for children’s rights when their parents are no longer together. When he was hired, he didn’t know that he was going to be forced to pay union dues until he saw the fees deducted from his first paycheck.


Are These the Employees You’d Hire to Influence Your Children?

One can understand, I guess, why a certain type of person would want this sort of leverage in negotiating for more money:

Warwick School District superintendent Philip Thornton confirmed Friday morning that classes were canceled due to a “sick out,” where dozens of teachers called out sick over ongoing contract negotiations.

74 of 145 teachers in total called out Friday, causing the superintendent to cancel school over insufficient staffing.

What isn’t so easy to understand, however, is why we not only tolerate such behavior, but even give labor unions structural advantages in our laws.  “Sick outs” by well-paid, white-collar “professionals” are a form of extortion founded in greed.  (According to the contract on the district’s Web site, a step 10 teacher in Warwick makes $76,601, with large additions for longevity and graduate education as well as opportunity for more through other activities, all with a government employee’s stellar benefits and a 180-day work year.)

Imagine a private business that allowed your children to become pawns in a negotiation and could disrupt your entire life on a moment’s notice like this.  Couple that with the system’s institutional intention to indoctrinate its students, and it isn’t difficult to see why the education establishment so desperately fears school choice.  Only by forcing families to pay for their service can they get away with this level of abuse.


School Choice Works and Should Expand in Rhode Island

Washington Examiner editorial highlights some evidence that school choice is increasingly likely to become a broadly implemented policy.  Here’s a key piece:

The latest fissures are created by a study of the country’s largest private school choice program. According to researchers, the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which provides vouchers, increased college enrollment rates by about 6 percentage points for students who participated at all. For those who were in the program for four or more years, the college enrollment rate was as much as 17 points higher.

Before anyone leaps to suggest that this really just means those schools cream off the best students, opponents of school choice should know that children in the program disproportionately come from families with low incomes and, before joining the program, were mostly at bad public schools and did poorly on tests.

Add in a possible Supreme Court ruling this session that might put new pressures on public sector labor unions (by, again, increasing choice, in this case among workers) and public support for school choice policies, and opportunity may finally come to students who are poorly served by government schools.

As with much else, Rhode Island could be a leader in this area.  The state’s size and population density should make it fertile ground for the growth of schools serving nearly the whole state, with a plethora of options for families no matter where they live.

Evidence that I’ve seen out of Vermont and among Jewish communities (forgive the lack of links on a busy Monday) suggests that people will make decisions about where to live in order to take advantage of school choice.  If Rhode Island really wants to attract innovative companies and capture a “spillover” of the Massachusetts economy, policies that favor people, not special-interest insider groups like teachers unions would do the trick better and with much less waste and corruption than attempting to buy off those companies and people with offers to make them complicit in our state’s corruption.