The Louisiana Teacher Union Paradox
How the LAE and LFT Remain a Barrier to Educational Progress in Spite of Electoral and Legislative Defeats
Recent legislative sessions have not been kind to Louisiana’s two teacher unions, the Louisiana Association of Educators (“LAE”) and the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and School Employees (“LFT”). (The LAE is the state affiliate of the National Education Association and the LFT is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers and the AFL-CIO.) In spite of tremendous organized opposition from these two unions, historic education reforms have been passed in Louisiana.
Successive electoral, legislative and local district collective bargaining contract losses, along with a more engaged citizenry that is beginning to demand more from schools, have fostered the teacher unions’ defeats. Old-fashioned “butt kickings” at the Capitol, unsuccessful recall attempts by the unions for the governor and pro-reform legislators, and anemic membership representation in school districts could lead many to conclude that teacher unions are weak in Louisiana.
Indeed, in a just released report issued by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute entitled How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, Louisiana ranked 42nd in the nation for teacher union strength, and was rated as a Tier 5 state, which are the states with the weakest teacher unions.
Louisiana’s unions have been unable to pass a mandatory state collective bargaining law in spite of numerous attempts over the past decades. Additionally, only eight school boards in Louisiana have ever voted in favor of collective bargaining agreements. (The LFT has had agreements in Jefferson, Orleans, and St. Tammany Parishes. The LAE has agreements in St. Bernard, St. Helena, St. John the Baptist and Vermilion Parishes, as well as the independent school district of the City of Bogalusa.)
Following the state takeover of the majority of schools in Orleans Parish in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Orleans Parish School Board voted not to renew its collective bargaining agreement with the LFT. Jefferson Parish is currently in negotiations to revise its agreement with the LFT, which expired earlier this year. Currently, only six of the 70 school districts in the state have collective bargaining agreements with one of the two unions.
Clearly, Louisiana’s teacher unions do not appear to compete with the strength of education unions in other states. This could lead observers to believe that teacher unions play a negligible role in education policy in Louisiana.
They would be wrong.
Teacher union challenges to real education reform continue to exist, though often in ways that are not measurable or reportable. If you dig deeper, the unions’ power and influence, particularly at the local school district level, remain strong in this state, challenging education reform efforts at every step of the electoral, legislative and policy implementation processes.
Some have asked why Louisiana chose to embark on what could be perceived as radical changes in the way education is delivered in the state, especially in light of the many reforms that have been enacted and implemented since the 1990s. Louisiana has a highly regarded school accountability program, which generally ranks in the top five in the nation. However, accountability and high stakes testing (which was adopted in an attempt to ensure that students were ready for the next grade level before they were promoted) did not translate into student achievement.
For example, earlier this year the national journal Education Week, in its annual Quality Counts report, gave Louisiana an “A” for “Standards, Assessments, and Accountability” and an “F” for “K-12 Achievement,” while ranking Louisiana 48th in the nation for student achievement. Though the recently issued School Performance Scores showed across the board improvement in student performance and indicate that the state, overall, is a “C”, the unfortunate reality is that about 200,000 students remain below basic in grade level skills and knowledge. And that is based on Louisiana’s low standards to achieve “basic.”
The dropout rate remains unacceptably high (only 71 percent of students graduate on time), and 34 percent of college freshmen from public schools who attend college must take remedial courses. Louisiana’s state average ACT score, at 20.2, is lower than the national average of 21.1, and will likely dip again when all students will be required to take the ACT prior to graduation. (Beginning in 2013, every high school student will have to take the ACT as a requirement for graduation.)
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), called “the nation’s report card,” shows that only 20 percent of 4th grade students in Louisiana are reading on a “proficient” level, and only 19 percent of 8th grade students are “proficient.” (2011 NAEP Reading Results.)
Math scores are not much different. In math tests, 23 percent of 4th grade students were “proficient,” while 20 percent of 8th grade students achieved that rating. (2009 NAEP Math Results.)
Those who believe that money will solve all of Louisiana’s educational woes will not be comforted by the facts—the state per pupil allocation has increased by almost 40 percent since 2005, and teacher pay has been raised by over 20 percent since the 2005-06 school year. (The average per pupil allocation, which includes both state and local contributions, is approximately $10,600 this year.)
A lack of personnel is also not to blame for Louisiana’s poor performance. The Friedman Foundation recently issued a report on school staffing around the nation. It shows that between the years of 1992-2009, Louisiana’s student enrollment decreased by 13 percent. With fewer students, school systems in the state still increased the number of teachers by 9 percent, and increased administrative and non-teaching staff by 13 percent. (The School Staffing Surge, Decades of Employment Growth in America’s Public Schools, The Friedman Foundation, October 2012.)
Louisiana’s educational funding formula, the Minimum Foundation Program (MFP), is set each year by the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and approved by the Legislature. There is an annual inflation factor of 2.75 percent built into the formula, which has been frozen for the past few years. When critics publicly decry the “cuts” to education funding, what they are really talking about is the lack of the automatic increase, not any decrease in the base funding level.
Slow educational growth and how tax dollars are spent to support education, combined with the logical results of a poor educational system – poverty, number of citizens who require public services, poor health of citizens, crime and one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation, all of which are economic development killers – have driven many taxpayers to the conclusion that public education must be re-created, that it cannot and should not be sustained in its current structure.
But while many taxpayers and policymakers have concluded that dramatic reforms are necessary, the teacher unions reject these changes and have engaged in a range of actions designed to thwart them.
Teacher Union Tactics
Alinsky’s 1971 bible for union organizers, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals, outlines teacher union tactics that are blunt-edged and strong. Recommendations range from creating disturbances at committee hearings to creating issues and problems where none exist. In fact, Alinsky’s manifesto charges organizers to “rub raw any present resentments”, “fan any hostilities”, “search for controversy”, and “stir dissatisfaction.” Finally, Alinsky instructs organizers to “do what you can with what you have and clothe it with moral arguments.”
Louisiana unions have taken more than a few pages out of the Rules for Radicals playbook:
Legal Actions: Unions have filed lawsuits challenging Act 1 and Act 2 of the 2012 regular legislative session. They attempted to get injunctions to halt the implementation of the scholarship program. They have also filed suit against the state or local school boards, primarily due to personnel actions that have resulted in layoffs in districts such as Jefferson and Orleans. (In 2011, the Jefferson Federation of Teachers filed three lawsuits against the school board in less than two months. One dealt with allegedly “unjust” layoffs, while the other two attempted to stop the board from implementing mandatory furlough days to save the system from financial insolvency.)
Recall Petitions: Though all have been unsuccessful, union supporters have initiated recall petitions for the governor and a handful of pro-reform legislators, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives. These recall petitions keep union issues in the media and thus in the minds of voters, regardless of whether or not the issues have any merit.
Fanning Hostilities: The LFT, which claims 21,000 teachers and school employees as members, is demanding that a special session be called to repeal Acts 1 and 2 of 2012 (the demand for a special session has been posted on their website). Though it is highly unlikely that a special session will be called, at least not on the education reform issues, the strategy there may be that if you say something enough times it will gain traction and, at a minimum, keep your position and issues before union members, the Legislature, and citizens.
Intimidation: This is one of the most insidious, behind the scenes tactics the unions regularly employ. They have the ability to pressure school boards, teachers and other school system employees to support candidates, and sabotage reform policies.
Before the lawsuit against Act 2 had its first hearing, the LAE sent threatening letters to nonpublic schools that had offered to accept scholarship students. The letters contained threats of lawsuits against each individual school in a transparent attempt to intimidate them into withdrawing from the program. Fortunately, for the 4,900 children that are now going to schools via the scholarship program, no school dropped out due to the threat letter.
Sabotage also comes in other forms. Providing no information, misinformation, or incomplete information to teachers and others in the field responsible for implementing policies creates doubt amongst them as to the efficacy of the policy. We are witnessing this right now with COMPASS, where value-added evaluation opponents are using every means at their disposal to stop implementation.
Searching for Controversy: The most recent search for a problem comes out of the Department of Education’s announced reorganization plans and, specifically, the salaries of top officials who make six-figure salaries. The immediate response from unions supporters is the unfairness of those salaries while state financial aid to school districts has been frozen for several years. These critics do not mention that K-12 education is one of the few state-funded expenditures that has not endured severe cuts due to the state’s fiscal challenges.
Apparently, the same beliefs about salaries are not present at the LAE offices. According to their 2010 Form 990, this union, which solicits and deposits dues from some of the lowest paid school employees in the state, paid its president $137,401 in 2010, and its executive director earned $125,480 that same year. A third, unnamed independent contractor was reported as having been paid more than $100,000 by the LAE. Further, of $3.8 million in gross receipts, $2.4 million were expended in salaries. Interestingly, zero dollars were reported for lobbying expenses.
For the 2010-11 fiscal year, LAE reported dues income was $3,054,027, a 1.2 percent decrease from 2009-10. (Other revenue was reported in the amount of $773,924. This revenue could be grants from the NEA, advertising revenue, etc.) The same year that the LAE saw a decrease in their dues income, they reported paying $2,420,146 in employee compensation, an increase of 8.8 percent. Apparently, you can do that sort of thing when your national office and state affiliates are taking in $1.4 billion per year, even if you’ve lost 118,186 members over the last two years.
According to an analysis conducted by the Education Intelligence Agency, a nonprofit organization that reviews union tax filings, the NEA as a whole lost 2 percent of its active membership in 2010-11 but increases in dues rates limited revenue losses to 0.3 percent (about $3.7 million).
Rubbing Raw: Barely a day passes without a union blogger commenting online, in print or in the broadcast media about some “privatization plot” in education or other conspiracy theory aimed at turning attention away from failing schools and wasted tax dollars and toward the people and organizations involved in the pro-reform effort. This approach brings to mind the old saying that, if you focus people’s attention enough on the mouse in the room, they won’t notice the elephant walking by. And our elephant in the room is the fact that public schools are not providing a quality education for the majority of students in the state.
Recently, at the request of the Tangipahoa Parish School Board, a federal judge in New Orleans set a hearing for October 30 to determine if Tangipahoa Parish, due to its ongoing, 47-year old desegregation lawsuit, must comply with the new funding formula that allocates tax dollars to support students in the state scholarship program. The school board has alleged that the diversion of funds to the program will not allow it to maintain its agreement regarding facilities and magnet schools to meet the dictates of the desegregation suit. (The hearing has been delayed until November 26. The Tangipahoa School Board is also a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Act 2 that will be heard November 28.)
Only 50 Tangipahoa Parish students are participating in the scholarship program. In 2009-10, student enrollment in Tangipahoa Parish was 19,369 (in 39 schools, grades preK-12). The per-pupil allocation was $8,858, a 39.8 percent increase since 2004-05. Of that amount, $7,226 was spent on compensation, a 36.1 percent increase since 2004-05.
Additionally, in 2001-02, employee benefits in the Tangipahoa Parish school system cost the district $15,681,555, or $868 per pupil. Ten years later, benefit spending increased to $40,974,041, which was $2,112 per pupil, an increase of $25,292,486. In 2001-02, the district had 18,075 students enrolled, and 2,264 full-time staff members. In 2009-10, student enrollment in Tangipahoa Parish had grown to 19,369, an increase of 1,294 students, while the full-time staff during that same period increased to 2,598, adding salaries and benefits of 334 full-time staff people to the district’s bottom line.
The aforementioned benefit and retirement costs consume a large portion of school budgets primarily due to teacher union success at the Capitol (for example, generous and fiscally unsustainable retirement provisions) and at the local school district level (driving up staffing numbers to widen their recruiting potential). It is therefore ironic that Tangipahoa would complain about “lost” voucher money that is actually being used to educate students.
In spite of these remarkable increases in staffing and spending in Tangipahoa Parish, the district is rated as a “D” school district, and ranks 55th in the state for student achievement.
The maximum amount of a state scholarship to a nonpublic school participating in the program is the amount equal to the state and local MFP of the district. The average statewide is $8,500 per child; in Tangipahoa it is $7,403. Therefore, no school may be paid more than $7,403 by the state for a child from Tangipahoa Parish, and the maximum amount for the 50 Tangipahoa students in total would be $370,128. (The average scholarship amount statewide is $5,300.) However, the majority of children on scholarships from Tangipahoa Parish are attending schools that charge tuition less than $5,000. The actual tuition paid for these students is $246,771, for an overall net savings in educational costs of $124,368.
When the educational costs of these 50 scholarship students is considered within the overall school district budget, the true fiscal picture becomes even more clear. Per the October 2012 MFP Budget Letter which outlines funding for the Tangipahoa Parish School Board, the district will receive $103,350,924 for the State MFP share ($5,474 per pupil) and $36,404,138 for the Local MFP amount ($1,929 per pupil).
Tangipahoa Parish has a 71.6 percent graduation rate (2010-11). When 30 percent of students drop out of school there – a loss of 5,810 students – the cost to the district is $43,016,612. Yet, the district has not been censured as to the dropout rate’s cost to the system and its impact on the desegregation case. The 2009-10 Annual Financial and Statistical Report issued by the Louisiana Department of Education reports the total revenue and funding from other sources for that year to be $184,867,450. (At over $187 million in expenditures, the report does show that Tangipahoa Parish is spending more than it is taking in. However, the district’s website boasts that the school district is the largest employer in the parish, with about one employee for every seven students.)
One person who has a lot to say about how teacher unions impede educational progress is Jefferson Parish School Board member, Mike Delesdernier. Delesdernier was elected to the JPSB in 2010 and the following year began to serve on the board. His perspective is related to his first-hand experience in negotiating with teacher unions while trying to transform the Jefferson Parish school system into one that puts students first.
Delesdernier and a majority pro-reform board began to initiate reform measures while still under the collective bargaining agreement the board had with the LFT during 2011. He says his first year in office the board faced a $17 million budget deficit and was also struggling to find ways to fund an over-budgeted by $20 million 2011-12 school year budget. The new board immediately began to implement budget reduction measures and the union fought them on virtually every issue, including reductions in force measures, teacher breaks during the day, what students should be taught, etc.
The JFT’s collective bargaining agreement was scheduled to end in spring of this year. Delesdernier said he and other fellow board members saw that the contract in place was not consistent with the reform direction in which they were headed. He says they were not opposed to a new contract outright, but wanted to “start from scratch.” They are currently operating without a contract because, Delesdernier says, the union keeps bringing elements of the old contract back to the board. Jefferson Parish’s collective bargaining agreement included district staff, cafeteria workers, and other school support personnel, in addition to teachers.
Delesdernier does believe that it will take a bit more time but an agreement will be reached, and it will be done without undue disruption on the educational process and with the goal of having little to no impact on the primary goal of educating students.
However, it is evident that Delesdernier is frustrated by teacher union tactics. He testified in favor of the 2012 education package’s reforms at the Legislature, and the Jefferson board resigned from the Louisiana School Board Association because the LSBA joined the lawsuit against the state that challenged the reforms. (The LSBA also tried to get local school boards to join the lawsuit.) He says that union members are disruptive, utilize tactics to frighten teachers, lie, use children as shields, and went so far as to threaten the children of school board members who have children attending Jefferson Parish schools. (He makes the point that this is only his personal opinion, and that he is only one of nine school board members.)
Priorities such as keeping good teachers in classrooms and laying off poorly performing teachers are clearly working for the district. District performance scores improved each of the last two years, and Delesdernier hopes to see continuous improvement. (In spite of much improved achievement in Jefferson Parish, the unions have denied that the locally initiated reforms are working.) The Jefferson Parish School System now has its emphasis on performance and “consequences, for the first time.” Though they’re on the right track, Delesdernier knows the dispute with the local union is far from over, and that every time there is union pushback, “children pay for it.”
Another person with a strong opinion about teacher unions is Philip Martin, Superintendent of Terrebonne Parish Schools. Terrebonne is not a collective bargaining district, but Martin says he “agrees with the premise that the union mentality is counter-productive to reform.” Since his district has low union activity, he says he “sees it more at the state level than locally.”
In his four years as superintendent in bayou country, Martin says that he has seen that “statewide, union leadership opposes reform efforts, that they are resistant to change.” He believes that unions could be a valuable entity for teachers. Instead, says Martin, “teachers are not always told the whole truth, they don’t get the entire picture, conclusions are based on partial information.”
He says he sometimes sees the unions’ “play the boogie man, scare teachers to death, portray how horrible things will be when it’s all not played out yet; if it’s bad, things change. The interaction is not as productive as it could be.”
Though each of Louisiana’s teacher unions claims to have thousands of members, they do not delineate the number of teachers from other members who may be retired or working as school support personnel. Legislators who side with unions thinking that they are supporting teachers may not be doing so to the extent they believed. The total number of teachers in the state is about 50,000. The non-union professional teachers’ organization, Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana (A+PEL) has 7,000 members, most of which are teachers with some paraprofessionals included. Do teacher unions really speak for teachers, and focus on what teachers really care about? Teacher unions usually win through politics – gathering teachers and other school system employees and making demands for contributions in support of union candidates (often at mandatory assemblies, flagrantly violating election laws). They rally to increase staff sizes so their member recruitment potential is greater.
Teacher unions, collaborating with pro-union superintendents and school boards, command considerable lobbying power both locally and at the Legislature. In many districts, school boards are the largest employer, and all politics are local. It is very difficult for a legislator to say “no” to his or her local educational representatives. In fact, about 10 percent of legislators were once school board members themselves, so their ties to the institution are strong.
Education reform efforts are killed, delayed, blocked or impeded by the unions using every tactic imaginable. They challenge legislation at the Capitol; at administrative proceedings; at BESE; in court; intimidate program participants; threaten policymakers; attempt to stop or divert funding; mount political campaigns; and use members’ dues to support their actions.
The unions also play heavily in elections. At the state level, they recruit and support union candidates in gubernatorial, legislative and BESE races, and they are also involved in local school board elections. Local school boards are charged with implementing reforms, but a pro-union local school board can delay or outright deny law and policy requiring full implementation of reforms, often with little to no consequences. According to organizational documents filed with the Louisiana Board of Ethics, the LFT’s PAC has a membership of 12,000, and the LAE’s is 15,500. Being able to marshal those kinds of numbers is not something to be underestimated.
When a bill to put local school board term limits on local ballots during the November 2012 election was debated this past session, not a single local school board member opposed it, but the unions did. If the local electorates vote in favor of school board term limits on November 6, the unions will have to vie for control of school boards every 12 years instead of maintaining control indefinitely.
The unions remain viable in part because taxpayer supported governmental bodies, i.e. school board offices, collect and remit union dues to them. With automatic payroll deduction, which is authorized in Louisiana statute, many teachers are unaware of the total amount they are paying in dues, and what portion of those dues go to support political candidates they may not even be personally supporting. National polls indicate that teachers are mostly conservative voters, yet their dues, without their knowledge or consent, often support liberal candidates and causes. When other states enacted laws to require annual permission for the withholding of dues, and saw the amounts being collected, union memberships dropped considerably. If Louisiana had such a law, would union memberships remain as strong as the LAE and LFT claim?
Further, can the teacher unions survive the advent of parent empowerment and choice? Now that there is parental demand in educational services, can the unions turn back the clock to a time when education was delivered with little attention to student need or parental concern? Parents in Louisiana are becoming accustomed to being able to choose among a number of educational delivery services, which may end up being a greater threat to union viability than conservative politics. These parents have learned that they can demand more for their tax dollars, and they are not turning back.
While the teacher unions in Louisiana do not have the clout of their counterparts in states like California and New York, their power should not be underestimated. Although this power is often exercised out in the open, through litigation and lobbying in the Capitol, much of their influence is exercised behind the scenes. This influence can be deployed to undermine reforms that have been democratically implemented and are popularly supported. Doing away with automatic payroll deductions would level the playing field by forcing unions to rely on voluntary contributions for their political activities. Finally, while unions have a right to do what they think is best for their members, policymakers should be “wise as serpents” when dealing with them, or the state of Louisiana will continue to suffer the many deleterious effects of subpar schools.