Could a Wisconsin-style union backlash happen in Maryland? It should

March 09, 2011|By George W. Liebmann

Maryland is known as a strong union state, and it would seem improbable to Marylanders that the current battle in Wisconsin could be replicated here. Maryland's budget deficit is less pronounced than that of Wisconsin, though its combined state debt and pension deficits place it among the top 20 states in debt burden. It retains its triple A bond rating largely because of constitutional provisions that are being eroded and because its electorate has many public workers not resistant to new taxation.

The Wisconsin controversy has been framed as a controversy about money. As Clive Crook of the London Financial Times has pointed out, underneath it there are more important issues concerning the quality of public services. Because Maryland's governor has indulged its unions, the governance issues will ultimately manifest themselves here in virulent form.

Marylanders need instruction in how entrenched the state's teachers' unions are:

1. Eleven counties, including all the more populous ones, allow unions to collect "agency fees" from nonmembers, generating huge war chests. While in theory such fees are not supposed to be used for political purposes, a famous lawsuit in Washington state revealed that nearly 80 percent of "agency fees" are in fact so used. A smaller number of counties allow check-offs for political action committees; all allow check-offs for union dues.

2. The State Board of Education has only qualified authority over teacher certification. A special board, eight of whose 24 members are named by unions and six of whom are from teachers' colleges, can only be over-ridden by a three-fourths vote of the State Board. Thus, with only narrow exceptions, qualified scientists must take nearly a year of "education" courses to be eligible to teach in Maryland schools, and two years of such courses are required for even the most successful teacher to become a principal. By statute, superintendents, except in Baltimore City, must have two years of graduate work in education.

3. Under a law signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley last year, another special board, two of whose five members are named by unions, has the last word in resolving impasses in school labor negotiations.

4. Local union contracts impose maximums on the length of the school year, limitations originally derived from the needs of agricultural societies

5. Maryland's charter school law is one of the few that binds charter school teachers to union contracts, and it provides few checks against refusal of applications by self-protective county boards. There are only a handful of charter schools outside of Baltimore City. Experimentation with "virtual schools" and distance learning is limited by a law binding employees to union contracts

6. Although as a condition of "Race to the Top" federal aid Maryland purportedly extended the probationary period for new teachers from two to three years, the legislation actually contracts the probationary period by providing that teachers cannot be removed without a year of "mentoring," which can be extended for a second year (the adequacy of "mentoring" being a potential issue for grievance arbitration).

7. Contracts limit the length of the school day — not unreasonably, as many teachers have children of their own. However they also require that teachers be given three to six hours a week of "preparation time," a euphemism for time off; senior teachers contrive to have their "prep time" at the end of the school day. A most revealing uproar ensued when the Baltimore City superintendent proposed that a portion of "prep time" be devoted to teacher training.

8. Contracts severely limit teacher attendance at PTA meetings, in some counties to two hours per year; and at post-school meetings, frequently to one hour a month. One does not expect this from people who want to be recognized as professionals. Contracts bar teachers from cafeteria duty, playground duty, detention duty and the duplication of teaching materials. Evaluations and observations are severely limited; only a handful of teachers are ever found to be incompetent.

9. In all but three counties, third-party arbitrators, rather than the local board of education, are given the last word in grievance proceedings. There is a three-to-five step grievance procedure, making discipline of tenured teachers all but impossible. Out of a tenured force of more than 5,600, no more than two Baltimore City teachers were fired for cause, per year, between 1984 and 1990.

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