Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The teacher unions are at it again

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, December 20.)

AUCKLAND University academic Peter O’Connor at least got the first line right in his overwrought article in these pages last week attacking the proposed charter schools trial. “There is a fight brewing in schools,” he wrote.

Yes, there is a fight brewing. But we should be clear about who’s forming the battle lines, and why.

It’s the teachers who are gearing up for a stoush, and the reason is that they see a limited trial of charter schools as a threat to their control of the education system.

Teachers believe the only changes governments are entitled to make to education are those that they approve.

No other branch of the public service operates in this fashion. The police, the armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Treasury – all accept that governments are elected to make policy and the job of public servants is to put that policy into practice. Teachers alone consider themselves exempt from this principle.

The teacher unions haven’t revealed how they intend to oppose charter schools, but you can be sure they will do everything in their power to thwart the experiment.

As in the past (most recently with national standards) they will present themselves as taking a principled stand on the public’s behalf, but their primary motive is good old-fashioned self-interest. They will fight tooth and nail to preserve the status quo.

Unfortunately, timid governments have encouraged teacher intransigence in the past by backing down whenever the unions dug their toes in over reform initiatives.

It remains to be seen whether the Key government is made of sterner stuff. That it stuck to its guns over national standards suggests it may be.

Perhaps Hekia Parata, the new minister of education, should talk to Julia Gillard, the head of Australia’s Labor government. As minister of education, Ms Gillard overrode teacher opposition to push through some of the very changes the unions have steadfastly opposed here.

As for associate professor O’Connor, we should remember that what’s proposed is only a small-scale trial. To read his lurid rhetoric, you’d think the government was proposing a wholesale reinvention of the system from the ground up.

His slogan-laden article, in which he described charter schools as a “corporatist attack” serving the interests of a “transnational capitalist elite” was an example of the drearily predictable, left-wing group-think that passes for rigorous analysis in the universities.

The PPTA is even more hysterical, likening charter schools to Dotheboys Hall in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby – a place where boys are whipped, starved and abused by the ghastly headmaster Wackford Squeers.

In a provocatively insulting letter to John Key, PPTA president Robin Duff suggests the prime minister might like to watch the DVD of Nicholas Nickleby rather than read the novel, as it’s a long book with small print.

It would be idle to expect rational debate from these people. They have spent so much of their lives confined in classrooms with adolescents that their emotional maturity is irreparably impaired.

* * *

A CONSTANT refrain from the Left during the election campaign was that the National government had rewarded its wealthy mates with massive tax cuts.

Don’t expect this to let up any time soon. On TV3 last week, Greens co-leader Russel Norman claimed that only the top 10 percent who had got “$2 billion worth of tax cuts” from the Key government could afford to buy shares in Mighty River Power.

But does the tax system really favour the rich at the expense of low-income earners? Figures provided by national accountancy firm Markhams suggest that if anything, the reverse is true.

According to Markhams, households earning over $120,000 pay 97 percent of net individual income tax revenue, while the top 10 percent of households – the people Dr Norman reckons get favourable treatment – generate 71 percent of the individual tax take.

But wait, there’s more. Households earning less than $50,000 (43 percent of households) receive more in income support than they pay in income tax, on a net basis. Income tax paid by households earning between $50,000 and $110,000 effectively pays for this net refund.

Keep these figures in mind next time you hear a politician playing the envy card by claiming that the tax tables are tilted in favour of the wealthy.

* * *

FINALLY, a small but cheering antidote to the annual pre-Christmas deluge of anti-alcohol propaganda.

Of 68,000 motorists recently breath-tested in a nationwide police blitz, 373 returned positive results. That’s about 0.5 percent. In the Wellington region, 11,188 drivers were tested and 50 were over the limit – only 0.44 percent.

These figures are not only remarkably low, given that we’re constantly told we’re a nation of helpless drunks; they are also slightly down on last year’s.

They confirm that hazardous drinking is not a community-wide curse, as the wowser lobby wants us to believe, but is confined to a small segment of abusers. The rest of us should enjoy a guilt-free Christmas.


The probligo said...

The interesting thing about school teachers is (and I know this from direct experience - both my parents were rural teachers) that they choose the occupation. My old man may not have been the greatest ever, a very long way from it. But the biggest buzz of his life was when a past pupil dropped in one afternoon, and thanked him for giving the skills he needed to make a living.

To that end, and a propos your thoughts, things have never changed as far as teachers' remuneration is concerned.

School holidays were spent driving a dairy company truck collecting milk and cream (metal churns then) or rock for a dairy factory at Netherton. In later years the family took on a motel, but both continued teaching - between the two occupations there was a reasonable standard of living.

The real question is, "Why, if education is so important to society, are teachers paid so little?"

rivoniaboy said...

What has a rambling summary of your family history and presumably your parents meager remuneration, got to do with the intransigence of the teachers union?

The probligo said...

Did you bother to read the last para? Obviously not. So, let me explain.

Do you accept that education is an important factor in the future economic well-being of the country?

If you do not, you are obviously a person far richer in monetary terms than I. You are obviously a person who believes labour to be a commodity to be traded.

If you do accept the importance of education to the economy, are you happy with the current standard of education? I would guess that you are not, but I am not prepared to guess why that might be. I would like your clarification.

Anonymous said...

I believe that good teachers are an extremely important factor in the country's economic well-being.

That's why I support the introduction of charter schools and pay-for-performance.

The good teachers will be well-rewarded (as they should be), and the poor teachers will either be poorly-rewarded or fired (also as they should be).

The probligo said...

OK, so what is wrong with education at the moment?

Why can a city high school not attract a science teacher who (despite a masters degree) can not teach year 10 physics? Why is it so difficult to employ teachers who can effectively teach reading at year 3?

Has it anything to do with the salary being offered? Yes, given your answer.

What your response avoids is the fact that within the present system there is not enough funding to pay for the present crop of teachers - bad and good. Changing the system to charter schools will not change that on a national scale; it might for a few individual schools like AGS and ChChB. PPP buildings is not going to help either; not when you can not get the teachers.

The second part to this is that you, like so many others including Ministers of Education, seem to think only in terms of Epsom, Remmers, Karori and Bishopsdale. As my initial post pointed out, I come from a rural background; there are no education alternatives in Kaitaia, Murupara, Wellsford, Whanganui, or Gore. What good will charter schools do for those places? Absolutely zero. In fact, I would put money on the table now that in ten years time the funding of rural schools will be less (in real terms) than it is now. The greater portion of the education budget will be being spent trying vainly to make charter schools work in the electorates that have Nat and Conservative representatives (no ACT; Banksie is the last of them...).

And that is the answer to rivionaladdies question. The last forty years has seen rural education go steadily backward. That trend ain't going to change any time soon.