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Politics // Coffee Break
Jerry Coffee

Teachers Strong As Students Suffer

In the Nov. 14, 2012, edition of MidWeek, my fellow columnist Larry Price commented on the recent study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which found that of all the nation’s teachers unions, Hawaii’s HSTA is the overall strongest.

The criteria for this finding was 1) Resources and Membership, 2) Involvement in Politics, 3) Scope of Bargaining, 4) State Policies, 5) Perceived Influence. Coach Price found these results “scary for Hawaii” because, with the lack of an agreed-upon contract now and for the past several months, Hawaii’s governmental leaders could be risking embarrassment “for the president’s first home state.”

That’s certainly one way to look at it. But with all due respect to Larry, who has a doctoral degree, after all, when I first read the results of the Fordham study, I had a very different take on it. I wondered why at least one of the criteria used by the study was not “Student Achievement.”

I also wondered if I was the only one who thought, “How ironic – the state with the most powerful teachers union is the same one that, despite being one of the top 10 spenders per student, consistently remains near the bottom on standardized student achievement tests.” We’re currently 10th from the bottom – an all-time low in my 37-year Hawaii experience.

I think back to the time when the money crunch forced the state to reduce teacher workdays, resulting in the controversial “Furlough Fridays.” The rhetoric out of HSTA consistently emphasized not what was best for the students and parents, but what was best for the teachers.

I know, I know, somewhere along the way I got the crazy notion the teachers union would care about the students. I guess that’s why it is not called the HSSA.

And thinking back even further to then-Gov. Lingle’s effort to decentralize our public school system: She had the audacity to think Hawaii’s consistently abysmal scholastic achievement scores might be linked to having the most centralized school system in America; i.e., one school district, one superintendent and one school board for the entire state. Major decision-making couldn’t be further removed from the classroom.

Of course, the “status quo” HSTA opposed Lingle’s initiative to improve our system, donated tons of money (nearly $60,000) to our state legislators’ re-election campaigns, who then dutifully thwarted her popular effort by initiating their own Band-Aid proposal (Act 51), which changed very little of substance. That’s the way our system works, and will for as long as we tolerate it.

I’m not absent-mindedly anti-union – but that changes when the union “tail” begins to wag the dog. That unions have their legitimate role was brought home to our family last year when a very close friend, a fifth-grade teacher on the Mainland, was wrongfully charged with sexual harassment of a student.

The female student impetuously charged that “Mr. X touched my behind.” Even though the student’s mother was a known complainer and of specious character, and the teacher had years of unblemished service with a sterling reputation as an educator, a school-teacher wife (and two elementary school daughters), the school district protocol called for immediate suspension while an investigation was conducted. Dozens of letters from parents of both current and past students flooded the principal’s office protesting the suspension, and lauding Mr. X’s character and effectiveness as a teacher.

From the outset, his teacher’s union was involved with legal assistance and support, and stood by him throughout the ordeal. Three months later and into the summer vacation, the charge was found to be groundless and of devious motive. His welcome return to his classroom in the fall was particularly sweet.

This is a perfect example of what a teachers union is for.

Our state and our keiki are blessed with no doubt hundreds of dedicated, professional teachers who truly want only the best for their students. They include another MidWeek

colleague, editorial cartoonist Roy Chang, an intermediate school teacher in Aiea.

But I would suggest they remember that teachers are the union – they are the HSTA, not the union leadership, not the state legislators and not the school board.

I would suggest that they be more conscious of the same laws of cause and effect they teach their students, and not tolerate union policy positions that do not directly and ultimately benefit those students.

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