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Perhaps the influence of teachers unions is waning

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By Joy Pullmann
Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 8:48 p.m.

The largest affiliates of the United States' largest teachers union are deeply in debt, largely because they have lavish pension and health-care systems, according to the Education Intelligence Agency. These bloated benefits arrangements are the same kind unions pressured states into creating for other state workers, pushing states into further fiscal disarray.

A new Thomas B. Fordham Institute report detailing teachers unions' strength by state shows some of these union giants are in huge financial trouble.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association ranks fourth most powerful on Fordham's metrics but it has only enough money to cover 37 days of operation, according to 2010–11 EIA figures, the latest available. The New Jersey Education Association ranks seventh but it owes $38.7 million more than it has on hand.

The Illinois Education Association, ranked eighth, has enough reserves for two days of operation. Ninth-ranked New York State United Teachers owes an astonishing $201 million. And the Washington Education Association ranks 10th, but owes $18.6 million more than it has available. Ohio and West Virginia, numbers 12 and 13, owe $14.4 million and $2.3 million, respectively. No. 16 Michigan owes a breathtaking $113 million.

Of the 10 largest state unions, nine face serious debt and deficits, and they have shifted pensions, benefits and workers to alleviate the pressure.

The National Education Association, these unions' parent organization and the largest U.S. teachers union, lost 6.2 percent of its membership in the past three years. It had nearly 2 million members in 2010 but expects to have 1.62 million in 2013.

People who watch state politics and education policy know teachers unions are often the biggest single influence on both. As this November's ballot initiatives attested, their influence is not limited to education — which accounts for a third to half of most states' spending. Their members constitute the bulk of state employees and therefore work to increase taxes, spending and government power in general.

Organizations that cannot manage their own finances should have no say over how states manage theirs. Unfunded pensions and expensive employee benefits are the largest cause of these affiliates' financial instability and their insistence on similar policies for state workers has similarly affected state budgets and caused tax hikes.

Since 2002, public employees received $1.17 in new benefits for every $1 per hour pay increase, while private employees received just an extra 58 cents in benefits, according to USA Today reporter Dennis Cauchon.

States' unfunded pension liabilities top $4 trillion, according to American Enterprise Institute economist Andrew Biggs. This is new money states will have to get from taxpayers over coming years in exchange for no new services — police, road improvements, new teachers and other basic government functions.

In addition to stabbing states in the back financially, teachers unions' policies have deprived children of the best education possible, by requiring, for example, that schools hire and dismiss teachers based on seniority rather than quality.

Thirty-nine percent, or 1.25 million, of the nation's teachers work in the 14 states where it is illegal for schools to consider anything but length of service in layoffs, according to The New Teacher Project. Only 13 percent to 16 percent of teachers laid off according to lack of seniority would have been cut if judged by performance. Students locked into ineffective teachers' classrooms learn 10 to 14 weeks less each year, an education deficit poor and minority students in particular cannot afford.

The financial weakness of powerful state teachers unions suggests their power over state politics might be receding. The financial and educational disasters they have created indicate their retreat can't come fast enough.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.

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