The Riehl World: Don’t Blame Schools for Cuts

by Richard J. Riehl on March 22, 2012

Sage CreekCarlsbad school officials are getting lots of advice lately about how to save money without hurting students. But it amounts mostly to blaming the victims of a budget crisis they didn’t create: the teachers union for selfishness and protecting bad teachers from layoffs, administrators for wasting money on frills.

Those who think unions are “wicked,” the word used by one community columnist, often praise teachers for their good work as individuals. But when they organize to improve their profession, they’re accused of putting their own interests ahead of kids. Using that logic, you might say the same about parents who follow flight attendant instructions to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their kids with theirs.

Teachers face obstacles to their effectiveness when they work in overcrowded classrooms, have to buy their own teaching materials, and are given little time to collaborate on lesson plans. Union efforts to reduce those obstacles are truly in the best interests of students.

Common sense might suggest a “keep the best and fire the rest” layoff policy. But in this case common sense doesn’t make good sense.

Here’s why. The best and worst teachers often stand out. But it’s much harder to rank those who fall in between. Evaluating teachers on test scores alone ignores learning that can’t be measured by multiple choice. Congeniality and budget savings could become the primary criteria if administrators alone make the call. Most would agree that popularity isn’t the best measure of teaching excellence.Dismissing the value of seniority rests on the mistaken assumptions that teachers, unlike other professionals, don’t improve with experience, and that good ones are born, not made. Speaking from experience, I was a far better high school English teacher in my fifth year than I was as a rookie.

I suspect the anti-seniority crowd is more interested in saving money than serving students. Not as many teachers would have to be laid off if the more experienced were not on the payroll.

The same local columnist who called unions “wicked” lists frills as transportation from home to school, free meals, after school activities, pre-school and continuation schools (like the Carlsbad Village Academy). In other words, every program designed for students who need help outside the classroom for the opportunity to succeed inside the classroom. That’s a survival of the fittest prescription for public schools.

The sad fact is that kids always suffer from school budget cuts. Not because of union selfishness, laying off the wrong teachers, or reckless spending, but because of our own upside down priorities. While teachers are being laid off, deep-pocket donors will gladly spend an estimated 6 to 7 billion dollars to influence this year’s presidential election.

Contact Richard Riehl at

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Christine Parr March 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm

That’s the first nice thing I’ve heard said about me and mine in a long time now. I hope people are listening.

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