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Denver Post Tackles Long-Studied Problem of Tax-Funded Teachers Union Release Time

Guess what! Just over a week ago I banged on a drum that may have started to hurt some of your ears by now. The drum is the madness of taxpayer-funded release time for Colorado teachers unions. And then (out of the blue?) yesterday the front page of the Denver Post shouts about “Colorado teachers unions under fire for taxpayer subsidies from school districts.” Thanks so much to reporter Karen Crummy not only for taking note of this issue my Education Policy Center friends have highlighted for years but also for doing lots of her own digging to tell a pretty disturbing story.

The Post’s findings about the number of districts paying tax dollars for union officers and other teachers to leave the classroom, and the lack of accountability for the practice, track very closely with the findings in Independence Institute papers from 2004 and 2010. That’s probably why Crummy saw fit to interview and quote one of my Education Policy Center friends:

“It’s bad enough that they pay for union release time at all, but to not even have a basic level of accountability, especially in these tighter budget times?” said Ben DeGrow, an education policy analyst at the Independence Institute who has advocated that schools change union leave policies. “It’s kind of appalling.”

Yes, you could say that, especially when the article identified more than $5.8 million in taxpayer subsidies to teachers unions over the past five years. But don’t worry, the state’s largest teachers union gave the Post an answer for that:

“This impacts student achievement. People don’t understand the value of our role in helping the district function,” said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Wow. Taking days to go the CEA Assembly and elect officers and conduct business for a private organization impacts student achievement? Lobbying against educator effectiveness legislation impacts student achievement? Negotiating a new union contract with taxpayer-paid employees on the other side of the table impacts student achievement? Enlisting volunteers for partisan political campaigns impacts student achievement? I could go on….

But strangely enough, it’s the comment only paragraphs later in Crummy’s story by a local CEA official — from the only one of Colorado’s largest 20 school districts identified as not having any taxpayer-subsidized union leave — that sends the most stinging rebuke:

“The way we look at it is, ‘Why would the district pay us not to be in the classroom?’ ” said Jim Smyth, president of the Mesa Valley Education Association.

I am told that way back in 2003 a bill to outlaw taxpayer-subsidized union release time almost passed the legislature. Too bad it was almost. In these tough budget times, it might make a difference for a few teachers who are being laid off. If publicly-funded union perks aren’t on the chopping block now, then how can the cries of abject poverty be taken seriously?

Maybe, just maybe, the attention this time will make a difference for fiscal sanity and educational accountability.