Does the ISTA Have a Case?

April 3, 2011

There is an intense argument under way in the letters columns of Indiana newspapers between the head of the Indiana State Teachers Association (ISTA) and a GOP state senator. One side thinks the other side’s estimate of the cost of teacher unionization is too high.

The two sides, though, are not equally credible. The position of the senator is straightforward and politically courageous, i.e., a powerful private entity, the teachers union, is destructive and should be disbanded.

On the other side, the position of the ISTA, unarguably self-interested, is reactive, i.e., the opposing position is “absurd.”

If King Solomon were sitting on his throne, he would want to first see the evidence of the more self-interested party. There is nothing substantive in a recent union letter to Indiana newspaper editors, only the assumption that supporting a teachers union is the same thing as supporting classroom learning — that and attacks on any source providing information damaging to the union’s interests. As a rule, the union pretends that any criticism of the education system is criticism of every individual teacher. No discernment is allowed, you see, when one is “fighting” for “the kids.”

Such specious arguments put aside, we have a pile of evidence left on the senator’s side of the table. It begins with the simple logic that if the union does not provide significantly higher salary and benefits (costs) it could not justify its existence. That, in fact, is its purpose.

The question, then, is not whether public-sector unionization costs — it most decidedly does — but whether the cost is a value to the general public. It is a good question, an open question, but one dodged by the teachers union.

In an article earlier this month, one that union’s supporters denegrate but could not refute, Tad Dehaven, a former deputy director of the Indiana Budget Office, makes this distinction: ” The attempt (by a government union) to make common cause with ‘working men and women’ is as repulsive as it is backward; employee compensation accounts for half of the money state and local governments spend each year. That money is taken from working men and women in the form of income, sales, property and a multitude of other levies on the private sector.”

DeHaven goes on to make these points:

• In 2009, hourly compensation (wages plus benefits) for the average state and local government employee, including teachers, was 45 percent higher than the private-sector average.
• For retirement benefits, it is 90 percent for government workers versus 67 percent for private-sector workers; life insurance is 80 percent versus 59 percent; paid sick leave is 89 percent versus 67 percent.
• Defined-benefit pensions are offered to about 80 percent of government workers versus 20 percent in the private sector.
• In regard to job security, layoffs and discharges for government workers occur at just one-third the rate of the private sector.
• And it is not because government workers are hard pressed; they are three times less likely to quit than workers in the private sector.

Finally, I have in front of me an algebraic formula constructed by Chris Edwards for his article in the Cato Journal, “Public-Sector Unions and the Rising Costs of Employee Compensation.” The formula compares the costs in compensation for those states with unionized teachers and for those states without. Even though a full page long, the formula does not include other spending distortions (construction mandates, licensing requirements, pensions, etc.) that result from a union’s influence at a state house. Nonetheless, it shows that public-school patrons pay a premium of more than eight percent for teacher unionization.

So if the union leadership wants Indiana taxpayers to believe that its activities constitute an education bargain, it will want to put forward its own numbers in an equally believable equation. It can no longer win the argument by assassinating the character of its critics or by hiding its special interest behind our common desire to support teachers and their students.

T. Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at


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