Utah is a pioneer in enacting education reforms that provide an economic return on our investment. Part of the reason is that our Legislature has limited the ability of teachers unions to manipulate the political system to the detriment of school children. Nevertheless, recent developments in California and the Midwest, traditionally bastions of union support, show just how much further Utah can go in limiting the negative effects of public employee unions.

A California court recently ended teacher tenure, while the Wisconsin Supreme Court just upheld Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10, which effectively ended collective bargaining for Wisconsin’s state and local government employees. In the past four years, Michigan, Ohio and Illinois have also greatly circumscribed the power of public sector unions. It’s time for Utah to follow their lead.

Utah enacted Paycheck Protection and prohibited LIFO

Utah was one of the first states to pass paycheck protection and end the collection of union PAC money through government payroll systems. After unions challenged these laws all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the Supreme Court upheld paycheck protection. In a 6-3 decision even liberal icon Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg joined the majority in ruling that government has no obligation to collect PAC donations for unions.

Passing paycheck protection enabled every education reform bill Utah has passed. Prior to paycheck protection, the UEA teachers union was the single largest PAC contributing to Utah elections, and used their PAC’s war chest to block meaningful education reform. Now, the UEA is not even in the top 10 PACs in the Beehive state.

Utah was also one of the first states to prohibit “last in- first out” (LIFO), a favorite union tactic that protects senior teachers when reductions in force occur, even if the district has better newer teachers. With LIFO now illegal, Utah’s school districts dismiss teachers based on how well a teacher performs, rather than simply dismissing the newest teachers.

Ending Teacher Tenure

Now it’s time to further protect Utah students against ineffective schoolteachers. In Vergara v. California, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu declared California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional because they prevent students from obtaining a quality education. Judge Treu said there was “no dispute that there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms. . . The evidence is compelling. Indeed, it shocks the conscience.”

During the trial, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy testified that firing an incompetent tenured teacher can take two to ten years, and cost nearly half a million dollars. Even worse, incompetent teachers continue to draw a salary and benefits throughout those years of appeals.

While Utah code doesn’t use the term “tenure,” state law offers the functional equivalent through “continuing status.” Just five years after hiring a teacher, school districts have the option of granting that teacher “continuing status,” i.e. tenure. Firing a Utah teacher with continuing status is just as hard as firing a California teacher with tenure.

Tenure is permanent. It’s not uncommon for a young teacher to hone their teaching craft before receiving tenure. After receiving tenure, that teacher’s classroom teaching can degrade, yet the teacher will remain in the classroom. Rather than removing ineffective teachers from the classroom, districts often shuffle them from school to school in what many observers despairingly call “the dance of the lemons.”

Utah simply cannot afford to allow unions to insert continuing status into a district’s collective bargaining agreement. Bad classroom teachers prevent our children from getting the education they need to succeed in a 21st-century economy. If a teacher isn’t effective, districts need to get him out of the classroom. Period.

Ending Collective Bargaining

Unfortunately, tenure isn’t the only bad policy unions negotiate in collective bargaining agreements. When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker enacted Act 10, he emphasized how public employee unions use collective bargaining to drive taxpayer costs up without producing better outcomes. Under Act 10, public employee unions can only negotiate base wages.

Public employee unions went berserk. They staged massive and sometimes violent protests at the Wisconsin State Capitol, helped their legislative friends flee the state, attempted to recall Governor Walker and eventually challenged Act 10 in court. In a 5-2 ruling this week the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld Act 10 in full.

Utah code does not mandate collective bargaining, but it does permit it. School boards often allow the local NEA affiliate to bargain on behalf of all employees, regardless of whether those employees are members of the union or not, and regardless of whether union affiliate’s membership includes a majority of the district’s teachers.

Some of Utah’s best teachers leave the profession because they cannot negotiate higher pay and benefits based on their own teaching abilities. Under the current system, lock-step salary schedules ensure that a P.E. teacher is paid on the same scale as a highly qualified mathematics teacher, even though there is a long line of candidates for P.E. teachers and a shortage of qualified math teachers.

If blue states like California and Wisconsin can rid their school systems of teacher tenure and collective bargaining, then why can’t the reddest of the red states accomplish the same for the benefit of children and the Utah economy?