RIVERSIDE, Calif. – Allen Osborn is a special education teacher at the Riverside Unified School District in California, where he teaches severely handicapped students in kindergarten through third grade.
It’s a job he loves, and he hasn’t looked back since leaving the business world six years ago to pursue a career in teaching. Like most educators in public schools, Osborn was drawn to the profession by a desire to positively impact the next generation of Americans.
"My dad was a teacher … so I grew up in a teaching household," Osborn told EAGnews.org. "I enjoy it, the kid aspect of it. You feel proud you’re contributing to the future."
But as Osborn moves into the middle of his career, he’s working to inform the public about a very important reality of public schools: Not everyone involved in education is focused on what’s best for students, especially not leaders of his state and local teachers unions.
He’s watched as younger members of the Riverside City Teachers Association, the local teachers union, have been dealt pink slips at the same time more senior RCTA members and union bosses were given perks, as mandated by their teachers contract. Osborn has publicly challenged RCTA officials to explain why they’re forcing taxpayers to fund the salaries of union officials who don’t teach when his district is struggling to get by financially.
It’s a lesson in union politics and power that he believes goes largely unnoticed by educators in California and elsewhere, so he is doing his part to spread the message.
"I came to California as a very active and involved Democrat from Texas. When I got here, I was just appalled that education is not geared at all toward the students," Osborn said. "It’s all about the teachers.
"The people in these (leadership) positions are pushing the union and people don’t know their rights, that they don’t have to be a union member. I think for a lot of these people … the union has always been there and it’s part of the fabric."
Taking a stand:
A couple years ago, as Riverside school officials agonized over dozens of teacher layoffs, Osborn couldn’t contain his frustration with local union bosses, who made it clear they preferred layoffs to contract concessions.
Osborn had attempted to express his views – that students should come first, and layoffs were unnecessary with modest concessions from employees – on an online teachers forum operated by the RCTA, but he was blocked from the site after only three posts. Union officials claimed his "comments were not productive," Osborn said.
So Osborn took his concerns to a school board meeting and confronted union officials during the public comment session and "laid it all out," he said.
In his off-the-cuff speech, Osborn attacked several union injustices he believes many teachers are too afraid to broach.
"RUSD has over 2,000 teachers, each of whom are forced to pay $1,026 in dues. It seems that our students would be better served if these scarce funds ended up in the classroom where they were intended instead of lining the pockets of politicians and lobbyists in Burlingame, Sacramento, and Washington D.C., or fighting political battles in other states," Osborn said, according to a transcript of the school board meeting.
"Doing some simple math, that would come to between $2 and $2.5 million dollars, just enough to save the ... 27 teaching positions. The moral action here would be for the unions to issue a moratorium on all forced dues for as long as we are in these dire economic times and do the unthinkable of actually asking members to fund their operations," he continued.
Osborn rightly took issue with a provision in the local teachers union contract that requires taxpayers to fund the union president’s salary and benefits while released from teaching full-time to work for the RCTA. It’s an often overlooked but expensive union perk that EAG has harped on for years. In Osborn’s district, the RCTA reimburses the taxpayers for the cost of the substitute, which is a much smaller expense than the president’s compensation.
" … (W)hy does RUSD pay the RTCA president? It is absolutely ridiculous for scarce dollars intended for the classroom to instead go to the anti-district union president," Osborn pointed out in the public meeting. "Like many schools in RUSD, most of the students at Highland receive free and reduced lunch. Why are we diverting funds from these students to pay a union president who doesn’t teach, and on the backs of underprivileged children?"
Osborn said he’s become more engaged in discussing the available options to union membership with his colleagues in recent years and has tried to provide some counterbalance to the union propaganda that too many educators readily accept as truth.
"I put EAG and anti-union stuff up on Facebook … that’s my little bit of activism," Osborn said, adding that many teachers "had no idea you don’t have to be a union member."
Osborn said he has encouraged other educators to explore options to traditional teachers unions like the Association of American Educators - of which he is a member - that do not spend funds on partisan political causes or cut off support to young teachers when times are tough. Osborn said his local union has repeatedly opted for layoffs over concessions, and it’s an issue that rubs many teachers the wrong way.
"Aren’t these (younger, less senior) teachers paying for protection and someone negotiating for their jobs? They pay dues just like everyone else and (union leaders) are abandoning these people. What happened to solidarity?" Osborn said. "I’m willing to sacrifice money out of my paycheck to save some jobs, why won’t the union do the same?"
Osborn acknowledged that RTCA negotiators did recently agree to furlough days, but he believes that taking days off to save money sends the wrong message.
"What kind of an organization tells kids you are better off not being at school?"
The furlough days are among a number of decisions made by union officials that many teachers in the district quietly disagree with, but are "scared to say anything," Osborn said.
"A lot of them are saying, ‘I just want to teach,’" he said. "I don’t think they are informed. They don’t realize (public education) is a monopoly."
The Riverside Unified teacher attributes the problem to the unquestioned union mentality that has permeated districts across the country for years. He wants teachers, education reformers and others pulling for a more accountable public education system to know that there are warriors in the classroom fighting for change. At one of the RTCA’s protests, Osborn stood across the street with his own sign, to ensure that the reform message was represented.
He’s working to expose the truth about teachers unions in a system that isn’t built for change.
"The principals have all the responsibility and none of the power to make changes. The union has all of the power and none of the responsibility," he said. "The whole goal (of teachers unions) is to keep the public angry at the district. Nobody wants to hold them accountable."
Osborn has a message for education reformers who are concerned about a shortage of reform-minded educators in America’s classrooms.
"We’re out here and we agree with you. We see what you are doing," Osborn said. "We’re rattling cages."