Nugent: Collective bargaining raises quality of state education

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has started a nationwide movement to cut state deficits off at their heads – literally. His popular tirade against teacher unions in New Jersey has rippled among governors elsewhere dealing with budget shortfalls that aren't getting any better on their own.

Following Christie's example of demonizing teachers, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has over the past several weeks called for severe restrictions on the benefits and collective bargaining rights now enjoyed by teachers and other public sector workers, much to the dismay of the workers themselves. Without collective bargaining rights, unions literally cannot negotiate for benefits like the ones Walker wants to take away. His demands sparked massive protests and the flight of several Democrat state senators to neighboring Illinois in a Jason Bourne-esque fashion. The Democrat senators left the state so as to prevent quorum and block the bill from passing.

Government employees, teachers especially, should not be the first targets of politicians who are trying to cut deficits. In the U.S., where students' math and science scores lag behind those of other developed countries, the last cuts we need are to our educators. Other public sector workers like firefighters, police officers and postal workers provide services that are essential to our society.

Primary school education should rank among the most important priorities in the nation. It's a cliché, but children are our nation's No. 1 asset, and ensuring that they are taught to be competitive, educated and virtuous should therefore be our No. 1 priority.

The demonization of teachers Christie and Walker marks the first step toward a decrease in educational quality throughout the nation. Average salaries for teachers are already low compared to those of many private sector jobs, and while teachers typically enjoy generous benefits and respectable prestige, theirs are often the first jobs politicians target when cutting budgets, as seen in New Jersey and Wisconsin. When intelligent, hardworking people are not drawn to elementary and high school teaching jobs because their benefits have been siphoned, we as Americans are in incredible danger.

Teachers face criticism from all sides regarding the work they do: Tenured teachers, regardless of talent, are provided with enviable benefits and a pension. The work teachers do is cushy and easy. Teachers get summers off.

In actuality, teaching is an incredibly taxing job – just ask a teacher. Summers for teachers are shrinking as they are asked to come into school for courses, lesson plan reviews and summer school teaching more and more frequently. Their benefits are necessary given their mediocre salaries and the fact that they provide a necessary public service.

The fact of the matter is that collective bargaining is essential to the well-being of teachers and public workers. As Jon Stewart so blatantly and accurately stated recently on "The Daily Show," without collective bargaining, union members are "just a bunch of people with identical T-shirts." Wisconsin unions had already agreed to a freeze on pay increases and have sat down to discuss pay cuts and asking teachers to contribute to their health benefits, so why go after collective bargaining rights on principle?

What Republican governors are trying to do is take advantage of a public outcry over large deficits and their representatives' inability to deal with them. Placing crosshairs on teachers and other government workers is not the smart way to slash budgets.

Where on the national state rankings for average SAT and ACT scores did the five states without legal collective bargaining place according to a recent analysis? They were 49th, 48th, 45th, 38th and 34th. Not very impressive.