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Chris Rickert: Teachers' seniority rules not related to students' success

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Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Bill Kramer, a Republican, admitted a couple of weeks ago that he carries a concealed gun on the Assembly floor, and Democrats, gun-control advocates and others on the left soon pointed out how ridiculous that is.

Packing heat while passing laws seems a bit excessive, they said, given that the atmosphere at the Capitol is already toxic and the protests against Gov. Scott Walker and other Republicans have been largely peaceful.

Meanwhile, in a story in this newspaper on Sunday, the head of the Madison teachers union argued for keeping union work rules — such as one that gives senior teachers first dibs on new jobs in the district — that proposed Madison charter school Madison Preparatory Academy would jettison.

"Those are rights people have," said John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc. "It gets us right back to why there was so much reaction to what Gov. Walker did last year."

Gun-toting legislators and perks for wizened teachers might not seem to have much in common, but both speak to the tendency in our increasingly partisan political system to line up behind issues less because we've done much thinking about them than because the issues happen to fall under the auspices of one or the other end of the political spectrum.

Being a gun-control advocate doesn't have to mean opposing concealed-carry laws, in other words, and being a pro-union Democrat doesn't mean that some of the work protections afforded by unions can't be bad for schoolchildren.

More important than being a Democrat or Republican, anti-gun or pro-union is what, exactly, the policies that so often come out of these political catch-alls mean.

On concealed-carry laws, that's pretty clear. The upshot of extensive research, including a 2005 National Research Council report, suggests the laws have no effect on the amount of violence or crime.

Teachers union seniority rules, though, appear less benign.

Joshua Cowen, a University of Kentucky assistant professor of public policy and administration, said there's "indirect evidence" on "whether unions' emphasis on seniority hinders academic achievement."

Specifically, teachers don't appear to get any better after three years on the job or after getting a master's degree.

"What this means is that school districts are spending a good deal of money to reward teachers for characteristics that are not really related to student success," he said.

Perhaps more to the point: If the most senior teachers are always the most qualified, why would they need the boost provided by seniority rules?

Wisconsin Republicans, spurred by campaign donations from gun advocates, have succeeded in making laws that allow a legislator to carry a concealed weapon on the Assembly floor, and, until recently, Wisconsin Democrats, spurred by campaign donations from public sector unions, have protected unions' ability to bargain for seniority rules.

Luckily, at least one of these is harmless.

Contact Chris Rickert at 608-252-6198 or crickert@madison.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter (@ChrisRickertWSJ). His column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.

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