A new poll out from Rasmussen would seem to indicate that the increasing costs and scandals associated with teachers unions are taking a hefty toll on their public image. Nearly half of those surveyed – 46% – were of the opinion that the unionization of teachers was “a bad thing.” Only a bit over a third still thought it was a good idea.

Americans continue to believe strongly that being a teacher is an essential job, but a plurality thinks it’s a bad thing that most teachers are unionized.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 68% of American Adults view being a teacher as one of the most important jobs in our country today, down five points from May of last year but up slightly from when we first asked the question in May 2008. Twenty-one percent (21%) say it’s not one of the most important jobs, and 12% aren’t sure.

In times past I would have found this shocking. After all, we’re talking about schools here, so it’s for the children. Think of the children! And to this day, on the rare occasions when we still manage to do something that actually is for the children, there’s fairly universal consensus that we can all get behind it. But increasingly, most of the headlines aren’t about things we do for the children. Nor are they really for the teachers themselves. It’s all about the unions.

I wouldn’t be surprised if New Yorkers were heavily represented in this poll. After all, the Empire state was the home of the nationally scandalous story which lit up the wires last year after the public found out about the rubber rooms.

The rubber rooms — so nicknamed after the padded cells of old-style mental hospitals — have become a symbol of the unacceptable face of the city’s education system, which is the largest in the US. Around 600 teachers are currently occupying the temporary reassignment centres, as they are officially known, in locations across the city, including a trailer site in Washington Heights.

From Monday to Friday during school hours the teachers sit in the rooms under instruction to do whatever they like, so long as it has nothing to do with teaching. Some play Scrabble, read books or do yoga, others run small businesses on their laptops, many wile away the hours by sleeping.

The reasons cited for their confinement to what has been described as purgatory or jail for teachers range from excessive lateness or absence, sexual misconduct with a student, physical abuse, incompetence or use of drugs or alcohol.

Of course, as the linked article indicates, once this system was exposed to public view, New York City moved quickly to eliminate them. (Supposedly accomplished as of April 2010.) But even if the physical rubber rooms are gone, has the base issue of idle, under-performing or even criminal teachers on the payroll gone away? You’d be hard pressed to think so according to these recent plans unveiled by Mayor Bloomberg.

New York City could be forced to fire nearly all of the 15,000 teachers hired over the last five years unless the state’s teacher seniority rules are scrapped, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday. That’s on top of plans to cut more than 6,000 teachers in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Publicly, Gov. Cuomo restated that he would not consider changing the seniority rules as part of the state budget. But the New York Post reported today that Cuomo is privately considering a compromise that would allow Bloomberg to lay off between 2,000 and 4,000 “nonteaching teachers,” regardless of their seniority. Targeted teachers would include those who, until recently, filled New York’s infamous “rubber rooms” and nonworking teachers from schools that have been closed due to poor performance.

So we got rid of the rooms to dampen public outrage, but kept the teachers on the payroll anyway because of seniority issues. I’m hard pressed to think of any other occupation where you can keep drawing full pay – sometimes for up to a decade, as the highlighted article points out – after those types of abuses. In fact, I don’t know of any others where you can keep getting paid even if your performance was exceptional but there simply wasn’t enough work for you.

Is it really any wonder that the public has soured on this? The taxpayers need a fully empowered seat at the table for any negotiations over such a massive budget expenditure running on their time. To date, this has never happened.

EDIT: And thanks to Mrs. Martin, my grade school English teacher and the rest of the commentariat who point out it should have been “half.”