Saving Our Schools From the Teachers’ Unions

If we don’t, the losers will be America’s kids.

This past March, the city of Washington was plunged into one of those crises cities have come to expect from time to time. On the sixth of the month, the Washington Teachers Union called a strike, and depending on whom you believe, either 50 or 80 percent of the city’s 6,000 public school teachers walked off the job—enough of them, at any rate, to effectively cripple the school system.

The strike was a bitter, acrimonious affair, made more bitter and more acrimonious with each succeeding day. Positions hardened, and tempers flared. Negotiations faltered, broke off, then started up again. Insults became de rigeur—union president William Simons took to calling the school board a collection of “stupid ignoramuses”; board members responded with accusations that Simons was “pig-headed” and a “liar.”

Through it all, the public schools remained open, but there wasn’t much the undermanned staffs could do besides hold study halls all day, so after the first few days many kids simply stopped going to school for the duration. Each side busily pointed an accusing finger at the other while invoking that favorite cliché for these occasions—”It’s always the children who suffer”—as, indeed, they did. (High school seniors, especially, were pained by the strike because this was the time of year when teachers ordinarily write recommendations and prepare transcripts for colleges.) This was the way it went for the four weeks it lasted: a judge issued a back-to-work order and was ignored; the mayor’s efforts at compromise and mediation were rebuffed; the union vowed to stay out for “as long as it takes.” In many of the most obvious ways, in other words, the Washington teachers’ strike was like hundreds of others that have come before it.

In some important ways, however, it was not. What made this strike different—and significant—was that it was instigated not by the union’s demands for “more,” but rather by the school board’s demands that it accept “less.” This was the first time in memory that government managers on any level have tried to force a public employee union to give back some of what it has won in contracts over the years; in this case, to roll back some of the rights and powers teachers have gained that dramatically affect—and in some ways, control—the operation of the school system.

Teachers, of course, found this notion offensive (hence the strike), for they are quite happy with the way things are right now. By the standards of the profession, they are well paid; their salaries, averaging $19,400, are at least $1,000 higher than what teachers make in the surrounding suburban counties, and a good deal more than the average in most big-city school systems. Their working conditions are less than strenuous; teachers here work a six-and-a-half-hour day, of which five hours are spent in the classroom, in a school year that lasts 180 days. These figures, too, are as low as any in the area or the country. Teachers in D.C. have veto rights over most assignments and transfers; rigid seniority rights that protect them in case of layoffs; tenure after only two years; a grievance procedure so liberal that teachers can take to binding arbitration anything that upsets them, whether or not it is in the contract; and evaluation procedures so cumbersome and due process rights so time consuming as to ensure that precious few teachers—and then, only the grossest of incompetents—will ever have to fear for job security. Washington teachers have a sweet deal and they know it.

It had reached the point years ago when the schools were being run more for the benefit of the teachers than the students. (Example: one provision in the contract says teachers have to meet with parents only three times a year on designated parent-teacher nights. If a parent wants to see a teacher sometime other than these three nights, a teacher has a contractual right to refuse.) And for years, school boards had chafed, feeling, rightly, that so much had been bargained away that board members, administrators, and especially principals, were handcuffed when they tried to make even the smallest changes in the schools. But no board had been willing to do anything about it. The teachers were too strong, the union too powerful, and they knew that when Simons threatened strike, he had the clout to make it stick. And something else too: thanks to a quirk in the way the D.C. city government works, no board had any authority to bargain for money, only general work rules and conditions.

The impotence of the board in salary matters dates back to the days of home rule, when Congress ran the city, and all raises for Washington city employees had to be approved by the subcommittees handling D.C. affairs.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, this system worked wonderfully for teachers. They saw their salaries rise with startling regularity as Congress bought the teachers’ argument that, first, they deserved what other big-city teachers were earning, and later, after this parity had been reached, that they deserved to get the same percentage increase as federal employees. In a city full of government employees, teachers argued that this was the only way they could keep up with dreaded inflation. So as federal workers got their six or seven percent cost-of-living increases, so did the city’s teachers. Later, when Washington won the right to run its own show, the D.C. City Council, not the school board, was given the authority to set teacher salaries, and the council turned out to be even more generous than Congress had been. It passed a bill that made cost-of-living raises automatic for most city employees, including teachers, whenever the federal government granted such raises for its own civil servants. The practical effect of the law is that teachers will never have a compelling need to bargain for higher salaries, since thanks to the civil service, regular raises are virtually guaranteed.

The other, more important, effect is that during negotiations with the teachers’ union, the school board here has never been able to “buy back” changes it has wanted in the contract. Since it has no authority over salaries, it cannot promise higher wages in exchange for the right to scrap or rewrite provisions in the contract.

If you’re a teacher in Washington, this cost-of-living arrangement seems equitable enough—why, after all, should you be left behind when everyone around you is making more money? But if you happen to be a parent with a kid in the D.C. school system, or a taxpayer who is footing the bill for those raises, then there are bound to be other factors at play besides the teacher’s inalienable right to keep up with the Joneses. Other questions come to mind, such as: What are you buying with all those salary increases? Are teachers doing a better job the more they are paid? What kind of education are your kids getting? And what kind of school system are you receiving for your tax dollars?

The Wrong Equation

The most obvious question—what are you getting for your money?—is the one the current school board asked too, and it came up with the obvious answer: not very much at all. By any standards, the Washington publicschool system is among the worst in the nation. Unlike past boards, however, this one decided it was time to take on the union, feeling that the contract had to be loosened some if the schools were ever going to get better.

In 1980, the D.C. Board of Education finally will gain the right to negotiate teacher salaries, and theoretically at least the right to “buy back” what it wants from the union. But the board members didn’t want to wait that long—and besides, they reasoned, why should they have to buy back if too much had been given over the years? The teachers are the highest paid around. They work the fewest hours and days. Their students do the worst of any in the area. There is a lot wrong with that equation, and buying back provisions in the contract, especially with Washington suffering the same financial problems as other big cities, didn’t seem like the right way to solve it.

What did seem right was to have teachers spend more time in school helping kids who need it. So when contract negotiations began, the board put a longer workday at the top of its list of demands. At six-and-a-half hours of work a day, teachers are hardly overextended; and the board reasoned, with considerable logic, that people earning nearly $20,000 a year ought to be willing to work more than that. A half hour more, maybe? A little time tutoring a student after school who needed it? The union says that more teaching will turn teachers into mindless robots, but out in Arlington and Fairfax Counties in nearby Virginia, teachers somehow struggle through a longer workday (and at less pay than their Washington counterparts) and seem to be suffering no ill-effects. Union officials also say that extra teaching won’t do the kids any good so it’s not worth the teacher’s effort, an argument that strikes me as so cynical as to border on the obscene. And again questionable, out in those Virginia counties, kids do seem to be learning more than kids in Washington. At any rate, what the board proposed in having the teachers work a longer day was hardly a return to indentured servitude; it seemed, in fact, a small, but intelligent step toward improving schools for D.C. students.

The Story Test Scores Tell

If you are wondering, at this point, just how bad the D.C. public schools are, here is the story the test scores tell: Although Washington’s teachers are the best paid in the area, their students consistently get the lowest test scores in the area. Nationwide, when standardized (SA T) test scores were published recently, D.C. students scored 100 points below the national norm. And there’s this unflattering comparison of Washington’s schools with other big- city school systems: when the test scores were compiled for students in the 15 largest cities in the country, Washington came in next to last.

Washington’s schools are in enough trouble that no one connected with them tries to gloss over the problems. Such denials would look foolish in the face of what is simply overwhelming evidence: high school seniors who can’t read; whole classes of tenth graders doing sixth and seventh grade work; graduates of the D.C. school system who aren’t even able to understand bus signs. These are not isolated cases—the breakdown in education here has beenon a massive scale. “In the math department of DCTC [D.C. Teachers College, a school filled almost entirely with graduates of the D.C. public school system],” reported the Washington Post a few years ago, “more than 80 percent of incoming freshmen score so low on an arithmetic exam that they are required to take remedial courses, starting with work normally taught in fifth and sixth grades.” (Until it merged with two other colleges to form the University of D.C., this was the school that trained most of the people who ended up teaching in the D.C. school system.)

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers (of which the Washington Teachers Union is an affiliate) can say, as he has, that “there is no evidence that private schools do a better job than public schools,” but you won’t find anyone in Washington who believes it. There are a lot of people in this city—good, liberal men and women —who believe strongly in the concept of public schools, the democracy with the small “d,” and who badly want to see it work. They tried putting their kids in the public school system, stuck with it as long as they felt they could, and then gave up. It wasn’t working. The teachers, the system, the other kids—whatever the reason—one thing was clear: there wasn’t any learning going on. And it wasn’t just white kids fleeing black schools. Washington is largely a black city, and the school system overwhelmingly so (over 90 percent of both teachers and students are black), but black parents who could afford to were also taking their children out of public schools. There is even something called the “Black Student Fund,” a scholarship set up so that black kids who have potential but lack means can get a private school education. “We get tons more applications every year than we can handle,” said one person connected with the fund.

The Washington Teachers Union, as one might expect, devoutly denies that the quality of teaching has anything to do with the failure of the school system. Ask Simons how he rationalizes his teachers’ high salaries and their students’ low test scores, and he says blandly, “How do you measure the effectiveness of teachers?”

Ask Shanker why parents who can afford it prefer to send their kids to private schools, and he blames the problems of the public schools on the “great liberal victories”—from integration (and the ensuing white flight), to the abolition of the tracking system, to the mainstreaming of handicapped children—for placing enormous burdens on public school teachers and for making life in the public schools less, well, less pleasant. “What parents are really saying when they put their kids in private school is ‘Who do I want my kid to sit next to?’,” he adds. There is a grain of truth in some of this—it is hard to measure how well a teacher teaches, and those “liberal victories” have made teaching a more difficult job—but difficult enough to excuse high school graduates who can’t read? Or college freshmen who need remedial work in fifth grade arithmetic?

To anyone with a less vested interest, it is pretty plain that the teachers here are a lot of the problem. Over the years, the D.C. public school system has hired a large number of people as teachers who don’t know what to do in front of a classroom. They went to DCTC, took the right courses—”Sociology of Urban Youth” and “Educational Psychology” are two courses required to become a teacher in the D.C. public school system— obtained the right credentials, and were hired, but they couldn’t teach. They got their jobs solely on the basis of an interview with someone in the school department personnel office and those DCTC teaching credits; no tests were given to prospective teachers since the department stopped testing in 1969, and the union forbids school administrators from watching potential employees perform in a classroom before hiring them. Once hired, these teachers slid by for two years, after which they were tenured, and then built up some seniority and became entrenched. But they still couldn’t teach.

That is the most important thing those parents who stuck with the public school system found out, and that is what finally drove them to put their kids elsewhere. It wasn’t the kids their children were sitting next to who were causing problems, as Shanker would have us believe, it was the adult standing up in front. That became even clearer after their kids had been in private school awhile. The private school teachers made much less money, worked much longer hours, didn’t have any of those courses in “Sociology of Urban Youth,” weren’t busy trying to get a master’s degree (as public school teachers must do to go up the pay scale), but they could teach. In a classroom, they could make subjects come alive.

These good teachers weren’t that hard to find, either. There is a tremendous teacher glut in this country, with a lot of young teachers hungry for work, and the private schools have been getting most of them. They can test teachers if they want, audition them, take whatever steps they think are needed to ensure they’re getting the best teachers they can find. The private schools have been able to take advantage of the teacher glut in a way the public schools, with their seniority tenure and procedural rights for teachers, haven’t. Public schools have had to get by with the teachers they have. In Washington, for example, it has meant making do with teachers hired in the 1950s and 1960s, a time when there was a severe teaching shortage and public schools here were so desperate for teachers that just about anyone who walked in the door with credits from DCTC and a clean police record was likely to be hired. In those days, teachers still had to pass two exams to qualify to work in the D.C. school system, and applicants were failing the tests in droves. But because of the shortage, they were hired anyway, supposedly on temporary status. According to one account, by the mid-1960s, 45 percent of all D.C. teachers were working on temporary status. Today, these teachers are still there, with tenure and seniority, even though they should never have been hired in the first place.

The surest way to improve teaching in Washington, of course, is to fire incompetent teachers; but the board, in this dispute, didn’t dare suggest anything so drastic. Board members know that the grievance and procedural rights make it close to impossible to fire a teacher. (One union official I spoke with went on at some length about how the union had just won a victory after a year-long fight to retain jobs for two teachers who had been fired for “unsatisfactory” evaluations. “The principals messed up in the procedures,” he said, “and they can’t do that if they want to fire somebody.”) But the board also knows that those procedures are the most sacrosanct items in the contract. (Shanker: “If you murder someone, you still have the right to your day in court. It’s the same for a teacher. That’s the American way.”)

And the board knows, finally, that smaller steps suggested in the past by school boards have always been rejected by the union. Like most AFT affiliates, the Washington Teachers Union is tough and militant, and it doesn’t take kindly to suggestions that will make it easier to fire members, no matter how justified. Thus, when the board of education and the school superintendent began years ago trying to devise ways to toughen teacher evaluation, the union blocked it, eventually working out a new evaluation system that is even more time consuming than the old one. When board members recently talked about having teachers take tests again to see if they were qualified to teach, union resistance was even fiercer. And when one board member suggested students be tested at the end of every year and teachers’ effectiveness gauged by the progress the students had made, a union official responded in this fashion: “If they ever did that, our teachers would just teach the test.”

In the face of this past resistance, the board ended up in negotiations proposing an almost ludicrously small step: teachers who were having trouble in the classroom should spend some time in training programs that would help them do a better job. We won’t get rid of them, in other words, all we want to do is train them. The obvious weak- ness of the proposal lay in its belief that teachers can be trained to perform in the classroom. Teachers, in manyways, are performers, and what they do requires a talent and a gift that can’t be drummed into people. That was not, however, the reason the union objected. They were upset because these training programs would require teachers to spend more time in school—their work year, heaven forbid, might be extended by another two or three weeks!

Restoring Some Sanity

I should mention at this point that the other school board demands that led to the strike were similar in tone; small steps, not radical proposals. Some, like the longer day, made great sense, and others, like the longer year, did not, but this was not a wholesale rape of a union contract. It was an attempt to restore some sanity to a situation that was out of control. I should also mention at this point that the school board got clobbered.

The event that precipitated the strike was the board’s refusal to extend the contract for what would have been a fourth time since its original expiration in January 1978. In the year between January 1978 and last February, negotiations had gone nowhere. Labor pros in the city said the board was “seriously out of touch with reality” for thinking it could ever win back anything that had already been won by a union without offering more money. The world just doesn’t work like that. Indeed, even when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, city officials couldn’t persuade its public employee unions to give back many of the enormously expensive fringe benefits, like the 36-hour work week and the liberal sick leave policies they had won over the years, even though these benefits had contributed mightily to the decline of the city. And no union leader, particularly one who has to face reelection every few years like Simons, is going to stand for a contract that calls for give-backs.

So when the contract was not extended, and the board refused to continue deducting union dues from teachers’ paychecks, Simons said he had no choice. He couldn’t sit by and allow the contract to expire. He had to pull his teachers out on strike.

Given the state of the schools, what is probably most surprising is that for the month the strike lasted, there seemed to be a general perception in Washington that, yes, Simons was right, he had no choice. A union couldn’t be expected to give back past gains. The mayor, a former president of the school board himself, was one who felt that way. He saw to it that the union won by stepping into the fray and asking the judge to restore the old contract, which she did.

Other unions gave the teachers moral support—that’s to be expected, of course—but so did much of the citizenry. The board members were usually the ones vilified; the union had acted “responsibly.”

One reason for the general feeling of sympathy towards the union, 1 think, is that there once was a time when Washington’s teachers really did need some protection, and many of the people living here still remember that. Back in 1967, when William Simons was negotiating the first contract for the teachers, there was a general sense that teachers could be—and were—abused by people in power. The symbol of this abuse was the “principal-dictator,” a person who ran the school like a little fiefdom, passing out the cushy jobs and best assignments to his favorites and punishing others for no reason other than whim. The contract Simons won in December 1967 changed all that. It was hailed at the time as the most progressive contract in the country, the one against which all school contracts in the future would be measured. It righted all the obvious wrongs. But it also set up all the procedures, processes, rights, and committees that have made managing the school system such an impossible task. From the point of view of the teachers, and the labor movement in general, it was indeed a progressive contract and a great victory. It made life in the school system much fairer, but it also helped push the school system toward its long decline. Seniority is probably the best example of the double-edged nature of the contract. The seniority system’s great appeal rests in its elimination of blatant favoritism. With seniority, teachers can’t be laid off just because their principal doesn’t like them. But in Washington, the seniority system has also been extraordinarily harmful to students.

As it has become clear that Washington school kids are not learning the basics, a number of superintendents have tried to devise ways to get more basic instruction to students who need it. The seniority system has repeatedly thwarted those efforts. “I remember asking social science teachers what their biggest problem was,” says Barbara Sizemore, a former superintendent who created waves of controversy when she was here, “and they all said the trouble was their students couldn’t read well enough to handle the subjects.” The solution seemed simple enough: replace some of the social science teachers with some basic reading teachers. Give extra lessons in reading, and deemphasize social science for those students who couldn’t handle it. The union took one look at this proposal and said, no dice—social science teachers have tenure and are, therefore, unfireable. So the social sciences continue to be taught in the D.C. public schools by teachers who aren’t needed to kids who can’t learn it.

Whenever there are layoffs in the school system, the routine is the same. The most recent hirees are the first firees—no favoritism there. But neither is there any sense of what the students need. And it’s not just the teachers, either, as union officials are fond of pointing out. There are plenty of poor administrators in the system too, but just try to get rid of them and you bump into the same problem—it turns out even they have a union.

So when one superintendent, forced to make some budget cuts, decided to rid his administration of some middle- management fat, he couldn’t do it. His middle managers, you see, all had more seniority than his principals, who had more seniority than vice principals, and so on down the line. Trying to get rid of people in the front office who weren’t needed meant, finally, that more valuable employees out in the schools, people with real work but less seniority, were the ones let go.

The Bureaucratic Class

There is another, much more troubling reason why the citizenry supported the striking teachers. Many people in Washington have the same kind of deal the teachers have— they get cost-of-living raises to “keep pace with inflation,” and they have tenure or at least enough procedural rights to mean the same thing. As a result, in their minds there exists little relationship between how good a job someone does and what his financial situation ought to be—indeed their focus is often so much on pay and working conditions that what is actually produced recedes to distantly secondary importance. Washington is an expensive town, they think; everyone has a right to enough money to get by comfortably, whether or not they teach well or get people’s social security checks out on time or whatever.

These people make up what might be called the bureaucratic class, and they encompass most of white-collar Washington. Their mindset dominates the government, with disastrous effects on the ability of the government to deliver the goods. The teachers believe they should never be fired, no matter how shoddy their work. They see raises and promotions as part-and-parcel of the job, not as a question of performance. To put it bluntly, all the evidence says that what’s in their contract is more important to them than what their students need.

The same mentality allows the railroad unions to force Amtrak to pay a full day’s wages for a two-and-a-half- hour workday, as Deborah Baldwin explains elsewhere in this issue. It makes New York sanitation workers fight to keep three men on a truck when only one or two are needed, at a time when New York needs desperately to save money. It results in the government bureaucrat worrying far more about what goes on inside the building where he works than out in the field.

What happened in Washington last March was an attempt to change some of that thinking. The school board was trying, in a small way, to relate pay to productivity when it said teachers in the District of Columbia should work more than teachers in Arlington County, since they’re paid more, and that teachers ought to stay after school to help kids who need it. The school board was trying to show that a job in government is not a right but a commitment. It was trying, most of all, to put what the students need above what the teachers want. And in all of this, it failed.

‘We Have No Margin’

William Raspberry, a columnist for the Washington Post, summed up the attitude of most of Washington toward the teachers when he wrote: “I happen to believe the board needs desperately to recoup its bargained-away policy authority. . . .I believe there is a case to be made (though the board hasn’t made it very convincingly) for bringing the work day and work year up to the standards of other jurisdictions in the metropolitan region.”

“But how can anyone expect the union to bargain away past gains to a board that has nothing substantial to offer in exchange?”

Normally a man of considerable perception, Raspberry here blindly accepted the notion that what a public employee union has gained in the past, no matter how excessive, can be won back only through bribing union members with higher salaries or better fringe benefits. That sounds fair only because Raspberry, the union, and the bureaucratic class generally somehow don’t regard annual cost-of-living raises as real raises. So while in fact the Washington teachers’ salaries have gone up and up in recent years, everybody in Washington thinks of them as having been steady, not increasing.

Now certainly the cost-of-living does go up every year, and ideally people shouldn’t see their real earnings constantly decreasing. Similarly, it’s unfortunate when someone who supports a family is fired, and sometimes this can happen for capricious reasons unrelated to performance on the job. Giving people guaranteed cost-of-living raises and tenure ensures that these unfortunate things won’t happen. That’s very nice. But what people in Washington don’t seem to realize is that we are paying a terrible price for these guarantees. The government doesn’t have unlimited funds. When incompetents are protected and raises automatic, something has to give. And what gives is the quality of teaching in the public schools. When teachers get absolute protection, students get screwed.

In the D.C. school department, there were 10,639 employees in 1972, of whom 6,500 were teachers (these figures are from the D.C. appropriations subcommittee). By 1978, the total number of employees had dropped to 9,753, with a corresponding drop in the number of teachers. But in that period the amount the school department spent on salaries went up 65 percent, from $133 million to $202 million. New books and equipment that are needed haven’t been bought; that and fewer teachers, are the price we pay for tenure and automatic raises. In New York, where the city government is in much worse shape, there have been massive layoffs and corresponding cutbacks in all sorts of city services, but no public employee union leader has yet suggested eliminating cost-of-living increases instead.

You may be wondering why you haven’t read more in the newspapers about school departments scrimping on books to pay teachers’ raises. One reason is that, more and more, reporters have a sincere empathy with the problem of the bureaucratic class because more and more, they’re members of that class themselves. They get cost-of-living increases and have tenure, and would be horrified if these things were taken away from them. So naturally they’re not inclined to take a tough look at whether the teachers’ similar position is just.

On the front page of the Post a few weeks ago, there was a classic example of this kind of blinding empathy. Under the headline, “Couples: The Dual-Income Dilemma,” there was a lengthy article explaining the difficulty and horror of Washington’s professional couples trying to make ends meet. Oh, what awful and tear-wrenching problems faced these people. Their combined incomes probably ranged from $70,000 to $150,000, but, as one man put it, “with all the money we make, we have no margin.” One couple described in the article spends $2,798 a month. “This includes $195 for dinner parties and dining out, $660 for the mortgage and $537 for tax shelters,” the article said.

“It also includes money for vacations,” said the husband. “You don’t feel wealthy when you think of what it costs to live in Washington.”

The author of this article, Blaine Harden, is new to the Post; chances are he paid dues on a paper in a small town where he was content to work 60-hour weeks for $200. But now, having arrived in Washington and at the Post, things must look suddenly different.

The Post chapter of the NewspaperGuild has said repeatedly that its members need raises just to keep pace with inflation. In a newsletter sent out late last year, the guild’s chairman offered these insights into the plight of the poor Washington Post reporter:

“He brings lunch to work at least three times a week. To make ends meet at home, his family uses margarine instead of butter, milk instead of cream, cloth instead of paper napkins. The family, for whom he is the sole support, has abandoned Safeway for a buying co-op where food is cheaper. His five children are clothed, in part, in  hand-me-downs from neighbors.There is no money for savings, little for home repairs. There is no additional life insurance beyond what the Post provides.”

“He is a journeyman reporter with 18 years in the business. His salary: $650 a week, $33,800 a year.” What? He can’t make it on $650 a week? On the face of it, this seems absurd, inflation or no inflation. But read on and the reason becomes clear: “Four of the kids are in private school, because the D.C. public schools proved woefully inadequate. The tuition eats up more than $5,000 a year. Next year, one child alone will cost as much to send to college.”

So we have come full circle. The teacher has demanded, and gotten automatic, cost-of-living raises and total job protection. Partly as a result, the public schools are lousy. The reporter, understandably, wants his kids in private school. To keep up with that expense, he wants cost-of-living raises and total job protection. Once he gets that, he’s likely to look with sympathy on the teacher’s attempt to hold on to the same deal. So the teacher’s demands will be widely accepted, and he’ll keep his raises and his tenure, and the schools will stay lousy. On and on it goes, and nobody in the bureaucratic class really loses. The losers are the kids in public schools.

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Joe Nocera

Joe Nocera is a columnist with Bloomberg Opinion. His latest project is the podcast The Shrink Next Door. He was an editor at the Washington Monthly from 1978 to 1979.