Improving Education, Part V

I stated in the last post that charter schools are the targets of a lot of undeserved hostility. One reason for this can be summed up in two words: teachers unions.

Now, before I continue, allow me to emulate Governor Christie here and stress that I don’t have a problem with teachers. Many of them are extremely good at what they do and have entered the profession for the right reasons. Quite a few of my fondest childhood memories, in fact, feature public school teachers in prominent roles. It’s a fair bet, for example, that I would not have survived high school if not for my computer math/AP Statistics teacher, who persisted in encouraging me even when I felt down and unmotivated.

I also don’t dispute that teachers have a right to form professional organizations and negotiate collective bargaining agreements through those organizations.

This is a right shared by all workers, and I have no intention of arguing that this right should be ignored.

Still, the leaders of today’s NEA and AFT (and their local affiliates) are some of the most selfish and despicable people currently active in education politics.

I realize these are strong words. But consider two things teachers unions have recently done:

First, let’s go back to Governor Christie of New Jersey. When Christie entered office, he faced a serious state budget shortfall that had to be resolved. He approached this problem by making cuts across the board – and this included asking the teachers of New Jersey both to accept a one year pay freeze and to contribute a tiny percentage of their salary towards their health benefits. The teachers union screamed bloody murder. How dare Governor Christie ask teachers to make some sacrifices? Sure, the economy is in the tank. Sure, many people in the private sector have had to go without their annual raises (though I used to get a $1/hr raise on a yearly basis, I myself have been paid at the same hourly rate for the past few years not because my boss doesn’t want to reward my merit but because he can’t). But teachers shouldn’t have to give up the perks they enjoyed while this nation was prosperous. Asking them to do so, hollered the union, will destroy education in the state of New Jersey. One union official even went so far as to send out an email in which she prayed for Governor Christie’s death. Now, Governor Christie has shown himself to be a scrappy and irascible guy, but he would never do the same.

Second, let’s consider the Washington DC school district, a district in which a vanishingly small percentage of eighth graders can read and write at grade level. When Adrian Fenty took the mayor’s seat, he appointed Michelle Rhee his school chancellor. Now, Rhee is an aggressive reformer. During her term as chancellor, she has pushed hard to get rid of incompetent teachers and reward the good ones. Clearly, the AFT couldn’t allow that. Instead, what they did was funnel $1 million into the campaign of Fenty’s opponent, Vincent Gray, enabling Gray to defeat Fenty in the recent election. So much for reforming the public education system in Washington DC.

As Albert Shanker, former president of the AFT, once said:

“When schoolchildren start paying dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of schoolchildren.”

Back to the charter school issue: Shanker at least used to support the concept — up until he realized that charter school leaders wanted to keep their schools out of union hands. At that point, the AFT and other teachers unions took on the mission of crushing or co-opting these non-unionized upstarts.

Other reforms the teachers unions oppose:

Merit pay for teachers.
School choice.
Higher pay for good math and science teachers, who are difficult to find.
Any rigorous means to monitor teacher performance.

Teachers unions also make it extremely difficult to fire a teacher who is dangerously incompetent if that teacher has been granted tenure (a process that takes as little as three years). Often, teachers who have received bad reports are simply shuffled to another school, something union opponents term “the dance of the lemons.” Either that, or these teachers are kept in “rubber rooms” where the state pays them their full salary to sit around and play cards. This is ridiculous! Firing a bad teacher should not be this difficult, but the unions have demanded due process rules so Byzantine that often, administrators simply give up. The termination rate for tenured teachers is minuscule as a result – less than 1% in many cases.

And teachers unions often waste their members’ money on pet leftist projects that have nothing to do with education. Some of the things teachers unions have supported include:

Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
The National Council of La Raza.
People for the American Way.
Americans for Democratic Action.
The Sierra Club.

The rank and file members of the NEA and AFT resemble the general population of the U.S. – in other words, they’re split down the middle when it comes to their political leanings. According to the NEA’s own reports, only 45% of public school teachers are Democrats. Why, then, should they be forced, through their union dues, to pay for leftist causes they may not even support? In every state in which teachers have been given the option to opt out of paying for the political causes of their union leaders, the teachers did in overwhelming numbers.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s anything that we who are not members of these unions can personally do to change this state of affairs beyond supporting Right to Work legislation. I think the change will really have to come from within the teachers unions themselves. The ordinary teachers union member needs to get educated and fight tooth and nail against his or her leaders’ shenanigans. Only then can we really diminish the power of these anti-child professional politicians.

4 thoughts on “Improving Education, Part V

  1. I had to look up three of those causes you ascribe to the NEA after reading…some of them aren't that out there. The National Council of La Raza isn't a bad idea on paper…though they may be connected with some objectionable poll positions, I don't know. The Sierra Club opposes Nuclear Power, but apart from that, I can't find a reason to get too worked up over them…they're mostly about preserving wildlife refuges and keeping wetlands clean. They don't have a big voice in the AGW argument even, though of course they are pro-AGW-theory if you ask them.

    Some of the others are quite distasteful, of course.

    That having been said, I have had long discussions with various friends in whom I trusted regarding the very unamerican stranglehold the union leaders tend to have on their constituent workers. I think the solution to this problem is the union equivalent of antitrust legislation. Right to work legislation presents the threat of companies firing union employees to replace them with non-union ones who accept fewer benefits and this could be bad, especially for recent immigrants. HOWEVER…laws that say that a union cannot control all of the workers in a given discipline…that there need to be many choices for the union you join in order to force the unions to compete for members (thus making them accountable to those members)…and that those unions be prohibited from making large campaign contributions to political action committees or to candidates for office…that would solve many of the problems with the teacher's union and many others (teamsters, steel workers, college workers of America, etc).


  2. You're right: the Sierra Club isn't too objectionable (though I still don't think the teachers unions should be wasting their members' dues on causes that have nothing to do with education even if those causes are relatively benign). I understand, however, that The National Council of La Raza has some connections with anti-American Hispanic groups who wish to reclaim the Southwest for Mexico, so what you see on paper isn't exactly the whole truth. :\

    I think your idea re: establishing multiple unions may be a good one. It's an observable fact that the larger a particular union is, the less its leaders truly represent the interests of rank-and-file union members. I like the “anti-trust” idea better than Right to Work, actually; I don't want to make it tougher for recent legal immigrants to keep their jobs. Restricting political contributions will probably run up against free speech objections, though.


  3. Nothing would stop a union's individual members from contributing to political causes. There is nothing in the constitution that guarantees a corporation, union, or other large body the right to throw money at politics. We recognize that reality already. BUSINESSES are limited by the recent McCain/etc campaign finance reform bill…any business organization is limited to a $1,059 contribution (check my number there…I may be off…but their is a four-digit limit and I believe I'm remembering correctly). That didn't run into free speech opposition. Why is a union not treated exactly like a business? The people within can donate however they'd like, but they shouldn't be forced to donate by their parent unions.


  4. I believe that part of the McCain/Feingold law was recently overturned by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case. So the law currently allows no limits on the political spending of corporations. Unions will almost certainly (and rightly, I think) demand to be treated the same way.

    I think the only solution we have to the problem of irrelevant and offensive political spending is sunlight. In other words, we should shout from the rooftops – loudly and often – that teachers unions are wasting their members' dues on leftist nonsense. Maybe one day, some union members will wake up and smell the coffee.


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