Perspectives in Education- Part 5- Teacher Unions

The precursor to today’s NEA was formed in 1857. They took on their current name in 1870. Initially, the union barred both women and blacks. Needless to say, teacher unions have been around for many years. Today, the NEA is both the largest professional organization and the largest union in America. That is part of the problem from the start, but more on that in a bit. Secondly, over the years they have obtained enormous political power through campaign donations, the formation of political action committees, and lobbying efforts to advance their goals or to thwart the goals of “adversaries.”

First and foremost it needs to be acknowledged that a union’s primary responsibility is to their members. They negotiate on behalf of members for issues like salaries, credentials, working conditions, pensions, health benefits, and job security. In these respects, teacher unions are no different than, for example, the United Auto Workers or the Teamsters. Unlike those unions, however, the stakes are considerably higher. Teacher unions do not represent a workforce that churns out steel beams or cars or pieces of garments or even widgets. Teachers turn out students- living, breathing human beings. Hence, being a union, it appears to many that they sometimes fail to see the difference between a widget and a student. Go to any state educational union website today and you will see words to the effect “Dedicated to children” or “Dedicated to students.” You won’t see these slogans splashed across the website of the IBEW, Teamsters or UAW like “Dedicated to the best electrical wiring systems.” So when we are talking about teacher unions, we are talking about something qualitatively different from these other unions.

Also lost in the entire conversation is the fact that when it comes to collective bargaining, it takes two to tango. Often, school boards have been reluctant to stand up to teacher unions when hard choices had to be made. Of course, like any union, members can strike except in certain instances. But what usually happens after a teacher strike is settled? The teachers generally get about 55% or more of what they wanted, they go back to work, and they get paid for the time they were on strike…no bad feelings. The school board or district gets to give a press conference on how well they did for the taxpayer; that is, until the next time. So, local school boards that negotiate with teacher unions are partially to blame for the current state of affairs.

Teacher unions put forth the idea that they are treated like card-punching industrial employees rather than the professionals that they are. If we grant them that much, the unions themselves are to blame for this. If you look at the organization, by-laws and rules of the NEA side-by-side with the UAW but remove the names, they are basically indistinguishable. That is, teacher unions are set up like your average industrial union. Also, if you listen to teacher complaints, THEY are the ones who often act like disgruntled industrial workers, rather than the disturbed professional they claim to be. When push comes to shove, a professional will realize there is something wrong with their work or in their workplace because they are just not getting the results one would expect. A professional would then work with management to make the necessary changes. Sometimes it is the workplace and sometimes it is the workforce and sometimes it may be the compensation system. But, teacher unions revert to the industrial model which is, at the end of the day, adversarial as opposed to the professional model which is more cooperative.

At this point, since the role of unions in educational reform is an acknowledged fact, it is unions that have to change their approach to the entire subject. The forces for change and upsetting the status quo are too strong for them ignore any more. Republican political gains at the state level have forced some unions to adopt a more cooperative approach. Yet, others have dug in their heels. Hiring and firing one’s way to meaningful reform is not the sole answer, but part of the solution. Again, under the industrial model, removing a recognized “bad” teacher is a costly and time-consuming effort because of the collective bargaining agreement. In a professional union, if there is an under-performing employee, their chances of job retention are not very good. Yet, look at the case of New York City where they spent $100 million in one year to remove what they identified as “bad” teachers. If you are the school board, the more cost-effective solution is to turn your back and hope that these “bad” teachers blend into the wall.

The seniority system inherent in the contracts is also a deterrent to reform. In New York, because of transfers of teachers within a school or district based on seniority, close to 60% of applicants withdraw those applications because of the length of time before an interview even takes place. Some of this may be due to finding another job, but one has to believe that applicant frustration plays a large role also. In fact, the majority of those who withdrew their applications cited the long time before an interview for seeking another job. So while the union is proposing ideas to attract more qualified people to the profession- usually through better pay and benefits- they have simultaneously set up barriers to that very process. The result is stagnation.

Therefore, the key to getting unions on the true school reform bandwagon is to reform the unions themselves. Fortunately, demographics and some outside pressures have started that process. In New Jersey, when Christie was elected much to the chagrin of the NJEA, teachers noted that he did not know what he was in for. I often took the position with them that it was the NJEA that did not know what they were in for, that Christie was not Jon Corzine or even Thomas Kean (a Republican). I was right. But, state and local governments are only part of that outside pressure. No amount of Chris Christies or Scott Walkers can do the job alone. Parents, perhaps the greatest source of outside pressure, must be on board also. Perhaps this is why many state teacher unions were opposed to NCLB school report card requirements because it publicized the performance of schools. What parents may have thought was true was confirmed in black and white and those figures showed a tendency towards mediocrity and then rewarding it.

But most importantly is changing the unions from within. The trends in this area are encouraging. Demographically, greater than 50% of the nation’s public school teachers today have less than 10 years classroom experience meaning that as the older teachers leave the profession, a new breed are coming into it. Studies indicate that this new breed of unionized teacher is less apt to be opposed to teacher evaluation results being the basis for raises. In fact, 40% believe that as part of the appraisal, student academic performance should play an integral role. Fifteen years ago, incorporating student achievement into an evaluation system would have received an almost universal negative reaction with the usual excuses that “tests are not good indicators.” A study in 2011 indicated that 78% of teachers surveyed said their most recent appraisal was accurate and done fairly. A similar proportion said the appraisal used the correct criteria. In fact, 54% said that assessing student knowledge growth was a good idea while a similar survey found that only 48% said so a mere four years ago. Regarding merit pay, only 35% agree to the idea based on student performance exclusively (up from the 2007 survey) while 83% support differential pay for working in low-performing, tough schools.

This new breed of unionized teacher is also pretty much upset with seniority systems as the figures from New York City cited earlier indicate. In fact, for the first time in history, more than 50% of teachers report disaffection with their union. Besides recognizing without admitting union barriers to true educational reforms, a teacher’s main source of disaffection is the undemocratic nature of the union itself. This new breed seeks a more democratic union and any program which will help retain the truly good teachers.

One of the fears of unions is this drifting away traditional union orthodoxy and membership which means a drop in dues collection. Only 4% of charter schools are unionized and there is a growth in the number of charter schools and, thus, more teaching opportunities out there. That is the primary reason unions oppose reforms based on parental choice or vouchers. Many teachers that I know who work in the public school system actually got their starts in charter schools within the district and found the transition from non-union to union cumbersome. Sure, the pay and benefits were considerably better- the reason they left the charter school- but the work rules down to what can or cannot can go on a bulletin board were a labyrinth of regulations. For example, a first year music teacher in the public school when putting in his grades accidentally erased another teacher’s grades. For her to put the grades back in took all of ten minutes. However, that teacher had to file a grievance against the music teacher before making a complaint to change the grades which required a sit-down with the union representative. In a charter school, the teacher walks over the music teacher, tells them of their mistake, he apologizes and the teacher re-enters the grades, end of story.

Although no fan of Obama’s Race to the Top program, teacher union support is important for the proposed reforms in order to get the points awarded. Hence, the RTTT program is a nod to unions also, not necessarily a nod to reforms. For example, because only 12% of Wisconsin teachers bought into the reforms and the union president “begrudgingly” went along, the union cost the state $250 million in grants.

The two things that the unions are steadfast against are vouchers in whatever guise and merit pay programs based on student academic performance. As noted earlier, newer teachers are more amenable to appraisals based partly on student performance, but when it comes to pay for performance, the support weakens. That is because the union mentality takes over where what is perceived as a punishment- lower pay increases, if at all- takes a back seat to reward (everybody gets a raise, but the best can get a little more).

Regarding parental choice in education, one study found that 60% of the money collected by union dues in Michigan was dedicated towards political and lobbying efforts to defeat educational choice proposals. This involved donating to candidates who opposed the expansion of charter schools, vouchers and the like. My guess is that the same results will be found in other states. In 1996, Pepsi-Cola decided to start a program of awarding scholarships to low income students for educational purposes, or providing money for private schools. Pepsi vending machines were vandalized in teacher break areas and the union threatened to divest from any fund in which Pepsi was a member. Pepsi-Cola backed off the program. In Texas, the teacher unions have led an intense lobbying effort in Austin to thwart any program that looks like a voucher program. When not using the ballot box and campaign advertising or lobbying in state capitals, they are not averse to using the court system. In New York City, after the city closed three public schools and opened three charter schools (non-union) in their stead, the union filed suit in the state supreme court to block the move. And we all know the role the teacher unions have played in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia when it came to those cities closing schools that were not performing.

Which leads to the question: Why do the teacher unions fear choice? The reason is simply financial. Most of the choices out there do not use a unionized workforce. If parents choose to send their kids to these schools, enrollment will drop in the unionized public schools. There will not be as great a need for unionized public school teachers and the union loses a valuable source of revenue- their members. In short, the union loses every justification they assert for everything they have received over the years. No longer will they necessarily be “over-worked and underpaid” “under stressful conditions.”

The question at the beginning was “Are teacher unions the problem?” One cannot blame unions 100% for all the problems. They are, after all, there to represent the needs and wants of their members. That is the primary goal of a union in the first place. But, to say they have overplayed their hand would be an understatement. At the very least, they should stop the pretense that they have the student’s best interests at heart. Teachers, not teacher unions, have the best interests of their students at heart. This is not some philosophical argument; it is purely economical. Luckily, there are groups like the Denver teacher union that helped formulate a popular merit-based system of pay jointly with management. And thankfully there are groups like Educators For Excellence and the Hope Street Group who are boasting increasing membership among the newer breed of teacher.

Next: The racial and ethnic achievement gap