Challenging the Teacher Unions

Member Group : Jerry Shenk

(This article first appeared in the [i]American Thinker[ei].)

The public school monopoly on taxpayer education funds is under challenge,
and the unions are fighting back hard.

This year, Pennsylvania’s state legislature will consider Senate Bill 1 –
The Opportunity Scholarship and Educational Improvement Tax Credit Act.

Intended to create education vouchers for kids trapped in failing schools,
one of SB1’s primary sponsors and most passionate advocates, Sen. Anthony
Williams, is an African-American Democrat from Philadelphia. Sen. Williams
understands the need for the bill. Philadelphia’s inner-city schools are
among America’s worst.

At least one teaching professional has argued persuasively that, not only should students avoid such schools, so should motivated teachers. Everyone’s best solution is to escape them, as SB1 would enable students to do.

Not surprisingly, SB1 is opposed by teachers unions and politicians whose
political influence and campaign funds would be affected by its passage.

The reason school choice and other educational reform policies are so hard
to enact is that passing such bills requires elected public officials and
teachers unions to care about other people’s children. In order to enact
these bills, officials must set aside self-interest and re-direct
priorities. Given human nature, some politicians will be indifferent to the
quality of education, but loyal to the interests of the teachers unions who
help fund their campaigns.

Access to quality public education is the civil rights issue of this
century. David Horowitz once said: "If Republicans did to minority children
what the Democrats do through their education policies, they would be
denounced as the worst racists on earth."

But, in Pennsylvania, it’s not just Democrats who resist school choice.
There is bipartisan opposition to SB1 in the state legislature. Some members
from both parties place a higher priority on the interests of teachers
unions than on the children and taxpayers in their districts.

In effect, the members opposing the bill follow the money, when the money
should follow the kids.

Unions are obstacles to school choice and other reforms. For all the concern
unions express about children, their interests are limited to their adult,
dues-paying constituencies. Teachers unions are big businesses managing big
money with real political clout. Cumulatively, teachers unions are by far
the largest contributor to political campaigns in America. Unions have taken
over our schools, and they mean to keep control of them.

Unions continue to demand more money for their members, insisting teachers
are underpaid and overworked. Really? Most have fifteen weeks off per year and are teaching fewer classes containing fewer students than they did five decades ago.

For fifty years, an obsession with class size has made public education in
America significantly more expensive. But reducing class sizes has done
nothing to improve student academic achievement. According to the National
Center for Education Statistics, the student-teacher ratio in public schools was 25.8:1 in 1960. It’s now at an historic low of around 15:1. In fifty years, the number of teachers employed has increased by three and one-half times the
rate of increase in K-12 enrollment. If schools had hired only enough
teachers to keep up with enrollment while maintaining 1960s class sizes and
instructional standards, we could be paying teachers perhaps as much as
forty or fifty percent more than they now receive. But that would mean far
fewer dues-paying teachers, a condition unacceptable to the unions.
Increasing teacher headcount is the reason unions originally supported
smaller class sizes.

To the unions, it wasn’t about the kids then, and it isn’t now.

Significant segments of American public education may not be very good at
teaching kids, but they’re terrific jobs programs for adults. There are more
than three million teachers
employed in American public education, plus as many or more administrators,
assistants, aides, counselors, social workers, psychologists, therapists,
secretaries, nurses, coaches, janitors, school bus drivers and other support
staff. Some of those belong to unions, too.

In effect, American public education is a huge jobs and union dues creation
program costing taxpayers unimaginable sums of money. So, why aren’t we
getting better results? Why have American kids who once led the world in
academic achievement fallen so far behind in world rankings in math and

Unions point the finger in other directions. Some of their claims have
merit: Parental interest and involvement have declined in many districts;
disciplinary problems exist almost everywhere; cultural influences interfere
with learning; mandatory mainstreaming lowers the common denominator. But,
while acknowledging all of these things, teachers and their unions must face
the significant contributions they’ve made to the problems.

Why won’t the unions discuss merit pay for teachers or agree to eliminate
tenure? Teachers know who the good teachers are, and the good ones aren’t
afraid to be measured on results. Teachers unions dedicate too much of their
time and too many of their resources to protecting underperformers.

Teachers and their unions resist the argument that principals and school
boards should be able to dismiss incompetent teachers. In fact, educators
affirm that union protections make firing a teacher — even a bad one —
nearly impossible. The unions argue that, without contract protections,
teachers would be at the mercy of their employers.

In other words, they’d be just like private-sector working Americans. The
teachers’ unions’ detachment from the practical reality of private-sector
workers tells us something about how the public schools they control can
fail to educate children:

If a teacher can’t be dismissed for doing bad work, what’s the incentive to
do good work?

The poor results in American public education and current economic
circumstances mandate that we discuss and change teacher headcount,
curricula, positions, pay, benefits and the unaffordable Cadillac pensions
awarded to teachers by politicians in many jurisdictions. We must end
seniority protections, tenure rules and the "last in, first out" policies
that keep our public schools from dismissing ineffective teachers.

Finally, we must encourage school choice, vouchers and charter schools. We
should decouple the teachers unions from their near-monopoly of the teaching
profession, get the federal government and their one-size-fits-all mindset
out of public education and let the states be the laboratories for
educational reform. The federal government supports less than 9% of the cost
of public education. Why should Americans tolerate the central government
directing policy in local districts? Rather than laundering tax money
through the IRS, keep it at home and let school districts determine their
own futures by competing in open education markets. Competition improves
products and markets. It will improve public education, too.

In fact, if we are to stop turning our schools into politically-correct,
progressive madrassas, we must endeavor to get politics out of the public
education system entirely.

Jerry Shenk is co-editor of the Rebuilding America, Federalist Papers 2
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