Teacher unions are still the problem: Public relations

Back to school means that it’s time to once again tell the sad old story about why American public education isn’t what it can be. The public schools continue to be a story of mediocre test scores, run-away costs, and a politically powerful interest group that succeeds only in protecting the failed status quo.

Twenty-five years ago when the report “A Nation at Risk” was issued, the problem of the teachers unions mostly went unnoticed. Since then, many school reform experts have been focusing on the unions and the inverse relationship between their political power and the academic achievement of public school students.

That there has been little or no improvement in test scores has been attributed to the existence of an entrenched special interest that fights any progress or reform that doesn’t directly benefit itself. That special interest is, of course, the teachers unions.

In Peter Brimelow’s terrific book, “The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education,” he quotes from a Washington Post article titled “Teachers against Reform”:

“The national teacher unions want to be seen as defenders of public education and advocates of reform. But when you move beyond the rhetoric, you find them too often simply defending the status quo, even when that status quo means inferior education for too many children.”

What’s good for the union?

Why have the unions been given such a pass? Much of it can be credited to their effective public relations efforts. According to Brimelow, “The Teacher Trust wants the clout of the AFL-CIO, coupled with the public image of the dedicated schoolmarm. And, by and large, it’s been getting it.”

Brimelow says the unions have fostered the idea that “what’s good for the unions is good for the teachers, what’s good for the teacher must be good for education.” In fact, according to the Education Intelligence Agency ‘s Mike Antonucci, “it’s not at all unusual for teachers to be uncertain to which of the two major unions they belong.”

“The NEA has had such success in equating itself with ‘the teachers’ in the public mind that even union critics fail to differentiate between the views of the NEA headquarters, its affiliates, their staffs, their locals, and their rank-and-file members. Union propaganda, and countervailing criticism from education reform organizations, assumes that whatever comes out of union headquarters must reflect the feelings of classroom teachers themselves.”

Peter Brimelow and other writers have begun to reveal the extent of the political power of the teachers unions. The union stranglehold reaches to school administrations, state bureaucracies, and locally elected school boards, and has resulted in the current state of American K-12 public education.

Up next: Reform or status quo.

©2008 John Francis Biver