Teacher unions are still the problem: Reform or status quo

David Denholm has written extensively on the subject of school reform and the problem of the teachers unions, and serves as the President of the Public Service Research Foundation located in Vienna, Virginia. In his article “Confronting Teacher Union Power,” Denholm writes that the teachers unions “are involved in virtually every aspect of education.”

“All too often,” he writes –

– “the proponents of reform, because they fear to appear to be ‘anti-union,’ refuse to confront the power of the teacher unions. They want to believe the problems can be solved without confronting the power of the teacher unions and by doing so, they fall right into the unions’ hands…”

“The teacher unions,” Denholm says, “are substantially responsible for the decline in the quality of public education, are adamant that their opposition to reforms is based on the need to preserve and protect public education.”

Terry Moe, Stanford University political science professor, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and co-author of “Politics Markets & Schools,” referred to what he called the “most fundamental issue” during a Brookings Institute forum on April 11, 2000 entitled “Teachers Unions: Do They Help or Hurt Education Reform?”:

“We need to begin by understanding what motivates them (the unions), and understand what their interests are, because their interests will tell us what we can expect them to do, allow us to understand and ultimately predict their behavior.”

Moe elaborated:

“[W]hat are the fundamental interests of teachers unions?…[T]hey want to promote the material well being and the job security of their members, teachers, and they want to maintain and increase their own membership as unions, their resources, and their power… We’re just trying to characterize their basic interests.”

To clarify, Moe added:

“Now, notice what I have not said. I have not said anything about good schools, making the schools better, or doing what’s best for kids. Now, I think teachers care about that, definitely, and unions leaders care about that. But it’s not fundamental to the interests of the union.”

And it would appear with the resources available to the unions in financial resources, political power, and human capital, it’s conceivable that they’d have made more progress in bringing about the kind of reforms that would lead to higher student academic achievement…if they truly wanted to.

Later in the forum, Moe discussed the fact that everyone packages “their own position in terms of the public interests” (i.e. good public schools and quality education).

“And so there’s a rhetoric of the public interest that everyone adheres to when they’re engaged in political debate. And that rhetoric makes it difficult to discern what the real interests are beneath the surface. But if we want to understand what’s going on we have to get beneath the surface and talk about the real interests…”

In his book “Inside American Education,” Thomas Sowell wrote the following:

The NEA and AFT – both organizations are highly effective lobbying groups at both the federal and state levels, and both aim much advertising at the general public, both to generate a favorable image of teachers and to get the public used to seeing education issues in a certain framework, favorable to the profession-for example, to equate more money for the public school establishment with ‘an investment in better education.’ Everything from television commercials to bumper stickers promote their cause, unopposed by any comparable organized counter-propaganda.”

“Teachers’ unions do not represent teachers in the abstract. They represent such teachers as actually exist in today’s public schools. These teachers have every reason to fear the competition of other college graduates for jobs, to fear any weakening of iron-clad tenure rules, and to fear any form of competition between schools that would allow parents to choose where to send their children.  Competition means winners and losers-based on performance, rather than seniority or credentials.”

It’s a simple matter of interests. In “The Teachers Unions,” Myron Lieberman wrote:

“The NEA and AFT cannot say ‘We’re opposed to contracting out because it’s not good for the union’ or ‘not good for the employees.’ Politically, because teachers are public employees, they must cite public policy, not special interest reasons to justify their opposition.”

Up next: Improvement in education v. political power.