A national expert asks: Have unions stymied education reform?

Teachers unions, as unions should do, have acted in the best interests of their members, a new book argues. That has meant blocking significant reform and overriding the needs of students. One solution: computerized learning.

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A teacher with her students

Teachers unions, as unions should do, have acted in the best interests of their members, a new book argues. That has meant blocking significant reform and overriding the needs of students. One solution: computerized learning.

The thesis of Stanford University political science professor Terry Moe’s critique of teachers unions, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Brookings, 2011), is simple and blunt:

  • “The teachers unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society” – more than school boards, state legislators, the federal government or parents.
  • As unions properly do, they represent the employment interests of their members – job security (seniority, tenure), working conditions and benefits.
  • The power of the teachers unions in serving their members' interests has largely – but not exclusively – determined how the public schools are organized and how they operate.
  • Teachers unions use their power – often through Democratic state and federal legislators – to block public school reforms that threaten their members interests. Thus rapid change in the K-12 system is unlikely, though outside forces may weaken the unions over time.

Power accrues to the teachers unions in two ways. One is through collective bargaining with school districts.  The other is the exercise of political power at the local school board, state, and federal levels, made possible by the unions’ huge membership. The National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have more than four million members between them, many of whom can be mobilized to work on political campaigns. Their dues finance lobbying.

Though both unions had existed for decades (the NEA primarily a professional association dominated by administrators), the evolution toward the teachers unionism we see today began about 1960 as states passed laws allowing teacher (and other public sector union) collective bargaining. That was the key to the teachers unions growth and increasing power. (Ironically, teachers unions grew while most of the rest of American labor was losing membership.)

More than anything else, it’s for collective bargaining that teachers support their unions. Moreover, as Moe takes pains to show, quoting a number of surveys (there are 89 pages of footnotes for the 406 page text), the unions are doing what the vast majority of their members want: representing their employment interests through collective bargaining.  

Nor do teachers see this as a problem for the schools. “They firmly believe, moreover, that collective bargaining has benign consequences for schools and children, and thus that the familiar union mantra – what’s good for teachers is good for kids – is true. (Almost 80 percent of teachers are in unions and 65 percent have collective bargaining rights; some states mostly in the South don’t allow collective bargaining.)

Union political power is well understood. Moe reminds us that teachers unions can and do play a large role in school board elections, sometimes backing candidates from among their own active or retired membership. At the state and national levels, as organizations that can mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers, they exercise considerable power within the Democratic Party. This gives them the power to block education reform legislation deemed not in their members interests. And that, says Moe, is what happens time after time because it’s easier to block legislation at any level than initiate reform legislation that might improve schools. Advantage unions.

Moe’s thesis, his exhaustive demonstration of teacher support for unions, and his analysis of the political power of teachers unions provides little or no obvious encouragement for education reformers. In fact Moe uses New York and Washington, D.C., where Joel Klein and Michele Rhee “became rock stars” for challenging the unions and winning “important victories on seniority, performance pay, and teacher evaluations,” as a cautionary tale.

“They were victories that took many agonizing years of perpetual struggle to achieve," Moe explains. "They were also incredibly expensive because ‘reform’ is really a process in which the unions hold a near veto and only agree to make work rule changes if they receive enormous financial incentives for doing it.” In the end, the two districts may not be able to sustain the costs, and many work rules remain unchanged. Michele Rhee has already left her D.C. job, following a mayoral campaign in which the teachers union played a role in defeating the man who hired her— former mayor Adrian Fenty. 

Further, Moe is hugely skeptical of “reform unionism,” support for which is widespread among Democrats and liberals who want to find ways to reform schools with union cooperation. In this view, teachers unions would take a cooperative approach to school governance, “swear off onerous work rules that get in the way of effective organization,” and  “actively promote teacher quality and stop protecting bad teachers.”  Almost rhetorically Moe asks, "Why would the unions ever agree to this?” 

Moe’s negative analysis of reform unionism and the reforms bought in New York and Washington arises from his view that, in a rational world, school districts should not have to pay teachers for changing work rules that are transparently antithetical to the operation of effective schools.

But the world is not rational and his critique of reform unionism and the liberals and Democrats who support it leaves little room for incremental change. What should district leaders, parents and school reformers do if not pursue every opportunity, including bargaining with teachers unions, to improve their schools? 

After all, isn’t that the only game in town?

For example, Seattle Public Schools contract with the Seattle Education Association weakened seniority beginning in the late 1990s and allows principals to hire some teachers without regard to seniority. (This provision does not apply when the district is laying off teachers, as shrinking budgets have required for the last several years.) The district’s new contract, signed last summer, sets the two sides on a path that should include some measure of student performance within a system of more thorough teacher evaluations.

In contrast, Moe looks for a future more assuredly pleasing to school reformers, when teachers unions will have less power. He offers two reasons for this. One is the gathering strength of the school reform movement itself and, importantly, its inclusion of charter schools, which will be mostly non-union. There is also the rising pressure to link at least some part of teacher pay to student performance. Both of these trends are reinforced by the federal Race to the Top grant program promoted by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Obama, which Moe sees as positive.

The other change Moe bets on is the increasing use of educational technology. That is, computer programmed and provided instruction. You can almost see Bill Gates cheering him on. This change, which Moe views as inevitable, will have the dual effect of increasing student access to information (course content) and reducing the need for teachers, shrinking the teacher workforce and thereby reducing union power.

One ends up skeptical, if not disappointed, that after constructing a powerful indictment of teachers unions’ influence on public schools, Moe can’t offer a ringing call to action. He does, however, call for a clearer vision of what teachers union power means. This is what drives him:

“The simple fact – and it is indeed a straightforward fact – is that teachers unions are not in the business of representing the interests of children. They are unions. They represent the job-related interests of their members, and these interests are simply not the same as the interests of children.” 

“If our nation ever hopes to transform the public schools," Moe writes, "this problem of union power must be recognized for what it is. And it must be resolved.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly

Dick Lilly is a former Seattle Times reporter who covered Seattle neighborhoods, City Hall and public schools during 14-years with the paper.