unions have more influence over the public schools than
any other group in American society. They influence
schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining
activities that shape virtually every aspect of school
organization. And they influence schools from the top
down, through political activities that shape government
policy. They are the 800-pound gorillas of public
education. Yet the American public is largely unaware of
how influential they areand how much they impede
efforts to improve public schools.
To appreciate why this is so, consider the parallel to business firms. No one claims that these organizations are in business to promote the public interest. They are in business to make money, and this is the fundamental interest that drives their behavior. Thus, economists and policy makers fully expect firms to pollute the water and air when polluting is less costly (and more profitable) than not pollutingand that is why we have laws against pollution. The problem is not that firms are out to destroy the environment. The problem is simply that their interests are not identical to the public interest, and the two inevitably come into conflict.
Teachers unions have to be understood in much the same way. Their behavior is driven by fundamental interests too, except that their interests have to do with the jobs, working conditions, and material well-being of teachers. When unions negotiate with school boards, these are the interests they pursue, not those of the children who are supposed to be getting educated.
The resulting contracts often run to more than 100 pages, and are filled with provisions for higher wages, fantastic health benefits and retirement packages, generous time off, total job security, teacher transfer and assignment rights, restrictions on how teachers can be evaluated, restrictions on nonclassroom duties, and countless other rules that shackle the discretion of administrators. These contracts make the schools costly to run, heavily bureaucratic, and extremely difficult for administrators to manage. They also ensure that even the most incompetent teachers are virtually impossible to remove from the classroom. The organization of schools, as a result, is not even remotely the kind of organization one would design if the best interests of children were the guiding criterion.
Exactly the same can be said about the design of government education policy, which is tilted toward teacher interests through the unions exercise of political power. The sources of their power are not difficult to discern. With three million members, they control huge amounts of money that can be handed out in campaign contributions. More important, they have members in every political district in the country, and can field armies of activists who make phone calls, ring doorbells and do whatever else is necessary to elect friends and defeat enemies. No other interest group in the country can match their political arsenal. It is not surprising, then, that politicians at all levels of government are acutely sensitive to what the teachers unions want. This is especially true of Democrats, most of whom are their reliable allies.
When the teachers unions want government to act, the reforms they demand are invariably in their own interests: more spending, higher salaries, smaller classes, more professional development, and so on. There is no evidence that any of these is an important determinant of student learning. What the unions want above all else, however, is to block reforms that seriously threaten their interestsand these reforms, not coincidentally, are attempts to bring about fundamental changes in the system that would significantly improve student learning.
The unions are opposed to No Child Left Behind, for example, and indeed to all serious forms of school accountability, because they do not want teachers jobs or pay to depend on their performance. They are opposed to school choicecharter schools and vouchersbecause they dont want students or money to leave any of the schools where their members work. They are opposed to the systematic testing of veteran teachers for competence in their subjects, because they know that some portion would fail and lose their jobs. And so it goes. If the unions cant kill these threatening reforms outright, they work behind the scenes to make them as ineffective as possibleresulting in accountability systems with no teeth, choice systems with little choice, and tests that anyone can pass.
If we really want to improve schools, something has to be done about the teachers unions. The idea that an enlightened reform unionism will somehow emerge that voluntarily puts the interests of children firstan idea in vogue among union apologistsis nothing more than a pipe dream. The unions are what they are. They have fundamental, job-related interests that are very real, and are the raison dÍtre of their organizations. These interests drive their behavior, and this is not going to change. Ever.
teachers unions wont voluntarily give up their
power, then it has to be taken away from themthrough
new laws that, among other things, drastically limit (or
prohibit) collective bargaining in public education, link
teachers pay to their performance, make it easy to
get rid of mediocre teachers, give administrators control
over the assignment of teachers to schools and
classrooms, and prohibit unions from spending a members
dues on political activities unless that member gives
explicit prior consent.
(c) 2005 Wall Street Journal, reprinted
with permission from the WSJ and Terry Moe. Mr. Moe, a
senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the
Koret Task Force on K-12 Education, and a professor of
political science at Stanford, is the winner of this years
Thomas B. Fordham Prize for distinguished scholarship in
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