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Why I Support Teachers Unions

Eric Kain | September 28, 2011 | |

Teachers’ unions are often portrayed by their opponents as standing in the way of efforts to reform our schools. Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing.

In Wisconsin in February of 2011, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the capital, Madison, to protest an extreme union-busting bill aimed at reducing the power of that state’s teacher unions. Ultimately those protests failed, but they were a remarkable display of worker solidarity and middle class organizing. Largely, this was because they involved teachers who remain one of the best organized workforces in the country.

More recently, in Tacoma, Washington teachers went on strike in order to secure slightly smaller class sizes and rebuke a pay cut aimed at closing a shortfall in the district budget. The strike ended recently, with both sides getting some of what they wanted.

I’ve wrestled a great deal with the question of organized labor, especially in the realm of public education. There’s a strong contingent on the right and the left that believes that essentially all of the flaws in our public school system stem from a combination of government inefficiency and union recalcitrance. Some people in the reform movement believe that the only way to affect reform is to sidestep or abolish teachers unions.

Many left-leaning school reformers believe this largely as a last resort. These are typically liberals who believe in public education but have become frustrated with what they see as union resistance to much-needed reforms. There is no doubt that unions oppose many reforms. The question is, should they? Much of the time, I think they should.

Many right-leaning reformers, and some liberals as well, are simply in the business of union-busting, seeking to dismantle a powerful political opponent while ushering for-profit schools in through the side door, and handing out lucrative contracts to political allies in the private sector. For a good example of this second camp, go to Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Or follow Michelle Rhee around the country – to Florida, Nevada, or wherever she is voicing her support for union-busting at the moment.

Right or left, this is essentially the neoliberal approach to school reform. Technocratic, choice-based, with a troubling dose of private, for-profit groups thrown into to the mix. Mayor Bloomberg’s New York schools are a perfect example of technocratic, anti-democratic leadership at the top, coupled with private contractors, high-stakes testing companies, and union-busting advocacy groups working from the ground up.

The Unreliable Promise of School Reform

Of course, the word “reform” when juxtaposed with “education” is not in and of itself a bad thing. I believe that some ideas in the school reform movement have potential. There is a real chance that experimenting with how schooling is delivered could have some real benefits.

If we can find ways to deliver education to the most underserved communities in this country, that alone would be a huge step forward. And as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t find every argument on the “anti-reform” side all that compelling either. Nobody is on the side of angels all the time.

Then again, a good charter school is more like a band-aid than it is a structural fix. Worse, some charters could serve as Trojan horses, chartered with the best of intentions, but then funded by donors with an anti-union agenda, and paraded in the media as reformer avatars.

A lot of money goes into these schools – quite a lot more than was being funneled from private coffers into the traditional public schools. This says nothing about the people running these schools who are more than likely doing it for the right reasons, but why have these very deep pockets suddenly opened up not to traditional public schools but to the charter school movement? Surely there’s a reason.

Nor do all school choice efforts live up to their promises. Vouchers have been met not only with public disappointment, but with few if any real benefits. Most charters haven’t fared much better. And for-profit schools come packaged with all sorts of other troubling implications for the future of our public – or should I say “public” – education system. Do we want to transform our elementary and high schools into little dopplegangers of College of America or the University of Phoenix?

Other ideas are equally repellent, such as high-stakes testing which seeks, in spite of claims to the contrary, to boil down education to learning by rote. When technocrats and businessmen take over the hard work of designing a system of education is it surprising that the result is a complex labyrinth of testing testing schemes aimed at only those subjects that can be measured, quantified, and pasted into spreadsheets? Is it any wonder that professionals who care about education might see this as a threat?

Teacher Buy-In is Necessary for Sustainable Reform

If I could wave a magic wand I would graft Finland’s model of public education onto our own. And yes, I realize that even drawing close to Finland’s educational successes will take far more than any magic wand could provide.

One problem we face is that our reform movement has become defined by a very specific, narrow set of ideas: choice and testing and tinkering with teacher compensation and benefits. Very little attention has been paid to curriculum, infrastructure, or equitable school funding.

Most importantly, the very, very hard work of education reform will require teachers if we want it to succeed, whereas the current crop of reformers is intent on bypassing the teachers and especially the teachers’ unions. There are not many advocates for our public education system or for the welfare of children who have the organizational structure and commitment that America’s teachers have.

Parents are the only comparable demographic but they are fragmented and are often only temporary activists. No other group comes close.

Big charities, foundations, and other reform groups can leave the field at any time. They have no vested interest save their own interest, for better or worse.

The National Education Association, or NEA, was founded as a professional association of educators in 1857 and evolved into the largest teachers union in the country. The American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, was founded decades later in 1916 and is affiliated with the AFL-CIO. Both organizations have worked to improve school conditions both for teachers and students for decades. This is important to think about. They are not newcomers to the field. They’ve had their hands deep in the dirt for much of the history of public education.

Yes, we hear stories of unions and union members behaving badly, and these stories will be forever regurgitated to prove that the institutions themselves are to blame. What institution is exempt from this critique? What group of people does not have such members?

A sustained effort to improve and reform our schools will not only require the commitment of the labor force in the here and now, it will require the long-term commitment of teachers both in the field now and those who will come later. Some portions of our education system may need to be reformed, this is very true. Reform should never stop. Progress doesn’t magically happen whilst we twiddle our collective thumbs. But without teacher buy-in no reforms will stick.

Furthermore, without the participation of teachers in the reform process, we risk sacrificing . An even lower-paid teaching force, with fewer benefits and less job security, is what the neoliberal approach to education reform actually offers. It’s not what’s promised: reformers often honestly want to make a grand bargain between job security and teacher pay, offering more of the latter for less of the former. But we know how these things work. Once they take away job security and collective bargaining rights, what’s to stop them from taking away pay, benefits, and everything else?

Democracy in Education

The teachers unions are not always right. No group is. But they represent a democratic approach to our public education system, and if we push them out and usher in an age of for-profit online schools, cheaper labor, and funnel all those saved tax dollars back in the pockets of the wealthiest Americans, we may as well kiss our public schools goodbye.

I support teachers unions not because they are a model of efficiency or because they are always right or because I think there is no need for reform – I believe that the unions can be inefficient, they can be wrongheaded, they can oppose change unnecessarily.

No, I support teachers unions because they are the best chance this country has to improve and strengthen public education for the long haul. No other organization will step in to protect teachers from political blowback and the reform-trend-of-the-moment. The Gates Foundation may have its heart in the right place, but the big foundations can’t protect teachers from slashed budgets or political retribution. Charity-propelled education reform may very well be a sincere effort, but in the process its leaders have offered up a lot of bad choices for teachers. Too often charity reform translates into little more than corporate reform.

Teachers are on the front lines of the fight to keep America’s egalitarian system of public education public. Faux privatization schemes and for-profit schools threaten to undermine the system itself in the name of choice. But what about democracy? What about a system built around the ethic of society rather than that of the individual?

Certainly our public school system could be better. Nobody is suggesting otherwise. Maybe there are radical ideas out there that really would work if given the chance, and I do support experimentation which was the original purpose of charter schools. Let’s keep trying things. Let’s keep experimenting, innovating, and learning from our mistakes. But let’s not do this on the backs of our teaching workforce without bothering to include them in the process.

Teachers are one of the last bastions of workplace democracy left in the country, and once they’re out of the picture anything goes. Including public education.

Even if you believe that public education itself is wrong and would prefer a voluntary education system, or a system of teacher/parent cooperatives, or an entirely private or voucher-based system, you still need teachers. In any of these systems teachers should still have the right to form a union, to bargain and negotiate for wages and working conditions, and to find voice and agency in the in the loud cacophony of common cause.

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