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A World Without Teacher Unions?

by Richard D. Kahlenberg

For many, Labor Day marks the end of summer and a time to return to school; others see it as a day to contemplate the role of trade unions in American society. For one group in America -- leaders and members of teacher unions-- it represents both, but this Labor Day, they have little to celebrate.

Teacher unions are widely seen as disastrous for education. The attacks predictably come from conservatives, but they also come from some liberals and moderates. Earlier this year, for example, Apple's Steve Jobs declared at an education reform conference: "I believe that what's wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way." Jobs was particularly angry that unions sometimes stop bad teachers from being fired. "This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy," he concluded to enthusiastic applause from the audience. So it seems worth asking: what would life be like without teacher unions?

In the 1950s, prior to when Albert Shanker and other New York City teachers forged the modern teacher union movement, teachers engaged in "collective begging" rather than collective bargaining. They were poorly paid (making less than people who washed cars), forced to eat lunch while supervising students, and told to bring a doctor's note when they were out sick. Collective bargaining increased wages, attracting higher-caliber candidates. Unions also pushed for reduced class size and better discipline policies, which most studies find help students learn better. While many teachers initially feared that joining a union was "unprofessional," most became in fact convinced that lack of voice contributed to their degrading treatment.

Teacher union power did come with a downside: some union contracts have made it virtually impossible to fire incompetent teachers; and some unions have been resistant to efforts to reward superior teachers, or to impose teacher accountability measures, such as those contained in the No Child Left Behind Act. But innovative leaders like Shanker, the legendary president of the American Federation of Teachers from 1974-1997, formulated cogent answers to these criticisms. Responding to the charge that unions protect incompetent teachers, Shanker admitted that some teachers were lousy and backed a controversial "peer review" plan in which master teachers evaluate incoming and veteran teachers, weeding out those not up to the job.

Likewise, Shanker forged a compromise on the divisive "merit pay" issue, proposing what would become the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which allows for greater pay for highly accomplished, board-certified teachers. He also proposed a "merit schools" plan to reward teachers in a school collectively for raising student test scores.

While teacher unions sometimes oppose teacher accountability, Shanker was widely seen as the single strongest backer of the standards and accountability movement, though he insisted that the program hold students as well as teachers accountable. Telling students that if they failed, their teachers would be punished, was not a smart strategy, Shanker argued.

Of course, too many teacher unions have failed to follow Shanker's lead on those important issues and have put their own interests before those of kids. But abolishing unions would hardly catapult the interest of students to the top. Instead, it would increase the power of other adults in the system -- superintendents, who sometimes jettison promising educational programs for which they cannot personally take credit; principals, who sometimes are lax on discipline because they don't want their suspension numbers to look bad; and parents, who usually look out for the interests of their own children rather than what's good for all kids.

The other big winners would be supporters of privatized education, and opponents of the American labor movement. No single organization is as responsible for the defense of public education in the United States as teacher unions. Other groups oppose private school vouchers, but only teacher unions have the political muscle and organizational and strategic capacity to beat back privatization plans. Likewise, the death of teacher unions would snuff out one of the few bright spots in an otherwise desperate landscape for the American labor movement.

It's understandable that right-wingers would oppose teacher unions. But for those who see public education as an indispensable democratic institution, crucial to promoting economic mobility and social cohesion, a world without teacher unions would be grim. Likewise, for those who recognize unions not merely as economic actors but as institutions designed to democratize capitalism, provide a voice to workers in their occupation, and counter the strong influence of corporations in politics, the survival of teacher unions is critical.

As Shanker himself once observed, "conservatives want to kill us because essentially we form the strongest liberal base in the country... But the liberals don't realize who their friends are." Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of the recently released book Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy.

© 2007 The American Prospect

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