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Teacher Unions and School Reform
By David W. Kirkpatrick (October 23, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         When it comes to reforming the schools, the major obstacle for decades has been, and will continue to be, the opposition of the two major teacher unions - the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).  Irving Kristol succinctly summarized the problem back in 1994, with his First Law of Education Reform: "Any reform that is acceptable to the educational establishment, and that can gain a majority in a legislature, federal or state, is bound to be worse than nothing."
 
         True then.  True now.
 
         A proposed change doesn't even have to be demonstrably threatening.  Anything different seems to be incomprehensible, unacceptable, or a threat to union leaders, and they oppose it. If their opposition begins to fail, as it has been doing with the passage of charter school laws for example, they then begin to accept it rhetorically while in actuality trying to have "killer" amendments put in place so the new law will be ineffective.
 
         Finally, if all else fails, they will do their best to sabotage any project which shows promise.  If successful in so doing, they can, and will, then say, "See.  We told you.  It doesn't work."
 
         The pity is that they really don't know what to do themselves.  As a former longtime union activist and leader myself, I recall being present at a union conference where the presiding officer, the president of that union, dared to say that "Our schools are in trouble and we don't know what to do about it."  That was such a rare, honest, and startling admission that I wrote it down and then waited for the official proceedings to be printed, since they were claimed to be a verbatim account of what was said.  His remarks appeared, but that statement was not among them.
 
         It's not clear whether or not he had second thoughts or if, as is entirely possible, some staffer decided to do a little judicial editing.
 
         In any event, I suggested some years ago that if unions know what to do why don't they operate schools as demonstration  models. I particularly noted that not only would it not take much of their billion dollar plus total annual dues income, it wouldn't need to take any all.  They could sign a contract with a school district, as some private sources have begun to do, or take advantage of one of the nation's many charter school laws and open schools with public dollars that are available.
 
         In fairness, it needs to be noted that a few such efforts have been made along this line.  Unfortunately for the NEA its attacks on the concept of charter schools and various charter school laws as they came along, so poisoned the sentiments of its membership that its efforts ran into serious opposition from those it supposedly represents.
 
         The AFT has been more sophisticated in its pretense to support some reforms in the abstract.  Its late president Al Shanker had some kind words to say about charter schools while they were still rarely seen in practice. Their tentative steps to actually operate charter schools, as in New York City, have been limited in number or success.
 
         That should have been anticipated.  As Robert Braun wrote in his study of the AFT, Teachers and Power, "[They lack the] imagination to offer any real alternative.  If [they] were to assume ful control of all aspects of public education...nothing much would change–except perhaps that you would have even less, perhaps nothing, to say about the direction of the school to which you send your children and your tax dollar.  Politically, intellectually, socially and educationally [they are] bankrupt."
 
         The NEA is no better, and arguably worse.  Two former Executive Directors of NEA state affiliates - John Lloyd of Kansas-NEA and Billy Boyton of Nebraska-NEA - joined together in saying, "The NEA has been the single biggest obstacle to educational reform in this country.  We know because we worked for the NEA."
 
         Which is not to say that the two unions are all-powerful and school reform efforts are hopeless.  Neither is true.  But it does at least partially explain why school reform is so difficult.

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         "If education were a business...We would shut it down and refuse to send our kids there." Michael Marks, President of the Mississippi Association of Educators, an NEA state affiliate, cited in EIA Communique, an Education Intelligence Agency email, April 27, 1998

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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Douglassville, Pennsylvania 19518-9240
Phone: (610) 689-0633

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