United we stand; divided we unionize?

In an effort to engender educated conversation, the Opinion staff will debate pressing election topics.  Future debate topic idea?  Email Zach Brown at zbrown@samford.edu.

Positions are determined by coin-flip.  Stated opinions may not necessarily reflect an individual columnist’s view, but are crafted for rhetorical exercise.

Do teachers’ unions make public education better or more effective?

To see Taylor Burgess’ response to this question, click here.


United we stand; divided we unionize?

By Adam Quinn

In the 2010 documentary Waiting for Superman, director Davis Guggenheim comprehensively lambasts the current American public education system. Among his many targets, including President George W. Bush’s 2001 “No Child Left Behind” Act, Guggenheim zeroes in on teachers’ unions as the cause of the national education crisis.

Once a universally recognized model for education, the United States is now ranked 25th in math, 17th in science, and 14th in reading worldwide according to the Program for International Student Assessment in 2009. Obviously, teachers’ unions are not the sole cause of this decline; the problems facing the American public education system are wide-ranging and complex. However, teachers’ unions can be held responsible for blocking many potentially beneficial reforms and continuing to protect outdated or harmful methods of teaching, such as tenure, that make the American public education system less effective.

Teachers’ unions, like all modern labor unions, were formed in reaction to the abuses of unrestricted free trade during the Industrial Revolution. Teachers’ unions existed in several states before they were united under the National Teachers Association in 1857. These unions vocally supported women’s suffrage and opposed racial segregation, but did not gain political power until a series of collective bargaining laws were passed in the 1960s.

Now, the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, has been consistently ranked in the top 15 of Fortune’s Washington Power 25 of the most politically influential organizations in the U.S. Not only do they have significant lobbying power, but the National Education Association is both the largest professional organization and the largest labor union in the country.

The debate surrounding teacher’s unions centers on the issue of tenure. NPR notes that “the debate over fixing our public schools focuses more and more on teachers: how to keep the good ones and get rid of the bad ones.”

While teachers’ unions do not dictate national education policy, they do have substantial power in deciding which reforms get passed. The National Education Association has blocked tenure reforms for years because they conflict with member interest. But do tenure reforms really harm teachers’ unions?

Tenure itself is not a bad system. It was originally designed as a due process guarantee, protecting good teachers from being fired for the wrong reasons. At the same time, Waiting for Superman points out that only one in every thousand teachers is fired for incompetence, while one in every 57 doctors loses his or her medical license for malpractice. Clearly, there are more than .01 percent incompetent teachers in our school system, but the tenure system, backed by teachers’ unions, has made them practically impossible to fire.

From the union perspective, they are protecting the interests of their members. But if they are simultaneously harming the public education system, they may be causing themselves more harm than good.

Because teachers’ unions are funded primarily by member dues, their main concern is keeping or gaining the dues of unionized teachers. As a result, they primarily support legislation that offers more money to pay more teachers (to pay more dues to teachers’ unions). While it is ridiculous to claim that teachers’ unions are intentionally plotting the downfall of the public education system on which they depend, they need to think long and hard about whether protecting good teachers from being fired for the wrong reasons is worth preventing bad teachers from being fired for the right reasons.

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