Consider these words of the late Albert Shanker, long-time president of the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s time to admit that public education operates like a planned economy, a bureaucratic system in which everybody’s role is spelled out in advance and there are very few incentives for innovation and productivity. It’s no surprise that our school system doesn’t improve: It more resembles the communist economy than our own market economy.”
It might seem strange that the same man who so accurately described the flaws of government-controlled education could also cavalierly dismiss its victims when he said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.” But as Gregory Moo points out in his book, Power Grab, it only makes sense for the bureaucracy to defend the taxpayer-funded government monopoly on education. “Monopolies that exist under law and receive funding through the taxing authority of governments—without regard to productivity—,” Moo writes, “are breeding grounds for sprawling bureaucracies.” Naturally, they put their own interests first.
Moo, a former school administrator, presents an inside view of how the National Education Association (NEA) has made itself into a “powerful private government.” “When I was a high school principal,” he writes, “I often commented [rhetorically] that the NEA was out of control. But the truth is otherwise.” The NEA is in control, not of just the pay and working conditions of teachers, but also of “curricula, programs, personnel, policies, budgets, and children.”
The tool by which the NEA has seized this power was pioneered by the state of Wisconsin, which in 1959 passed the first law forcing public employees to accept union bargaining authority even if they voted against union representation. Today, 34 states allow NEA officials to impose their monopoly bargaining power over all teachers in the public schools, amounting to nearly two-thirds of all government-school teachers. In 20 of those states, which account for more than half of all public school teachers, from California to Ohio to New York, they can also force teachers to pay union dues as condition of employment.
Moo focuses on the damage done by the witches’ brew of compulsory unionism and government-run education. He has seen firsthand that the NEA union hierarchy “inhibits teachers’ creativity and mischannels precious time and energy that teachers could productively invest in their teaching.” Furthermore, contracts requiring the “maintenance” of working standards, for instance, become roadblocks to changing teacher schedules to accommodate changes in student enrollment, or changing teachers’ room assignments to accommodate changes in class sizes.
Why don’t principals try harder to keep out bad teachers? Moo explains that a recommendation against tenure must usually be defended before the local school board, where the NEA will aggressively attack the principal’s competence, professionalism, and motivation. Evidence of the teacher’s incompetence becomes virtually irrelevant. People who attend these hearings “could only conclude that the principal is on trial . . . .” The NEA’s tactics deter most principals from sticking their necks out. But remember, only teachers pay dues.
What is to be done? Moo refutes half-hearted measures that would merely modify or otherwise “fix” government-sector monopoly bargaining. Instead, he calls for the repeal of state monopoly-bargaining laws and the elimination of mandatory union dues as the best way to establish policies that reward teachers for bringing out the best in students, as opposed to simply paying homage to the union.
With his years of experience as a teacher and administrator, Moo understands the realities of NEA hegemony far better than most other education writers. However, since he writes exclusively from his experience in government schools, it is not surprising that he leaves unquestioned the wisdom of putting government into the education business in the first place. Others, of course, have raised that question. Government institutions are inherently prone to political manipulation, and as necessary as it is to defang the NEA, I hope that something else will not simply take its place.
David Kendrick is the executive director of the National Institute for Labor Relations Reform.