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Monday, July 1, 1996

Teachers Unions: Are the Schools Run for Them?

No Simple Reform Will Break the Power of Teachers' Unions

Public education is the most expensive “gift” that most Americans will ever receive. Government school systems are increasingly coercive and abusive both of parents and students. Government schools in hundreds of cities, towns, and counties have been effectively taken over by unions, and children are increasingly exploited, thwarted, and stymied for the benefit of organized labor.

Government schools are increasingly run by the unions and for the unions. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander observed, “After the post office, schools are the most unionized activity in America. [Teachers unions] collect a lot of money in dues, they are often the largest lobby in the state, they are very, very powerful.” Teachers unions are especially powerful in inner cities, where teacher pay is often highest and teacher performance is usually the worst. Mario Fantini, in his book What’s Best for Children, declared, “For many black and Puerto Rican parents, the teachers unions now represent the ‘enemy.’” Reverend Jesse Jackson has questioned teachers’ “right to strike for more money when the employer–a taxpaying parent– holds tax receipts in one hand and test results in the other that prove he’s paying more and more for less and less.”

Teacher monopoly-bargaining laws (laws that permit unions to claim to represent and speak for all teachers, and to force school boards to deal with unions) in 34 states cover 67 percent of the nation’s teachers. Teachers unions have worked to destroy local control of education, subvert standards, prevent teacher accountability, and deny parents a significant voice in their children’s education. Unions have launched strikes to prevent and restrict “parental interference” in public education. Thanks to a strong union, New York school janitors are paid an average of $57,000 a year, yet are required to mop the schools’ floors only three times a year. As a result, New York City public schools are sometimes filthier than New York City streets.

Teachers unions have long been the most powerful force in education at both state and local levels. Forbes magazine nicknamed the NEA “The National Extortion Association.” An October 11, 1995, Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “The Unions’ Schools” noted:

The next time you’re visiting a state’s Capitol building, scan the neighborhood for a nearby building that’s as big or bigger. There, in the largest, grandest, best-situated office building you’re likely to find one of the most powerful political institutions in the state: the teachers’ union.

The New York Times noted last year that teachers unions have been “for decades the most conspicuous voice in American education.” Teachers unions do not hesitate to use their clout blatantly. The NEA announced a boycott of Florida orange juice after the Florida citrus department advertised on the Rush Limbaugh radio show. As Barbara Phillips reported in the Wall Street Journal in January, the local teachers union in Jersey City, New Jersey, threatened a statewide boycott against Pepsi if PepsiCo did not withdraw from its support of Mayor Bret Schundler’s school voucher proposal. There is no limit to the brazen demands of some unions: the West Virginia teachers union sparked controversy in February by demanding that teachers be permitted to retire at age 50 with full benefits–even though the teacher pension fund was far in hock.

Policy Dictators

Teachers unions are increasingly dictating policy to the schools. The NEA has denounced back-to-basics programs as “irrelevant and reactionary.” The union is the leading advocate of “no-fault” teaching–whatever happens, don’t blame the teacher. The Chicago Tribune concluded in 1988 that the Chicago Teachers Association has “as much control over operations of the public schools as the Chicago Board of Education” and “more control than is available to principals, parents, taxpayers, and voters.” The Tribune noted that “even curriculum matters, such as the program for teaching children to read, are written into the [union] contract, requiring the board to bring any proposed changes to the bargaining table.”

As Richard Mitchell noted in his classic The Graves of Academe, the NEA has played a crucial role in mentally debasing American public schools. In 1918 it authored a federal government report known as “Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education.” Mitchell summarized the principles:

It is a thematic illusion of our educational enterprise that understanding can be had without knowledge, that the discretion can be informed without information, that judgment need not wait on evidence. . . . The self-interest of a massive educationists’ trade union is evident on every page of Cardinal Principles. . . . They wanted to be not teachers but preachers, and prophets too, charging themselves with the cure of the soul of democracy and the raising up in the faith of true believers.

In 1971 the NEA issued a “Call to Action” that renewed its commitment to the Cardinal Principles. It declared, “We have overemphasized the intellectual development of students at the expense of other capacities.” Thanks to the NEA’s success in rewriting school curricula, student knowledge of history has nose-dived, student reading and comprehension have plummeted, and college remedial classes have thrived.

“Solidarity Forever”

Teachers unions have sometimes blatantly sought to manipulate what children are taught in order to inculcate pro-union attitudes. In the late 1970s the Miami affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers sent out a bulletin urging music teachers to “order music such as ‘Solidarity Forever,’” English teachers to “incorporate short stories, novels, poems, and films depicting labor struggles and conflicts,” and math teachers to “use labor and management as specific examples in problems.” But, of course, the union members were objective in their class discussions.

Teachers unions blatantly exploit their power over school children. In Montgomery County, Maryland, union teachers refused to write letters of recommendations to colleges for students unless the students first wrote to the county council urging an increase in government spending for education (and, naturally, higher salaries for teachers). One high school senior told The Washington Post, “The consensus among students seems to be it may be blackmail, but students are going to go along with it anyway.”

In California in 1991, teachers required students to write to state legislators demanding more money for education. The tactic backfired because numerous letters contained threats of physical violence against the legislators.

At Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., teachers gave parents a formal notice that they would not write letters of recommendation for students unless parents wrote three letters demanding higher pay for teachers: “Please submit to each teacher from whom your child is requesting a college recommendation your letters to your city council member, the superintendent and your school board member along with three addressed and stamped envelopes.” Parents thus had to grovel in front of a teacher–to surrender their right to their own opinion on public education policy–in order for their children to receive consideration from the teachers.

Teachers have stronger legal rights to tax dollars than the taxpayers have to a quality education for their children. School systems face vastly more repercussions from firing an incompetent teacher than from totally neglecting school children. In 1988, the Chicago Tribune reported:

All 22 students in Grace Currin’s 4th grade class must attend summer school this year because, their principal says, Currin did not teach the children enough to pass to the next grade. Dyanne Dandridge-Alexander, principal at [Chicago’s] Spencer Elementary School: “Those children have suffered because they have a totally inept teacher that no one has been able to fire.”

A 1992 Detroit Free Press investigation entitled “Shielding Bad Teachers” concluded that it takes a school district seven years and costs an average of $100,000 to fire a single incompetent public school teacher. Seven years is over half of the schooling time of the average pupil. The Free Press concluded, “No protections are built in for the state’s 1.5 million public school students, who can suffer physical, sexual or educational abuse.” The American Association of School Administrators conducted an audit of District of Columbia public schools and concluded that an “astonishingly low” number of teachers receive unsatisfactory ratings and that it is “nearly impossible” to fire bad teachers.

Potent Political Power

Many politicians have claimed that the problems of public education can be resolved by rigorous new teacher evaluation programs. But teachers unions often politically dominate state legislatures, and the legislators protect the teachers against their own incompetence. In 1991 the Louisiana legislature voted to suspend teacher evaluations for one year. That evaluation had originally been introduced as part of a joint package with large pay raises for teachers; after the legislature enacted the pay raises, the teachers unions then launched a successful attack on the evaluation program.

Homeschooling is one of the fastest growing triumphs in family rights in the country. Naturally, teachers unions have been fiercely opposed to permitting parents to teach their own children to read and write. Annette Cootes of the Texas State Teachers Association declared that “homeschooling is a form of child abuse.” The NEA annually passes resolutions calling for a de facto ban on homeschooling.

One measure of the coerciveness of the government school monopoly is the percentage of parents who would remove their kids from government schools if they could. If Americans could choose–if they had not already paid for public education through taxes–there would likely be a wholesale exodus from government schools in many cities. A 1992 poll of black residents of Milwaukee revealed that 83 percent favored a voucher system that would allow parents to choose their children’s school. A 1991 Gallup poll found that 71 percent of people 18 to 29 favored educational vouchers and 62 percent of people 30 to 39 favored vouchers. The Gallup survey found that “by a 10-to-1 margin, respondents said private schools do a better job of . . . giving students individual attention and maintaining discipline.”

Teachers unions and school officials have repeatedly sabotaged parents’ efforts to defect from the public school monopoly. In 1992 in California, a coalition sought to put on the state ballot a proposal to provide a $2,500 state scholarship to children attending private schools. (Since the state of California was then spending over $6,000 per public school student, taxpayers would save over $3,000 for each additional student transferring from public to private schools). Though organizers got almost one million signatures to put the measure on the ballot, the effort was bushwhacked by the California Teachers Association and public school officials. Teachers at El Camino Real Elementary School in Irvine gave students oversized checks stamped with the word “fraud” in their campaign to thwart the measure.

As economist Thomas Sowell noted, “The Los Angeles Unified School District has used its taxpayer provided cable television channel to propagandize against allowing the public to vote in November on an initiative to permit school choice. Los Angeles school board member Julie Korenstein warned that allowing parents to choose between public and private schools would ‘end up with bigotry and ultimately with a fascist type of society.’” Del Weber of the California Teachers Association declared, “There are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters.”

Squads of teachers traveled around the state to surround the petitioners and prevent people from signing the petition. Many teachers signed the petitions numerous times knowing that the state government would nullify hundreds of thousands of valid signatures as a penalty against duplicate signatures. Conny McCormack, San Diego’s registrar of voters, concluded: “This is an unprecedented case of intentional fraud.”

The power of the teachers unions is one of the best reasons to pursue the separation of school and state. There is no simple reform, no fancy political trick that will break the power of the teachers unions over the day-to-day activities of public schools. Given the realities of campaign contributions and organized greed, it will always be easier for teachers unions to exploit the education system for their own benefit than for parents to fight the eternal bureaucratic and political wars necessary to protect their children.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.