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Wednesday, April 1, 1998

The Teacher Unions by Myron Lieberman

What Will it Take to Remove Teacher Unions' Obstructions to Quality Education?

The Free Press • 1997 • 305 pages • $25.00

Which organization is responsible for doing the greatest long-term damage to the socioeconomic fabric of the United States? There are several obvious contenders for this title, but I would name the nation’s two big teacher unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) as co-champs. They have gone from innocuous professional associations in the early 1960s to powerful, ever-aggressive unions that today promote educational mediocrity (and worse), advance a radically antimarket social agenda, trample upon individual rights, and do it all behind a smokescreen of professed concern for the welfare of children.

Most special-interest groups get their ill-gotten gains from the pockets of adults. That’s bad enough. The teacher unions do make adults pay money, but the principal burden of their jihad against a free market in education falls upon millions of children whose deficient educations handicap them for life. That’s enough to make your blood boil.

In The Teacher Unions, Myron Lieberman has written a detailed exposé of these organizations. A one-time candidate for the presidency of the AFT, Lieberman has spent decades researching and analyzing it and its larger rival, the National Education Association. In his last book, Public Education: An Autopsy, he argued that the rationale for public education is dead. (I contend that it was never alive.) In this book, he strips off the superficially attractive garments of these unions to reveal a hideous body underneath. These are unions at their ugliest: stifling dissent, suppressing competition, engaging in deception, breaking inconvenient laws, grasping for subsidies, and so forth. And because they are unions of government employees, well entrenched in most states, it will be a long time before their days of political dominance are over. The damage will continue.

This book is not a tract against public education. There are several excellent books arguing that the establishment of public education was a monumental blunder. The Teacher Unions is not this sort of work, although you could work backwards from the manifest undesirability of teacher union hegemony to the conclusion that we ought to have kept school and state separate, as the current sorry conditions could not have come about in a free educational marketplace.

What the author does give us is a meticulous, surgical attack on the NEA and AFT. This is no hatchet job. He sets up no straw men, waves no red herrings, engages in no hyperbole. The plain old truth is Lieberman’s scalpel.

Teacher unions, like labor unions generally, are businesses. Their organizers benefit from the sale of their services in representing employees. Any harmony between union interests and the welfare of students is, Lieberman argues, purely coincidental. Moreover, he demonstrates, teacher union policies are often detrimental to many of the teachers they “represent,” because it is inevitable that their collectivistic policies must be harmful to some. Union insistence upon single-salary schedules is a case in point. They adamantly oppose increased pay to attract capable math and science teachers, who frequently have more lucrative nonteaching options. Therefore, the pay of existing math and science teachers is held down, while at the same time depriving students of the possibility of better instruction. (Because of this market interference, math and science classes are sometimes taught by teachers with little or no background in the subjects.)

The most interesting part of the book, to this reviewer, at least, is Lieberman’s analysis of possible tactics to weaken the unions. He suggests, among other things, trying to exploit internal fault lines within them. Toward this end, he proposes that in the states where teacher collective bargaining is mandated or allowed, legislators introduce bills to give teachers the option of choosing Local Only Teacher Unions (LOTUs). A large percentage of union dues goes to support the national union bureaucracy, mainly engaged in politicking. Some teachers would, no doubt, prefer to cut the cost of union representation by opting out of anything but a local union and any reduction in financial resources weakens the unions’ ability to push their agenda. I would only suggest that legislators with real backbone go all the way and allow teachers to opt out of collective bargaining altogether.

The unions regard Myron Lieberman as a Benedict Arnold, but he knows the enemy’s fortifications and it behooves us to pay attention to him. The road to a free market in education is blocked by the teacher unions. Read this book to learn what it will take to remove the obstructions.

  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.