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Monday, July 5, 2010

The Worm in the Apple

Teachers' Unions Are Highly Destructive

Just as a government monopoly in postal service would be a bad idea even in the absence of postal-worker unions, so would “public education” be a bad idea even in the absence of teacher unions. There can be no doubt, however, that the major teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (along with their state and local affiliates), have contributed greatly to the intractable problems of government schooling: it costs far more than market-based education would and is remarkably ineffective. In The Worm in the Apple, journalist Peter Brimelow explores these unions and finds them highly destructive.

State and federal statutes have given labor unions unique powers for private organizations, such as the “right” to represent individuals who do not want their services and to compel employers to bargain with them “in good faith.” In the private sector, however, competition serves as a brake on the ability of unions to obtain compensation in excess of that which would prevail on the free market. When it comes to government employees, however, competition is rarely present. Government operations are usually monopolies and do not have to fear the loss of customers and revenues if costs are high and quality is low. Union bosses milk that situation for all it’s worth, and public education is Exhibit A.

Teacher unions have been able to negotiate outrageously generous contracts with school boards, giving high pay and benefits to competent and incompetent alike. No preference for better teachers (“merit pay”) is allowed. Job security is more heavily armored than an M-1A1 tank. Teacher strikes are usually illegal, but they happen anyway. As a part of the settlement, union officials generally manage to gain an amnesty for all who violated their contracts.

To put the public even further over a barrel, teacher unions are exceedingly adept at politics. Brimelow points out that it is common for the unions to field their own candidates in school-board elections. The support the unions give their candidates through inkind services, such free phone banks, often leads to victory. The voters, taken in with all the rhetoric about the union candidate’s “deep concern for the education of our children,” don’t realize that their pockets are going to be picked.

“Shameless” is the best word to describe the union tactics in their ceaseless attempts to squeeze more money out of the public. Brimelow provides lots of examples. In Jefferson County, Colorado, for instance, the union had its members call parents to lobby for a school-tax increase, using emergency phone numbers given by the students. In Albuquerque, after being subjected in class to “discussions” about the inadequacy of teacher pay, students walked out of school to stage a rally for an increase. Their signs were made from materials taken from the school’s media center. The “protest” got out of hand, and some 200 students went on a disruptive rampage in the city.

Teacher unions, Brimelow notes, are also great supporters of educational fads. One of their favorites is class-size reduction, which appeals to people’s natural desire for the best educational environment for children. Fewer students mean more individual attention, so the kids will learn better! Sadly, that assumption and the belief that students need more individual attention are almost never challenged. So unions usually win on the issue. But Brimelow shows that the consequences are not beneficial. Costs for the extra teachers and additional classrooms rise, while the average quality of teachers is diluted, as more rookies and people who would not formerly have been considered are hired.

Brimelow also shows that the teacher unions have helped along the dumbing down of American schools by pushing for weak books and programs that are easy for their not-too-bright members to use. This is one area where the book might have gone further and explored the unholy alliance between teacher unions and our “education schools,” where future teachers are taught lots of fuzzy, “progressive” notions, such as that self-esteem is much more important than learning “mere facts.”

The Worm in the Apple does a good job of setting forth the problem. What does Brimelow think should be done? He realizes that the Gordian knot-cutting solution is to get government out of the education business. He wants to see “the creation of a free market in education, rather than the current socialist government system.” To get there, we will need to defang the teacher unions, and toward that end he suggests 24 sensible steps.

Brimelow has done his homework. His readable, often witty book shows why we will never have a respectable education system as long as the teacher unions dominate the government’s near-monopoly on K-12 education.

  • 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.