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Tuesday, June 1, 1976

Why Teacher Power Had to Happen

Mr. Barger is a corporate public relations executive and writer in Toledo, Ohio.

A cloud that was once the size of a man’s hand has now grown to become a stormy presence engulfing public education throughout the United States.

This new presence is “teacher power,” the political strength of the public teachers’ unions and their allied organizations. John Ryor, president of the National Education Association, calls “teacher power” a term that has grown from a “wistful cliche to an unchallengeable reality” and insists that its uses must include making teachers the “foremost political power in the nation” and seeing to it that teachers “are no longer blocked out of educational decision making.”¹ Two years ago, one of Ryor’s predecessors, Dr. Helen Wise, listed as an NEA goal the election of a “veto-proof Congress” as far as education bills are concerned.² Other teachers’ organization leaders are saying similar things. Meanwhile, state legislators and Congressmen are beginning to feel the heat of teacher power as wielded by the NEA and its rival organization, the American Federation of Teachers.

The initial effects of teacher power are noticeable increases in strikes and other exhibitions of teachers’ militancy and political strength.³ Further down the road, however, it’s likely that teachers’ organizations will completely dominate public education, even to the extent of shaping all curricula and calling the shots on the acceptance or repudiation of any specific educational philosophy. As in any political controversy, this development is seen as “good” by teachers and their allies and called “bad” by many others.

However it’s regarded, “teacher power” is not an isolated development. It was really something that “had to happen” as a result of our system of public education and government interventions in private union-management relationships. The surprising thing is not that teachers have finally begun to exercise political power; rather, it is that it took them so long. From now on, however, the message is indeed clear: teacher power is Mr. Ryor’s unchallengeable reality, and coping with this newly-discovered power is bound to become an awesome problem in almost every community.

To some people, the exercise of teacher power will be viewed as proof that teachers are being greedy and non-professional and “don’t have the interest of the children at heart.” But teachers, now a well-organized pressure group, believe that they have fallen behind other groups and that “professionalism” has been a ploy to keep them from organizing. They are also careful to say that all of their actions, including strikes that close schools, are for the benefit of the children. A few teachers may feel qualms about this new militancy, but more of them are beginning to act and think like union members.

Why did this “have to happen?” Why couldn’t teachers — and other public employees for that matter — be content with the traditional privileges and status of their special kind of employment? Why did they have to launch a bid for power that now looms as a revolutionary movement that may completely change the schools?

There are several reasons why teachers are acquiring so much new muscle. Most of these reasons are rooted in our compulsory system of public education. Public schools, largely with general approval and consent, use several forms of compulsion that tend to “stack the deck” in favor of the producer group (i.e., the teachers) at the expense of the consumers (the taxpaying public, parents, etc.). Compulsory education, harnessed with the compulsory practices of the labor union movement, gives teachers far more bargaining power than the typical craft or industrial union has in dealing with private employers. We must assume that teachers’ organizations will take full advantage of the weapons given to them by the public educational system. At this point, it’s difficult to see how reasonable checks can be made on their future demands. Here are some of the elements of teacher power that will have to be reexamined in the years ahead:

1) Compulsory taxpayers’ support of public schools. The public school has long been a cherished American institution that has been considered to be operated in the public interest. For one thing, it has been generally accepted that a democratic form of government requires citizens to be literate and fairly knowledgeable, and that large numbers of people would be denied education if there were no public schools. Therefore, public education has been the responsibility of the community, and has usually been supported by the property tax.

This system had its drawbacks, and was always a potential threat to individual liberties. However, it also had a number of checks and balances that kept it from becoming tyrannical and wrecking local budgets. For one thing, property owners voted in school millage elections, and were always likely to express their approval (or disapproval) of their schools in this way. At the same time, local school boards could control the schools to a certain extent, and local voters usually had direct access to board members. This wasn’t always fair — indeed, it was often viewed as oppressive by school teachers—but it did serve to maintain a certain balance between community attitudes and the policies of schools.

Parents could still feel that the schools were acting as their surrogates in the classroom. This worked reasonably well, and most older persons will remember that their own parents and teachers possessed similar values and attitudes. Each reinforced the authority of the other, and if you were punished in school, there was a good chance that you might receive further punishment at home. Meanwhile, the school was also expected to perform in “delivering” education. Much is said to deplore the fact that many Americans once attended school only through the eighth grade, but the fact is that such students then possessed reading and writing skills at that level. It is now common knowledge that a high school diploma is no longer proof that does this give them additional one necessarily has a high school level education.

But there was always a hidden weakness in the local tax-supported public school system. This weakness was in its susceptibility to takeover. In order to wrest control away from the community, it was only necessary to change the support base from local to state and Federal. Taxpayers lose voice in school matters when state and Federal boards take charge. Voting on local school millages, on the other hand, still retains some of the aspects of the marketplace, even though it is admittedly a somewhat unsatisfactory governmental program. But effective citizen control is lost when the schools are controlled or directed from state and Federal offices. When that happens, the only way to make individual views known is to organize as a pressure group, and this is too difficult and time-consuming for most parents.

The system is then ready for teacher control, since teachers are already organized as a pressure group and know what they want. Their leaders are well aware of the additional leverage they have in working with state and Federal officials rather than local systems, so they have been the leading advocates of increased state and Federal support of schools. Not only funds to bargain for, it also increases their own control of the school systems and effectively neutralizes the power of parents and local boards.

2) Compulsory attendance. Another weapon of the teachers’ unions is that students are forced to attend schools in most states until they reach certain ages. Again, this compulsion has always been viewed as “good” by most Americans. The fear is always expressed that without compulsory education many children will grow up illiterate. We are apparently supposed to believe that any number of future Albert Einsteins and Jonas Salks would be deprived of ordinary reading and writing skills if we did not have compulsory school attendance laws.

The fact is, of course, that few parents would neglect their children’s education even if attending were not compulsory. Some of them still have to resort to private education, such as tutoring, in order to help their children over serious learning difficulties. Also, compulsory attendance may even hamper the educational process, since it brings in students who do not benefit from the teaching and often disrupt classrooms to such an extent that other students are shortchanged. Compulsory attendance has been vastly oversold as an instrument to advance general educational levels, and some knowledgeable people are beginning to challenge it.

But it’s not likely that teachers’ unions will ever seriously oppose compulsory attendance. It is one of the things that contributes to “teacher power.”

3) Teacher education and certification. You have to be against God and motherhood to oppose the idea of graduate education and intensive certification of teachers, because these programs are supposed to be proof of greater competence and professional skill. This drive for increased education for teachers created a huge network of expensive teacher-training courses across the country, and it has made the “teaching certificate” a condition of employment in many systems.

The rationale for all this training is that individuals become better teachers if they possess graduate degrees and teaching certificates. But one way to learn about the value of these academic credentials is to find out what teachers themselves think of education degrees and courses. In many universities, the graduate education degree is considered much easier to obtain than other types of degrees, and required courses for teachers are jokingly referred to (by teachers) as “monkey courses” or “Mickey Mouse courses.” Upon examination, the system of graduate teacher training actually turns out to be an elaborate device for raising teachers’ pay levels and for excluding others from the teaching field.

By raising educational and certification requirements for teachers, the unions have been given a form of licensing power. We can also predict that teachers’ organizations will soon begin taking steps to limit the number of persons who can enroll in teacher education programs. Another device they are likely to use in controlling entry to the field is to reduce the opportunities for student teachers to obtain the classroom experience that is necessary for preliminary acceptance. In this case, teachers would be borrowing a tactic from the craft unions, which arbitrarily limit the number of apprentices who are permitted to work.

4) Education as a “right.” We should not overlook the influence of the various rights movements in giving teachers more power over the educational system. In recent years, the idea has surfaced that every individual has a right to an education, with society (i.e., government) being obliged to furnish it. Like many of the new “rights,” this one has great potential for harm and can impose backbreaking burdens on the nation. Such rights, like the so-called “right to welfare,” really are privileges or “pseudo-rights” that contain a number of deadly booby traps. Nevertheless, the idea that the individual has a right to an education has gone largely unchallenged, and probably will get further acceptance before it falls into disrepute.

For teachers, the “right to an education” philosophy means endless opportunities to build up their empires and to increase the budget in every school. We will hear teachers making the claim that children are being robbed of their right to an education because of large classroom sizes, lack of teaching aids, aging school buildings, or lack of special teacher training. We may also see the day when every student, regardless of qualifications or motivations, will be entitled to public education through college. This has already become the philosophy in New York City, where the “free” City College has been forced to accept hundreds of near-illiterate students. This may appear to be a farcical and self-defeating action to outsiders, but one must never forget that such a practice has the effect of creating many teaching jobs.

5) Compulsory unionism. Finally, the teachers’ organizations and other public workers’ unions owe much of their muscle to unions in the private sector, which established the precedent for the new militancy and tactics of teachers. Craft and industrial unions acquired unusual power more than 40 years ago with the passage of the Wagner Act, which forced employers to bargain with them and enabled labor organizations to force employees to join unions or pay dues into them. In one stroke, this legislation wiped out a number of natural checks and balances in labor-management relationships and gave unions the power to demand wages and benefits at above-market levels.

The unions were successful in convincing the public that most of their gains were at the expense of employers and could somehow be squeezed out of profits; thus, strikes were always represented as being against certain companies and not against the public. The unions were also able to convince non-unionized workers that they, too, were indirectly benefiting from various labor settlements, despite the fact that union activity had the effect of raising prices and increasing the numbers of workers who were competing for non-unionized employment (hence forcing wages down in that unorganized part of the economy).

Apparently few people, including leading economists, realized that if every worker belonged to a militant union, the result could only be a high level of unemployment, because it would be impossible to give everybody the same pay and benefits of workers in highly skilled trades or in capital intensive industries such as steel and automobiles. Union leaders did nothing to explain such facts, since it has been in their interest to increase their membership in every possible way and to present their mission as a struggle to force management to share swollen profits with the workers.

Meanwhile, teachers and other public employees began to feel that unionized employees in the private sector were moving far ahead of them in pay and benefits. There has been a tradition that public employees should not be permitted to strike, but it is obvious that such laws are not likely to be enforced by vote-conscious public officials. The rapid buildup of Government activity in every field has created vast armies of public employees with common interests and considerable political power.

The same rationale that is used to justify strikes in the private sector can also be used to justify strikes of teachers and other public employees. Other union members, though perhaps personally disturbed when their own teachers and garbage collectors go on strike, cannot really oppose such strikes in principle without undermining their own position. The leaders of craft and industrial unions are in a similar bind; they need the political support of public employees’ unions and must therefore defend the right of public employees to strike.

So it is unrealistic to believe that special laws can be passed or enforced to make teachers and other public employees moderate their demands. The unionization of these groups was really a logical extension both of union growth and of the expansion of government into so many fields. True, it will prove to be somewhat more difficult for public employees to present their case, since they are not bargaining with a private employer who can be accused of making “unconscionable profits.” But with these unions acquiring considerable political power, they don’t have to be overly concerned about such matters.

Where Will It End?

With so many forms of compulsion working in their favor, teachers will undoubtedly attain Mr. Ryor’s goal of becoming the foremost political power in the nation.

There are few countervailing forces that might prevent them from reaching this goal. Most of the efforts to launch private schools and other movements in competition with the governmental educational effort are spotty and are not likely to offer suitable alternatives to the existing system. Teacher power is indeed an unchallengeable reality, largely because power has been placed in the hands of teachers’ organizations and there’s nothing around that can challenge it. Some libertarians have long realized that the educational system was headed in this direction. Writing more than 12 years ago, Leonard Read noted that the teachers were in a good position to seize control of public education:

The government educational effort is a political apparatus and behaves accordingly. The indifference of voters invites special interests to assume command. For instance, if teachers adequately organize, they can easily control the government school system and supplant the voters as the responsibility-authority fountainhead. The deputies, the superintendents, the Board of Education, and the voters become the teachers’ aides, so to speak, helping primarily as taxpayers.

This does not mean, however, that we are about to enter a long night of dictatorship at the hands of teaching professionals. Teacher power is bound to create its own excesses, and the same compulsions that give teachers so much leverage in controlling the educational system are dangerous weaknesses in their program. Some libertarians have always feared that teacher control of the governmental educational system will bring brainwashing and total thought control. The more probable result is that the abuses of teacher power will also tend to discredit government education. As the system comes to be more completely the fiefdom of teachers, the problem of winning public support and cooperation is bound to become acute.

We can also be certain that teachers will be unable to deliver the kind of results that are promised in all their shrill rhetoric about the quality education that is supposed to come about when teachers receive more pay and benefits. Public schools are bedeviled by many problems that are not likely to dissolve no matter how much power teachers possess. We can even predict that teacher pressure to increase expenditures for public schools will tend to demonstrate the limitations of government education. Teachers will either be forced to re-examine their programs or to falsify the results of teaching. In fact, a form of the latter practice is seen in the current policy of issuing diplomas to poorly-educated students.

Still another reaction to teacher power will be the growing disenchantment of liberal intellectuals who have heretofore favored public education. These intellectuals, despite a certain naivete about human nature, believe that educational standards should be high and many of them are becoming critical of public schools and excessive egalitarianism in education. This disenchantment is likely to result in more criticism of public education from unexpected and influential quarters.

Meanwhile, there is certain to be a small but lively market for private education of all kinds in the years ahead, unless compulsion is used to stamp it out. Private education is still alive and well everywhere in the United States. The parochial schools and exclusive private schools are only part of it. There are also thousands of students receiving instruction from tutors, private classes, business schools, trade schools, privately-supported colleges, foundations, correspondence schools, self-improvement courses, apprenticeships… well, you name it. And there’s still a great deal of respect for the grand education that a person can obtain simply through his own reading and conversations with others. Teachers will probably seize enough power to dominate the governmental educational apparatus and the formal schooling program. They are not likely to control the education of people who want to think for themselves. Given the conditions of our times, teacher power had to happen—but its use and abuse is likely to be a sound education for all of us.


1 John Ryor, “The Uses of Teacher Power,” Today’s Education, November-December, 1975, p. 5.

² Reported by Frank Kane in the Toledo Blade, December 16, 1973.

3 See Paul Friggens, “Teachers on the March,” Reader’s Digest, February, 1976, pp. 112-115. In the 1974 elections, 229 of 282 teacher-assisted candidates won in the House of Representatives; in the Senate, 21 of 28.

4 Leonard E. Read, writing on “Academic Freedom,” in Essays on Liberty, Vol. X, (Irvington, N.Y., Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1963), p. 370.



Education in America

Education in America has become a reflection of the insistence that education be a function of government, cost free to participating students, fully financed at taxpayer expense. What originated as local schooling, supported by taxation in the immediate community (and therefore somewhat responsive to local and parental wishes) has inexorably moved toward bureaucratic bigness — the fate of all publicly funded projects.


  • Melvin D. Barger is a retired corporate public relations representative and writer who lives in Toledo, Ohio. He has been a contributor to The Freeman since 1961.