Teacher unions, part 2: a perversion of democracy?

This year might be known as après moi le deluge for teacher unions. Tenure laws are being rewritten, teacher evaluations are more likely to include student performance, and, in 2012’s ‘Wow' moment, the National Education Association, the nation’s oldest and largest teacher union, announced that it had lost 100,000 members in just the last two years. This surely doesn’t signal the end of teacher unions (keep an eye on Chicago), but the age of arrogance, I hope, is on the wane.

Why am I rooting for teacher unions’ decline?

Why am I rooting for teacher unions’ decline? Because, as I suggested in my last post, their dominance in school governance these last several decades has not seemed to work—for the students, the taxpayer, or the country. But even if our schools were working, we would need to be wary of union power because it violates some basic democratic principles; towit, free association and free speech. 

One of my objectives as a member of a school board—a not-so-hidden agenda, if you will—was to help create an environment where it was safe to discuss how to improve our schools, how to get our kids a better education. This was premised on a belief that debate and discussion are good and lead to better outcomes. At minimum, I assumed that, from a policy and governance perspective, two heads were better than one and that an engaged community would be more apt to deliver a good education than an unengaged (and uninformed) one.

Generally, America has shown the world that open dialogue and debate produces better results.  But if you sever the connection between the dialogue and the result (the vote), you have sabotaged the system. Public schools in the United States were built around thousands of these free associations, small local school districts making their own decisions—New York State had 10,000 school districts at the turn of the last century—and it surely could be argued that those many independent organizations combined to create the world’s best education system, if not the economic powerhouse that won World War II and that has dominated international relations for the last seventy years.

That has all changed. Not only is our economic supremacy waning, but our education system is now a middling competitor among industrialized nations. Coincidence? The evidence suggests that the principles of free association and free speech have become quite perverted, especially in our public school systems.  Power has been profoundly concentrated; there are now only 704 school districts in New York state. That concentration has lead to the rise of powerful interest groups, including teachers unions, which lobby Congress and State Legislatures – not school boards. As I pointed out in that last post (about teacher unions), I chaired a task force on school improvement that was sabotaged by our teachers union—but who elected them? I have also written about the three-to-one defeat of a school budget, a vote that was overruled by the board of education because of a state law—a law written by and for teachers. Taxation without representation? It used to be that dialogue and debate was the prelude to action; no longer.  We wonder why voter turnout is so low.

If you need convincing that the accretion of special interests in our public-school-governance world has distorted that system’s free-association and free-speech principles, you haven’t read Terry Moe’s Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. Sure, there are plenty of special interests in our polity, but few match the power of teacher unions, as Michael Mishak so vividly demonstrated in his Los Angeles Times about the California Teachers Association. In fact, in  my last post I forgot to mention that that the Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci, who trumpeted Mishak’s story, had pointed out that,

I dug through an old file box and found a lengthy report I wrote for the Claremont Institute back in October 1994 - long before I created the Education Intelligence Agency. It was part of a series the organization had commissioned called "The California Teachers Association: Power Politics vs. Education Reform." My contribution was a 25-page briefing titled "The Shadow Legislature."

In other words, twenty-five years later, if Mishak is to be believed, nothing much has changed in the Golden State. It is a real concern, especially if that is how it works elsewhere.

We need to wonder whether public-sector unions, by their very nature, aren’t a perversion of our democracy.

At bottom, we need to wonder whether public-sector unions, by their very nature, aren’t a perversion of our democracy: Should such unions be allowed to give money to their bosses—the legislators who write the laws that give them their privileges—and their salaries? After all, the teachers unions are private, the public does not vote on their leadership, and it has no say in their consideration of “good” and “bad” issues; nor does it (for all practical purposes) regulate them. From a special-interest perspective, teachers unions have no more right to intrude on our public schools than, say, the American Gas Association does. But by allowing public school teachers to “organize,” to pool their money, and to lobby their legislators with wheelbarrows of cash—well, is it any wonder that we have laws guaranteeing lifetime employment and salary increases even after the expiration of a contract?

None of this is to say that there aren’t schools and school districts that have reached accommodations with unions that help students. But they are the exceptions, it would seem, that prove a rather uncomfortable rule: that teacher unions exist to represent teachers. The question is, Will accommodation be enough?

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