Teacher unions: “pigs at the trough” or victims of their own success?

When I entered the education reform movement, as a parent and member of the school board, a dozen or so years ago, it didn’t take long to realize that teachers were the tip of a very long spear: The public faces of a hugely complicated (and from what I could see, ineffectual) system. A million (it seemed) rules and regulations, another million (it seemed) interest groups. But it also didn’t take long to understand that most of the rules and regulations (the ones that counted) either came from or favored the teacher union and the most important interest group was also the teacher union.

Teachers are the public faces of a hugely complicated system.

The point was made clear to me (there’s that spear) when I chaired a district task force on student academic performance. About the second or third meeting of the group, which included parents, community members, teachers, and administrators, a teacher interrupted someone suggesting a longer school day. “We can’t talk about that—that’s a negotiated item,” he said. Before that meeting was done, we had touched the “negotiated item” button several more times. I finally informed the teacher that there was nothing the task force couldn’t discuss and he was out of order; he never returned, nor did the other teachers who had signed on to the committee. The administrators stopped coming as well. The rest of us forged on, produced a report with fifty different improvement recommendations, and presented it to the board, where it has languished, undiscussed, for over a year.

Life in the trenches

I was recalling these events as I read Michael Mishak’s recent jaw-dropping Los Angeles Times story about the California Teachers Association (CTA). Though I live in New York, it sounds eerily familiar. Mishak’s piece paints a rather graphic portrait of what one former California state legislator described as “the co-equal fourth branch of government.” Writes Mishak,

Backed by an army of 325,000 teachers and a war chest as sizable as those of the major political parties, CTA can make or break all sorts of deals. It holds sway over Democrats, labor's traditional ally, and Republicans alike.

Some of what we learn from Mishak is astonishing:

  • The CTA spent more on lobbying than any other special interest group, including major corporations, more than $250 million during the last decade alone;
  • The CTA lobbied, successfully, to amend the state’s Constitution in the mid-1980s, guaranteeing that public schools received at least 40 percent of the state’s general fund budget;
  • California teachers, thanks to the CTA, enjoy “one of the shortest probationary periods in the country—lifetime tenure after two years in the classroom”;

Mishak tells some hair-raising stories about politicians who tried to take on the CTA, including a former actor (not named Reagan), whose “political scalp hangs in the fifth-floor conference room of the union's Sacramento headquarters: a framed parody of Schwarzenegger as `True Liar’ (a play on one of his movie titles) complete with a Pinocchio nose.”

It is hard-nosed political hardball. Mishak quotes CTA president Dean Vogel telling a group of his members:

“You know why people are so afraid of us? We are in every single community in this state," he told the crowd. "You cannot walk into a church in California without a CTA member being in that congregation. You can't sit at a soccer game without sitting near a CTA member. Try to be in a Safeway somewhere without a CTA member there.”

That’s scary.

The good news is that Mishak’s report can be read while mulling the meaning of two other great recent reports about teachers and unions; those from Frank Bruni and Al Baker in the New York Times. In a front page story on Saturday, Baker describes a historic shift in teacher tenure statistics in New York City: Fifty-five percent of Gotham’s teachers received tenure after three years in 2012, compared to 97 percent in 2007. Baker says that the numbers “reflect a reversal in the way tenure is granted not only in New York City but around the country.” Idaho, Florida, and New Jersey have significantly redrawn the tenure map, he reports; eighteen states did so in 2011 alone. Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States calls it “a sea change” in attitudes about tenure. And that change is reflected in teacher evaluations, which have also undergone major makeovers; most significantly, in adding student performance to the equation. Concludes Baker,

“The nationwide shift on tenure has been remarkable for its speed and breadth,” said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. It was awarded “virtually automatically” in most states as recently as 2009, she said.
“Tenure was looked at as much more of a sacred cow,” Ms. Jacobs said. “Once states started to move on it, then the dominoes started to fall in other states.”

Frank Bruni’s op-ed on Sunday is a closer look at the falling dominoes and the relationship between teacher unions and students that started them falling: the former want great benefits for themselves, to hell with the students. In short, there’s a valley of hurt between the two that is now, says Bruni, only just beginning to be addressed.

Bruni uses the new movie, “Won’t Back Down,” which features a mother battling school officials, to explain the problem.

The union that represents one of those [teacher] do-gooders (Viola Davis) has lost its way, resisting change, resorting to smear tactics and alienating the idealists in its ranks. What’s more, some of the people who are assertively promoting “Won’t Back Down” are those who cast teachers’ unions as a titanic impediment to the improvement of public education.

You get the feeling that Bruni wants to be sympathetic to the unions, but he keeps trotting out uncomfortable facts and quoting people who don’t like them. “When did Norma Rae get to be the bad guy?” moans a union leader (Holly Hunter) in the movie. Says Bruni, “I don’t know, but that’s indeed the state of play when it comes to teachers’ unions, and it’s a dangerous one.”

Thankfully, Bruni doesn’t use the phrase, but “teacher bashing” is a well-tread term, though not one that applies to reformers that I know. In this business it doesn’t take long—or shouldn’t—to separate the teacher from his/her union. Granted, there are too many timid teachers, afraid to take on their union bosses, just as there are too many teacher union reps who act like longshoremen and shouldn’t be anywhere near a classroom. But, as Bruni shows, even Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, is getting the message. “We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” she tells Bruni about poor state of education. “We were focused—as unions are—on fairness [toward teachers] and not as much on quality.”

And to Bruni’s credit, he also quotes a professor of education saying that union struggles to get more money and pensions made them “look like pigs at the trough.”

Reading the three pieces together, we should surely understand how far the reform movement has gone in transforming public perception of teacher unions and their role in education (Baker and Bruni). But we should also appreciate (Mishak) how big and scary they still are.

My sense of things is that the teacher unions are the victims of their own success. By astutely associating their cause with the cause of public education, the unions were able to build a formidable public image of solidarity with the cause of schooling. Now they’re stuck trying to explain the results. There are some hard truths in this business. And there is some reason to hope that more people are seeing them.

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