Three cheers for Steve Jobs

If there was the slightest doubt that Steve Jobs is one of the most courageous men of our time, it was dispelled dramatically on February 16th. There he was at a high profile education conference when, in what I believe was a spontaneous outburst, he decided to take on teacher unions.

The Associated Press memorialized the moment, quoting Jobs as saying: "I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way. This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

Jobs was a presenter at the Texas Public Education Reform Foundation's 2007 Statewide Education Summit when he made these and other comments in front of a packed ballroom at Austin's Hyatt Regency hotel. The topic was "Enhancing Education Through Technology" and it was almost as if he was talking to himself when he said, in response to a question, that technology in the classroom could not improve our schools "until principals could fire bad teachers."

This happened in front of an audience of educators, legislators, business professionals, and other highly placed individuals representing Texas' educational leadership. Sitting no more than 10 feet from him, I wondered, was he not aware of the lambasting that Bob Dole took when he raised this issue? Was he not aware of how the press barbecued me for a certain hyperbolic statement I made about this topic? Or, was he a courageous man willing to put himself in the line of fire in order to raise a public discussion about an issue that must be dealt with if school reform efforts are to have any possibility of saving this nation's public schools? I think the latter.

I agree with Steve Jobs: teacher unions have become a major barrier to the improvement of our public schools. Holding this view does not mean that I am anti-teacher. To the contrary: I view the many incredible teachers I know as heroes. Holding this view also does not mean that I believe all teacher unions are bad. Some do add value, as did the AFT in its leadership in reading. After all, the AFT was first to call this nation's attention to the complexity of reading through the publication of its highly informative booklet, Teaching Reading is Rocket Science. My opinions on this matter also do not reflect a desire to get rid of all teacher unions. As painful as it is to admit, there are instances where teachers do need proper representation and protection from administrative abuse.

No, my concern is not with teachers. It's with teacher unions as organizations: huge, rich, powerful, politically manipulative, self-aggrandizing organizations that are blocking urgently needed reforms to our struggling public education system.

While the unions have been doing what they do, which is collecting dues and protecting their interest, the public has fallen asleep at the switch. The checks and balances on the teacher unions are seriously inadequate. As a result, they have grown so powerful that effective and efficient school operations are, for the most part, impossible.

How did this happen? In too many cases over the years, when school boards have found themselves unable to meet union demands for salary increases, they bought peace from the unions by granting them authority over certain aspects of school operations. Even worse, unions have enough money and clout in many parts of the country to subvert democracy and determine who gets elected to the school board. So when the union is negotiating a new contract and has friends on the school board, it is, in effect, sitting on both sides of the bargaining table. If you doubt the unions are using their political might to block reform, check out the news from places as far and wide as Buffalo, New York City, Fresno, Boston, St. Louis... the list goes on and on.

As a result of the rise of union power and the concomitant decline in the power of communities and parents, unions in many districts now control district policy making, teacher assignments, staff development possibilities, and personnel termination procedures. In too many places, the unions have more control over school operations than the superintendent or the school principals do. As Jobs alluded in his remarks, principals can't hire the teachers they need; seniority rules dictate whom they can hire. And once a bad teacher has tenure, it's almost impossible to fire him. So schools just pass them around, a practice that some refer to as "the dance of the lemons." And most hurtful, in the midst of this era of accountability in public education, unions are subjected to zero accountability for student performance.

So three cheers for Steve Jobs. I appreciate his candor and hope his remarks will spark a national conversation about this most urgent issue.

Rod Paige's new book, The War Against Hope, is reviewed below.

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