Teacher unions, Mac the Knife, and dollar power

That’s the headline above Paul Peterson’s better-than-nifty
essay
on the Ed Next blog.

Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at
Harvard and Executive Editor of Education
Next
(of which I am a contributing editor), uses the Mac the Knife
reference to suggest that loyalties can be bought “for a pittance.” In this
case, it’s the National Education Association (NEA), which can, Peterson
argues,

…collect multi-millions of dollars through a check-off system
that generates revenues directly from teacher paychecks (unless a teacher
specifically objects),” and, a la the
villain of Mac the Knife, “invest in the work of less-advantaged non-profits
that ostensibly have entirely different agendas. Even a little bit of money can
produce a valuable ally somewhere down the line.

It’s a short essay, but is packed with evidence (from the Education Intelligence
Agency
) of NEA’s multi-tentacled reach, from a $250,000 grant to the Great
Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (“which has migrated to the
University of Colorado at Boulder, which received another quarter million in
direct funding,” says Peterson) to $100,000 for Media Matters, “a group that
attacks conservative groups and commentators” and $35,000 for “the
anti-accountability group,” FairTest.

“The list goes on and on,” says Peterson, who suggests keeping it handy
“if one wants to understand the interstices of the debate over school reform.”

What is also problematic about all this is that the list doesn’t even
include the millions given directly to legislators and other policymakers. And
therein is an existential problem that, despite the lull in the fighting in
Wisconsin and Ohio, lurks in the background of most of the debates about
unions: they use public money to influence public officials to write laws that
give them even more money. As Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute told the New York Times last year (see my “Unions
on the Run
” post),

Public unions have had no natural adversary; they give
politicians political support and get good contracts back…It’s uniquely
dysfunctional.

Thus, as a public union, the NEA
(so too the American Federation of Teachers), is, essentially, spreading around
tax dollars, money over which the taxpayer has no control, an income redistribution
effort that could easily be mistaken for a kickback or, in states where union
membership and dues are not voluntary, a not-so-hidden and
not-so-representative tax.

And it’s not just lobbying for higher pay that is the problem. As Terry
Moe writes in his new book, Special
Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools
,

On the surface, it
might seem that the teachers unions would play a limited role in public
education: fighting for better pay and working conditions for their members,
but otherwise having little impact on the structure and performance of the
public schools more generally. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
The teachers unions have more influence of the public schools than any other
group in American society.

Indeed, the battle about whether teacher quality is important to
education outcomes is an important one. And teachers need a voice in the
debate. But it should not be a voice amplified with funds from the public purse
and used to silence other voices.

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