The Chicago teachers strike, which tentatively ended Friday, thrust teachers unions into the national spotlight. In Chicago and around the country, some see unions as saving public education and others as driving it into the ground. But the reality of how teachers unions operate is more complicated than the rhetoric about them.
1. Teachers unions are to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates.
Where the unions matter most in the education debate is in their influence on how teachers are supervised and evaluated, who is granted tenure, and who is dismissed. These have all been flash points in Chicago.
There is abundant evidence that school districts don’t do enough to retain the best teachers or weed out the low performers. For instance, a 2009 report by the New Teacher Project found that 94 percent of teachers in Chicago received “superior” or “excellent” ratings, and just four in 1,000 were rated “unsatisfactory.” Considering the poor performance of Chicago’s schools, there’s no way nearly all of its teachers are superlative. Clearly, the evaluation system is broken.
And while teachers unions share some culpability for our education problems, so do school administrators, school boards, elected officials, communities and parents. Besides, those teacher contracts and state laws people complain about were agreed to by someone in addition to the unions — namely administrators and politicians. There is plenty of blame to go around.
2. Teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.
Like unions representing autoworkers or flight attendants, teachers unions focus on workplace issues. They engage in collective bargaining with management for wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.
But teachers unions are different from private-sector unions in some fundamental ways. For starters, in the private sector, companies can go bankrupt. This generally creates a check on unions’ demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business. Public schools don’t go out of business. Officials involved in the Chicago negotiations said the union’s early demands for salary increases of more than 30 percent were impossible for the cash-strapped city.
In the private sector, there are genuinely two sides negotiating contracts. But teachers unions and other public-sector unions often exert power on both sides of the bargaining table. They exercise political pressure by supporting candidates financially, with coveted endorsements or by calling voters. Because school board elections are often held separately from other elections and have low turnout, teachers’ unions often dominate them. Autoworkers don’t get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can.
3. Teachers unions support only liberal Democrats.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 to 2012 the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated more than $79 million to congressional and presidential candidates. That largesse, which doesn’t include additional millions spent on lobbying and on state and local races, places them among the biggest-spending special interest groups in the country.
While most of the money has gone to Democrats, like any interest group teachers unions will work with whomever can help them advance their agenda. In the past decade the National Education Association worked with pro-states’-rights Republicans to try to undo the No Child Left Behind Act. The association’s Pennsylvania affiliate has given $40,000 to the Republican state legislator who famously remarked that the state’s controversial voter ID law would help Mitt Romney win there in November.
And as Joy Resmovits reported in the Huffington Post this month, teachers unions in several states are supporting candidates and organizations who oppose same-sex marriage or abortion rights and call homosexuality a sin — as long as they agree with the unions’ positions on education policy.
4. Teachers unions fight any kind of reform.
Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe says getting teachers unions to embrace reform is like asking a cat to bark, because unions are fundamentally about protecting their members and can’t be counted on to improve schools. Yet there are some examples of labor and management working together to bring about change in education.
In Pittsburgh seven years ago, a teachers union leader and the city’s superintendent began to work together to involve educators in decisions about closing schools and revamping the teacher-evaluation system. And in New Haven, Conn., in 2009, the teachers union and the city agreed on a new evaluation system that includes students’ test scores as well as classroom observations. Last year, 34 teachers lost their jobs based on the new system.
Today, with a new union leader and a new superintendent, reform is slowing in Pittsburgh. And in New Haven, many observers believe it was the threat of unilateral action by the mayor that got the union to make a deal. Regardless, under the right circumstances, even superintendents who have locked horns with their unions say they can be partners to effect reform.
5. What’s good for teachers is good for students.
Union leaders like to say this. It’s an appealing sentiment, and it’s sometimes true. When the teachers unions protect education spending in state budgets, that’s good for students. But there are times when students’ and teachers’ interests diverge.
Consider some of the big sticking points in the Chicago teachers strike: One major issue was what to do with teachers displaced by layoffs as a result of declining student enrollment. According to sources involved in the negotiations, the union wanted to keep teachers who could not find a new teaching position on the school district’s payroll indefinitely. A similar policy has cost New York City more than $100 million in pay to teachers who are not teaching. That sort of job security is obviously good for adults, but using scarce education dollars to pay hundreds of people who are not working is clearly not good for students.
Teacher contracts are loaded with such inefficient provisions. In a 2007 analysis for the think tank Education Sector Marguerite Roza estimated that provisions that are popular with unions but have a weak or nonexistent relationship with student learning, such as arbitrary limits on class size and automatic pay raises, consume almost 20 percent of an average school district’s budget — more than $77 billion in nationwide education spending annually.
So as we’ve seen in Chicago, what’s good for teachers is only sometimes good for students.
Andrew J. Rotherham and Jane Hannaway are the editors of “Collective Bargaining in Education.” Rotherham is a co-founder of Bellwether Education and is an education columnist for Time magazine. Hannaway is vice president of the American Institutes for Research.