By Gary Beckner
A new spate of documentaries and media coverage have all centered on the role teachers unions play in blocking necessary change and innovation in public schools. At this point in the national discourse, a majority of Americans are convinced that our education system is in crisis and are looking for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately for effective teachers across America, the finger has been pointed in the wrong direction. It is the teachers unions – the NEA and the AFT – that are largely responsible for a system that is failing far too many of our children, especially those trapped in the inner cities.
It’s no secret that the rise of the teachers unions is aligned with the decline of public schools. For over forty years, unions have collected hundreds of millions of dollars in membership dues each year and used that money to elect friendly politicians and lobby for policies that favor the growth of unionism. Policies that, by the way, do very little to help little Johnny read, write and compute.
One area the unions block at all costs is school choice, the cornerstone of the growing education reform movement. School choice allows parents, regardless of income level or a zip code, to have the ability to choose a school that best suits their child. With school choice in play, children would not have to suffer in silence at the hands of failing schools.
Despite the hope of success for students and empowerment for parents, unions quickly condemn the idea of school choice as an “assault on public education.” School choice oriented options such as tax credits, charter schools, and virtual schools are all seen as threats; threatening enough for the unions to spend millions of dollars fighting them every year.
Why are the teachers unions the largest roadblock to school choice? The answer is simple: greed. School choice would allow teachers more opportunities to teach in environments that are not easily unionized –public charter schools, parochial schools, private schools, and virtual schools. If teachers aren’t paying dues to the union, the union loses money and power.
Furthermore, unions have been able to successfully unionize traditional public schools. Teachers unions have a building representative in nearly every schoolhouse in America who reports to a regional representative, who in turn reports to the state and national levels. It’s an extensive, costly system that took decades to build. So naturally unions are against any reform that threatens their system. The monopolist never wants to lose their monopoly.
This system, however, caters to adults and not to schoolchildren. With school choice options, the system is turned on its head and gives the power back to parents to determine what kind of learning environment is best for their children. How do the teachers unions protect a system that fills their coffers? Fear. Their rhetoric on school choice is classic double-talk and sends mixed messages to their members and the public at large. Careful not to sound too anti-reform, AFT leaders suggests that they support charter schools, and then go on to say that charters “exploit” staff and need to be unionized to “improve academic outcomes.”
NEA literature labels school choice backers as radical zealots, “Religious conservatives push ‘choice’ as a way of shoving children into private schools, and emasculating the effect of NEA.” The truth is school choice is neither left nor right but common sense policy. Leaders in this movement range from Democratic Mayor of Newark Cory Booker to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.
The unions are quick to silence those education reformers who work tirelessly to improve the system. Proven leader and former D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee recently outlined school choice policies in her new student-focused organization’s policy agenda. Union leaders issued statements that same day accusing Rhee of fear mongering. Rhee’s “so-called solutions play to people’s fears rather than promote a positive and collaborative agenda for improving America’s public schools,” exhorted AFT President Randi Weingarten.
Reality tells a different story. It is the unions that play on the fear of teachers. The unions work tirelessly in making hard working educators believe they’ll be out of a job with school choice. What teachers need to know is that school choice does not threaten the teaching profession but improves it – creating more professional environments in which to work, flexible schedules, or opportunities to teach in a less bureaucratic setting such as a charter school.
School choice is a positive reform that will help improve public education. Indeed, school choice does not scrap the system we have but enhances it by providing options for student learning. Despite their rhetoric, the special interest of the unions is themselves. It’s time to tune out the unions and implement policies that give all children a shot at academic success.
Gary Beckner is the Executive Director of the Association of American Educators.