Teacher Unions and Educational Reform The View From Inside by David W. Kirkpatrick

As a career educator in many capacities and a member of a teacher union since 1964, I spent more than a dozen years as a top officer or staff member of affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). Also, I am a life member of five different union divisions, including the NEA and the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), of which I am a past president and their retired teacher affiliates.

Particularly as a local association president, I practiced union democracy. Neither the members, nor I as president, sought to negotiate such anti-teacher policies as the agency fee, whereby teachers who don't join the union must still pay a fee, usually an exorbitantly high one; maintenance of membership, whereby if they do join they can only withdraw during the final days of the contract, which may run for five years; or restricting what they may receive in their school mailbox to materials from the union, except for materials from the school district or U.S. Postal Service deliveries.

NEA and AFT Block Education Reforms

The National Education Association (NEA) was established in 1857, and the American Federal of Teachers (AFT) in the beginning of this century, but neither evolved as a traditional labor union until the 1960s. Unfortunately, as that transition took place, they soon began to adopt some of the less attractive features of industrial unionism.

In the ongoing attempt by educators, governments and parents to reform education, the NEA and AFT consistently block or cripple any significant change, such as school choice and charter schools. They, of course, deny this and cite rhetoric stressing the need for change and their wish to bring it about.

Anyone who has spent years within the movement knows that the charge is true and the rhetoric false.

For example, in 1970 the U.S. Government began looking for a school district to try a five-year school choice project, which required the approval of the local teachers. One was found in Alum Rock, California, where most of the teachers belonged to a NEA local and a smaller number belonged to an AFT chapter. Both groups agreed to participate, only to be attacked by their national unions. The project went ahead but the national unions still said their members were wrong, which at the very least raises the question as to who was representing whom.

At the annual conference of the Education Commission of the States in 1997, in Providence, R.I., I asked the top officers of both unions why they did this. NEA President Bob Chase, in effect, excused himself from answering because he wasn't in office at the time and wasn't directly involved. This does not seem to be a good reason to refuse to at least express a view as to why the NEA would attack its own members.

Ed McElroy, AFT's Secretary-Treasure, coincidentally from Rhode Island, said the AFT did so because its members made "a stupid decision." He didn't explain who decided to oppose the teachers, or on what basis. Ironically, the AFT president at the time the Alum Rock project was initiated was David Selden, who had testified before Congress in opposition to vouchers. When he left office shortly thereafter, he wrote an article in which he said the teachers liked vouchers and so did he.

David Darland, then a NEA Assistant Executive Secretary, speaking in Pennsylvania a generation ago, said "If you are a good teacher, you are always undermining the status quo...(6).* Fortunately for teachers that is a standard not generally applied because it is one that very few teachers can meet, or care to. Whatever their individual abilities may be in the classroom, very few of them question the status quo, much less seek to alter it.

* Note: The number in parenthesis refers to the source listed in the Bibliography that follows the text. A second number is the page number within the source.

Elaine Kendall was closer to the truth when she said that "of all professions teaching is the most hostile to nonconformists or agitators" (16, p. 144).

There was a time when this could be recognized and discussed within the ranks of the teacher organizations.

Consider this from the Student NEA News in January of 1967:


By and large the teaching profession is the least responsive, the least flexible, and the most afraid. We are plagued by teachers ... without a social conscience, without recognition of the need for adventure and responsiveness in their own lives as well as the lives of their students (31, p. 1).


Or, from the same source:

Individual teachers have allowed themselves to accept neutrality as the only expedient to such an extent that they do not realize how successfully they have muzzled the profession.
Can it be called courage when one articulate school board member or one local chapter of some "civic" organization can cause hundreds of teachers to swallow their pride and also their tongues. Is one supposed to be overcome with admiration when teachers limit their political and civic participation to membership in national organizations behind which they may conveniently hide?
The trouble with American education as it continues to exist is that the system forces teachers to prefer conformity for themselves and their students (31, p. 2).

Thus, in their collective roles as represented by their unions, the last thing they are about to do is take on the status quo. On the contrary, the unions do everything possible to maintain it. As Billy Boyton, former Executive Director of the NEA's Nebraska affiliate, and John Lloyd, who held a similar position in Kansas, have said "The NEA has been the single biggest obstacle to educational reform in this country. We know because we worked for the NEA" (8, p. 53).

Because a number of its officials have moved on to NEA positions (including president and executive director of the NEA), the Michigan Education Association (MEA) has been nationally recognized for its influence, even sometimes being referred to as the "Michigan Mafia." Yet some time ago, NEA attorney Erwin Ellman was quoted as saying, "let's face it, there's no intellectual ferment among teachers. Those who are superb teachers are not those who are trying to get ahead in the Association" (2, p. 121).

When the unions talk about the reforms they favor, they include such things as smaller class sizes and beginning education even earlier--such as the "Jump Start" program that former NEA President Keith Geiger called for at the 1990 NEA Representative Assembly in Kansas City. Whatever merits these may have, and for some that's not much, they invariably call for variations of the status quo or more of the same, rather than reforms that mean real changes. Not coincidentally, they also almost uniformly call for the spending of more money and the creation of more teaching positions, which, of course, result in an increase in union membership, union income and union power.

Nor are they above inaccuracies or exaggerations, to be polite about it. In a letter to The Wall Street Journal, Sandra Feldman, former President of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) in New York City and now the late Al Shanker's successor as president of the national AFT, claimed that a UFT site-based-management model "became the basis of federal legislation governing the use of compensatory education funds in hundreds of thousands of schools around the nation" (12) [emphasis added].

That is an unbelievable success, literally unbelievable, when it is remembered that there are only some 110,000 schools in the nation, 85,000 public and 25,000 private.

During a conference I attended, a speaker made reference to these obstructionist tactics. Without even leaving my seat, in a few minutes I drew up a list of 23 reforms that I have seen unions oppose during my many years of activity within their ranks. Alphabetically, the 23 are:

· alternative certification· part-time staff
· binding arbitration· performance contracting
· career ladders· postsecondary enrollment options
· decertification(early college admission)
· deregulation· private practice
· differentiated staffing· privatization
· distance learning· renewable certification
· home schooling· school choice
· master teachers· technology
· merit pay· tuition tax credits
· multiple salary schedules· vouchers
· nongraded K-12· year-round schools

Union officials will argue that this isn't correct, that they have supported some of these, such as distance learning. But an example of how they do this was a low-tech distance learning program in rural Pennsylvania some years ago, primarily based upon using speakerphones. It worked so well that the teacher originally assigned to it, who at first resisted the assignment because he planned to retire after that year, became so enthused that he postponed his retirement for several years.

The teachers union only supported the program on the condition that the number of students at the other end of the various phone lines could not exceed 35, as if it were a class within a typical schoolroom.

A demonstration of that as an artificial number, other than conforming to an on-site classroom maximum, occurred when it was discovered that students at remote locations where there was no teacher or other adult present often outscored those who were not alone. This surprising result became less so when the students were asked how they could explain this. Their explanation made eminent sense. They said that since there was no one to assist them, or help them with review when the phone was hung up, they had to pay more attention to what was being said online, and to take better notes.

Teacher unions often do not stand alone in their opposition to reform--or to deregulation. Unions generally oppose reforms and deregulation outright, while school board associations may say they are for it. Closer examination, however, reveals that school board associations are for reform or deregulation at the state and/or national level, which, of course, would increase their local options and power. But when it comes to local deregulation, such as allowing the creation of charter schools, school board members' enthusiasm disappears.

As for the unions, Robert Braun noted many years ago,


a strong teacher union in an urban center must oppose decentralization. The power of the organization lies in its own strict centralization with authority concentrated at the highest levels... (A) union... is not structured to be responsive to the public; it is hardly structured to be responsive to its own membership (4, pp. 223, 226).


Which is one reason the unions oppose charter schools. Despite other reforms they ostensibly favor--such as site-based management and teacher autonomy--the last thing they really want is for teachers to be individually autonomous. They don't want teachers to be "professional" and work directly with those they serve, as do professionals in other fields.

Unions Prevent Teacher Participation and Influence

A leading example of this came during my years as a union activist. An ad hoc group of about fifteen of us started meeting to consider teacher pre-service and in-service training. Among the participants were staff of all three major teacher unions, plus college presidents, and deans of schools of education. Even though the group had no official standing or authority, it was agreed at the outset that all decisions had to be unanimous. During one of the meetings it was noted that the state had just announced the winner of the Teacher of the Year Award, and someone suggested that he be invited to a meeting to share his views on teacher training. As the vote went around the room everyone agreed, including the Executive Director of the state Federation of Teachers, until it reached a staff member of the state education association, the union to which the teacher actually belonged.

He voted no, the only one to do so.

While that startled most of those in the room, it didn't surprise me, having once served as the state president of that Association and having worked with that staff member. The only surprising thing was that he told everyone why he voted no, which was that "if you are going to hear from any of our members we will decide which ones it will be."

In other words, only the party line will be permitted. So much for teacher autonomy, or representing the interests of this teacher, who was paying hundreds of dollars a year in dues for the union to represent him while it blackballed him from having any influence at the state level. Because of the inside-the-room advance agreement to keep our discussions confidential, to this day that teacher doesn't know his participation was vetoed, much less how and why.

Education Unions Not Like Professional Associations

Professional autonomous teachers, whether in private practice or running their own charter school, will need an organization to serve their needs, just as doctors, lawyers and other professionals do. But the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, and other professional groups perform only those functions that professionals need, such as holding conferences, publishing newsletters and other communications, including lobbying in state capitols and in Washington, D.C., etc. What they don't do is negotiate contracts for their members, handle grievance procedures, and the like.

These latter duties are precisely what most union staff do, thousands of whom receive salary and benefits in excess of $100,000 a year. While NEA's Keith Geiger has spoken against vouchers because it might let students "escape," union staff are perhaps even more concerned about having their members "escape," or convert the unions to professional groups that wouldn't need the present bureaucracy.

Aside from hiding from their members the number of staff, and the fact that their salaries and benefits exceed the wildest dreams of most classroom teachers, a major purpose of union staff (as with any membership organization) is to keep the members as dependent as possible upon them.

Of all the rhetorical hypocrisy about favoring reform, the one regarding teacher autonomy and professionalism is perhaps the most harmful; it is the one almost totally overlooked, even by union critics or opponents. Union officials will bitterly oppose any steps that will lead to teachers being truly autonomous professionals. That is not in the interest of the union, its staff or, in some instances, even of local or state elected officers, many of whom subsequently become union staff members themselves at the state and national levels. It is clearly in the interests of the teachers however--at least the good ones.

This reveals why Clarence Faust's comment decades ago is still true:


The teaching profession is the only profession that has not participated in the revolution of the past fifty years, in which technicians and aides relieve the professionally competent person of non-professional chores so as to enable him to concentrate his time and professional activities and to make his competence available to larger numbers (11, p. 212).


If this transition did take place, it could mean fewer teachers and thus fewer union members, or at least fewer on teacher salary schedules.

Compare this with other professions. Lawyers adapt to court decisions or new laws very quickly, as do accountants to IRS rulings, and doctors to new medical discoveries. "In education, however, the lags between discovery and practice are scandalous" (6, pp. 332-333).

Worse than scandalous, they are often permanent. Research findings decades or generations ago are ignored to this day. Not only that, educators, who claim to "teach critical thinking and problem solving," are unaware of most research, and frequently ignore, belittle and disrespect it. As a result, much of what is done in schooling, public or independent, isn't based on research, and may go directly contrary to such findings.

Where is the research that says students learn best in age-based classes or in rooms where the teacher talks 75-80 percent of the time (three to four times as much as all of the students combined); and that huge schools with thousands of students are better than small schools, or that huge schools are effective learning environments at all; etc., etc., etc.?

It doesn't exist!

Serious Research Only Used To Block Change

About the only time research is seriously raised is to block change. "When an innovation is suggested, there is a sudden interest in what research ... has to say about it ... when the system is threatened, the ceremonial rain dances pick up speed" (13, pp. 244-245).

The union position was perhaps classically stated by Bernard H. McKenna of the NEA. He was speaking about competency based teacher education (CBTE), which would apply competency measures to teachers as well as students, but his words have general application to any real change:


(T)he organized profession does object to mandating implementation which is based on little or no research. ... When CBTE has been carefully researched, developed, tested and tried, found valid and reliable, and capable of being implemented constructively and justly, the organized profession will stand ready to support it (23, p.38).


If that is so, why does "the organized profession" object to pilot projects with vouchers, charter schools, privatization, and reform after reform. At the same time they claim they will support change if research proves it correct, they oppose conducting the actual research.

What makes this laughable, assuming for the moment that it is funny, is that if it was a seriously held position the NEA would have to oppose virtually everything schooling presently does because almost none of it "has been carefully researched, developed, tested and tried, found valid and reliable" and is "capable of being implemented constructively and justly." The hypocrisy here is so great that they should be ashamed to have made the remark, and the former National Institute of Education should have declined to print it.

Much current practice doesn't need research to demonstrate its ineffectiveness, inefficiency, or otherwise lack of common sense. Does it make sense for the public to pay certified teachers to proctor homerooms, cafeterias or study halls, help young children get their coats on and off, and other such mundane duties?

Certification and Decertification

Michigan recently decertified school administrators. They no longer have to be credentialed educators. This has not won the approval of the establishment, including teacher unions and higher education schools of education (surprise!), who face a lessened need for their services. School board members generally approve. It is, to them, an acceptable form of deregulation.

Why not decertify? Opponents like to speak rhetorically about certification and quality education as if they are interchangeable terms. They are not!

After all, hospital administrators are not doctors. Court administrators are not lawyers. They are what they need to be: administrators. Even in the field of education, college administrators do not have to be certified or even have been a faculty member. While many or most do come from the professorial ranks, given the collegial system of governance they have neither the authority nor the expectation of being the educational leader for all the fields contained within their institutions.

Some of the problems of the public school system have been caused by certification requirements. It is often said that a school superintendent should be the educational leader of the district, or that at least the principals should be the educational leaders of their schools. Yet how can one person be the expert in math, English, science, history, physical education, guidance counseling, foreign languages, and on and on? If school administrators were just administrators, as in other fields, there would be no need for either the assumption or pretense of universal expertise--a human impossibility.

No other field has as many certification specialties as public education. The growing nitpicking in this area may be a contributing factor explaining why, "Since World War II, attempts at improving public education have produced more negative than positive results" (9, p. 21).

Unions Force Maintenance of Status Quo

Higher education has been no help. As Martin Haberman wrote in an article titled, "Twenty-Three Reasons Universities Can't Educate Teachers":


(T)here isn't a single example of school change which university faculty have researched and advocated that is now accepted practice.... Any status survey will reveal that the proverbial third grade in Peoria grinds on pretty much as it did in 1910 (14, 136).


This has had at least the acquiescence of teacher unions, if not their outright approval, or they would try to change it.

Further proof of unions as the major obstacle to reform came in Colorado when a series of proposed reforms were introduced in the state legislature. These included alternative teacher certification, a pilot voucher program, privatization, special contracts and merit pay. The state education association termed them "so-called" reforms and announced that it would oppose every one of them (17).

Similarly in Florida, Educational Freedom reported that:


(T)he teacher unions' leaders' preconceived and fixed notions that both master teacher and merit pay plans would be detrimental to the unions' strength and structure created such an ambivalence that they were unable to actually advance the financial interests of their own teacher constituencies (1, p. 167).


In California, teachers were pressured to not sign charter school petitions and shown how to block charters, and districts granting charters even faced lawsuits (27).

In New Jersey, an NEA affiliate, apparently drawing upon NEA material to oppose privatization, warned its members:


to look out for such warning signs as site-based-management initiatives, school restructuring to allow two teachers per classroom, and efforts to provide teachers with computers or telephones (27).


It would be difficult to act much dumber than that.

Teachers Isolated, Silent and Compliant

Two teachers in a classroom? With computers or telephones? Outrageous. We can't have that. But where was the teacher reaction?

Teachers in their self-contaminated classrooms are the only professionals who consistently work in such isolation.


[Even] (t)eam teaching was seen immediately as threatening to the stated goals of established groups. The idea of hierarchy of personnel runs counter to the monolithic character of the teaching profession and was attacked by both the NEA and the AFT ... who support the strange notion that children need two adults at home but can stand only one at a time in a school (13, p. 229).


Ironically, the more pressure there is on the system to change, the more the unions are criticized, and the more teachers take such criticism personally--a tendency the unions are happy to exploit.

In What's Best For The Children?, Mario Fantini observed,


(R)ank-and-file teachers, afraid of the external forces that are converging on them, turn increasingly to their professional organizations for protection. In return for this protection, the teachers give up their individuality and their authority. This is delegated to a small group who will wage the protective war. All the rank and file need to do is to co-operate, to follow faithfully the suggestions of the central leadership group (10, pp. 96-97).


While the term "professional organizations" is not the best use of the term in this context, the statement is correct but, sadly, it need not be so.

Voucher Opposition: Example of Union Tyranny

The NEA first condemned vouchers at its 1970 convention in San Francisco when they became concerned about the findings of a study done by Christopher Jencks and others for the Office of Economic Opportunity. The study was done during President Richard Nixon's Administration, and led to the Alum Rock project mentioned earlier.

As President of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) at the time, and chairman of the delegation to the 1970 convention, where I also gave a nominating speech for the successful candidate for the NEA presidency, I thought that was a mistake, as I do to this day.

Upon returning to Pennsylvania, I put this in writing in the Journal which the Association published at that time. Also, in travelling around the state, I spoke frequently in favor of trying vouchers. The idea was well ahead of its time, and it would be overstating the case to say there was a rallying to the cause. Even so, it is accurate to note that not one of the more than 100,000 members of the PSEA at the time, or members of the Board of Directors, or staff, ever criticized my stand, either to me personally or in any public forum of which I am aware. To the contrary, there were a considerable number of teachers who said they agreed with me.

In other words, given frank discussion of issues, and encouragement from the top, teachers can demonstrate a willingness to discuss even the most challenging of ideas.

But now, after years of condemnation by virtually all of the educational establishment, hearing only one side of the story, being told the system will be destroyed and their jobs lost, the majority of teachers have bought the party line--even though they personally have never studied, and have no knowledge of, that which they oppose.

Most of those who feel otherwise can be kept quiet by peer pressure and other threats.

In my own case, as the author of Choice in Schooling, a history of the idea, and an outspoken proponent of its implementation, I have been officially "condemned" by a PSEA convention--in my absence, it might be noted. I was notified nearly three weeks later by mail.

So much for academic freedom, due process, and other good things which the union says it not only supports but which it will defend as every member's right. Besides being a past state president, I am a Life Member of the PSEA and NEA. It would seem that member rights don't matter very much where the union's interests are concerned.

The same happened to Kevin Irvine, Colorado's Teacher of the Year in 1991, when he publicly came out in favor of the voucher initiative which appeared on that state's ballot. He was criticized and threatened for speaking up for what he believed in.

Union Control of Teachers, Administrators and School Boards

Another instance was the teacher in the Midwest who appeared at a school board meeting and, during the period of public comments, said he objected to the district initiating a policy of payroll deductions of payments to the union. The union said that he had no right to speak and that the board was wrong in permitting him to do so because the union was the exclusive bargaining agent. The issue went to court and had to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in effect declared that the union was trying to violate the teacher's constitutional right to free speech.

In one major city, the AFT contract specifies the required school hours for teachers. They have criticized their own members who stayed in school after those hours, charging them with embarrassing their colleagues and engaging in the educational equivalent of a speedup.

In that same city, the school district received millions of foundation dollars to help develop mini-teams in the large high schools whereby 4-5 teachers could work with 100 or so students. Some teachers requested that they be able to agree among themselves who would constitute such a team. The foundation had no problem; the district had no problem; but the union did have a problem and refused to allow their members to form their own teams. This is an indication of union opposition to "teacher autonomy?"

Jaime Escalante, then a calculus teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, who became famous for his success with mostly poor and Latino students, and was the subject of a 1987 movie, "Stand and Deliver," was harassed by his union.

One of his "sins" was accepting all students who wanted to be in his classes. As a result he had classes of more than 70 students, more than three times the number stipulated in the contract. Union representatives helped persuade teachers to vote him out as the math department chairman. Escalante wrote his union president, saying, "If you looked into what is going on in this school in the name of the union, I think you ... would be appalled." He obviously thought wrong.

Escalante has also said he "thought the union was going to focus on how to improve our skills. But they're more interested in politics than kids." On that, unfortunately, he seems to be right.

In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, high school teachers and administrators developed a plan which would have used aides to free teachers from nonteaching duties, increasing by 450 minutes a year the time teachers would actually spend with students while at the same time reducing the teaching staff at the high school by 12 positions. It might be added that this district and high school are large enough that any staff reductions could be achieved by attrition, avoiding the necessity to actually cause anyone to lose their job. Nonetheless, the union president and a union staffer promptly opposed the idea, the staffer bluntly saying, "They seem to have put this together thinking they were doing what's best for education ... But this is business." As an aside, if it is a business, why do they oppose for-profit firms engaging in it?

In Minnesota, the teachers union itself annually recognizes a Teacher of the Year. In recent years, at least three of those teachers were later laid off because more senior teachers have a priority claim to employment when reductions occur, a requirement of the contracts negotiated by the same union that praised them.

In San Francisco, the union filed a grievance against a charter school because it paid its teachers $2,800-$3,600 more than they would have received in the regular schools and, a key point, did so without first negotiating the pay increase with the union.

In Richmond, Virginia, the superintendent wanted to give new teachers a $5,000 signing bonus. The union objected. In Washington, DC, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman wanted to raise starting teacher salaries to $30,000, an 11 percent increase. The union objected.

Speaking to the 1995 convention of his union, C.T. Purdom, president of the Washington (State) Education Association, told his members they should stop trying to "control" the Association so the hired staff could do its work. He added that those members would be responsible for the WEA's death, and that "We have met the enemy and it is us." The union officers and staff regard their own members as their "enemies?" Again, who is supposed to be representing whom here?

In another publicized case, a former teacher wishing to return to the classroom was offered a job by a school district, but without full recognition on the salary schedule of all her prior years of teaching. She willingly accepted but the union said the board could not hire her unless they paid her an additional $9,000. The teacher said that the salary offered was fair and that she wanted the job. The union held firm, and the teacher was not hired. So she not only didn't get the $9,000, she didn't get anything at all, thanks to the union.

Union Violations of Teachers' Rights

Perhaps the most notorious violation of teachers' rights, and an ongoing battle, derives from what dues, if any, nonmembers must pay the union.

In 1988, in the Beck decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said workers can only be required to pay dues or fees for costs directly related to collective bargaining. The decision awarded a dues reduction of 79 percent to Harry Beck, who had been an active union member and who launched the appeal. Neither unions, including teacher unions, nor government agencies such as the National Labor Relations Board, make any effort to notify workers, including teachers, of this right.

Unions have been so successful at keeping workers unaware of their rights that one poll found 78 percent of them didn't know they need not pay for union activities unrelated to bargaining. Under former President George Bush, the Labor Department required unions to publicly reveal what portion of their dues workers could keep, and Bush ordered federal contractors to post notices telling workers of their rights. One of President Bill Clinton's first actions upon taking office was to rescind both orders. So much for "feeling your pain."

A final note on this issue. Unions deny agency fee payers the right to vote, arguing they are not members. However, since they are paying a full share of the costs of negotiations, and generally more, why should they not at least be allowed to vote on the contract? Where possible, the union insists on being able to take their money, yet it strenuously objects to their having any say about the contract resulting from the expenditure of that money. Is this fair?

A book, and a very lengthy one at that, obviously could be written with such examples, and not exhaust them.

Union Critics May Not Be Anti-Union

In brief, despite claims that any critic of union procedures is anti-union and out to destroy them, the problem, for many of us, is not the existence of unions but the lack of existence of union democracy, a lack that is virtually universal throughout the labor movement. As Mario Fantini said,


the issue is not participation but control.... To insist that the bargaining agent represent teachers on all matters forecloses any alternative route to teacher involvement.... There is a basic difference between teachers and teacher unions (11, p. 125).


Indeed! Fantini also observed that, "An inverse relationship seems to exist between teacher militancy and the quality of the schools" (11, pp. 126-127).

In short, the truism of Irving Kristol's first law of education reform should be evident: "Any reform that is acceptable to the educational establishment, and that can gain a majority in a legislature, federal or state, is bound to be worse than nothing" (19).

Unions Seek to Scuttle Reform Efforts

A change doesn't even have to be demonstrably threatening. Anything different seems to be incomprehensible or unacceptable to union leaders, and they oppose it. If opposition begins to fail, as it has been doing with the passage of charter school laws, for example, they then begin to accept it rhetorically while in actuality trying to have "killer" amendments put in place so the new law will be ineffective. The AFT, for example, has indicated its support of the Rhode Island charter school law, rated by some as the most ineffective in the nation.

Failing that, as with privatization efforts in Baltimore, Maryland, and Hartford and Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, they will do their best to scuttle the project. If the project fails, they say: "See. We told you. It doesn't work."

On Education, Unions Inept

The pity is that they really don't know what to do themselves. I sat in a union meeting a few years ago where the presiding officer said, "Our schools are in trouble and we don't know what to do about it." That was such a rare and honest statement that I wrote it down and then waited for the official proceedings to be printed, since they are allegedly a verbatim account of what was said. His remarks appeared, but this statement wasn't among them.

If the unions know what to do, why don't they each operate a school, or better yet two, one in an inner-city poverty area and one in a poor remote rural community, and show us how it is done? If they can raise $15 million or more in California alone to oppose a voucher initiative, a few million to show us how a real school should function ought to be no problem.

The NEA already has an educational foundation. They could draw upon that rather than scatter small grants around the country. Microsoft's Bill Gates reportedly gave $3 million to that foundation, to an organization with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars. How much has he given to education reformers? Or democratic unionists?

It wouldn't take much of the NEA's money, maybe none at all, to demonstrate that they can create more effective education models, assuming they can do so at all. They could sign a contract with a school district, with or without a charter school law, to operate a school using district dollars.

But, of course, they won't. Because they don't know what to do.

What Robert Braun said of the AFT applies to the NEA (and the AAUP at the college level) as well:


[They lack the] imagination to offer any real alternative. If [they] were to assume full control of all aspects of public education ... nothing much would change--except perhaps that you would have even less, perhaps nothing, to say about the direction of the school to which you send your children and your tax dollar. Politically, intellectually, socially and educationally, [they are] bankrupt (4, p. 252).


Unions Attack Reformers

Major institutions do not change internally without external ideas and extreme pressure, whether those institutions are car manufacturers or public schools.

But that won't stop them from attacking anyone who tries.

Jackie DuCote has spent years seeking to reform education in Louisiana, including gaining passage of more than 50 major education reform laws from 1977-1987, to no avail. The reforms were "watered down, ignored, not implemented properly, taken to court by the teacher unions and others, mired down in political turf battles, or not funded" (7, pp. 83-84)--often not because the money wasn't there, but because that was just another way to scuttle an unwanted program.

She also learned that during the political process necessary to bring about educational change, "at one time or another you can expect:

1. To be cast as an adversary.
2. To have your credibility questioned and even your right to have an opinion about education or to be involved in changing it challenged.
3. To have roadblocks thrown in your way at every turn, particularly in the form of delaying tactics.
4. To be outnumbered at most forums at which you will propose change.
5. To spend endless hours in meetings.
6. To become increasingly frustrated.
7. And to be involved in a long-term effort" (7).

And, it might be added, to lose more times than you win.

Why Try to Reform Education

So why try?


First and foremost because the educational future of millions of youngsters depends on reform; and


Second, because, in each instance, reformers only have to win once. School choice, once established, is not subsequently abolished. Charter school laws which led to good schools, of which there are now many, give impetus for the movement to spread.


Former NEA President Keith Geiger once told his troops they must win everywhere; they can't afford to lose anywhere. He's right. And while he meant that as a goad to action on their part, it is, in fact, an admission of ultimate failure because no one wins everywhere everytime, and union tactics won't either.

Even among their own ranks they are recognizing a growing interest among their members, especially the younger ones, in educational issues.

And their loss of credibility is leaving them out of the equation of change even where they might have something to offer.

Kentucky State Senator Michael Moloney, explaining how that legislature was able to speedily pass major educational reform to meet a court mandate, said it was achieved by leaving out not only all educational lobbyists but even members of the legislative education committees except for their chairs (24). In essence, you can't count upon those who are part of the problem to be part of the solution.

The Demise of Teacher Unions

The teacher unions are following a classic pattern of destructive obstruction. There was a time, 50 years ago, when John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers could almost shut this nation down. Certainly they had legitimate grievances. Mining is dirty dangerous work. But where are they today?

Even the Steelworkers and United Auto Workers are but shadows of their former selves.

Teacher unions are headed in the same direction.

In the late 1970s, the NEA, and Cesar Chavez' United Farm Workers, were the most respected unions in the nation--favored 2-1 by the general public. With the passing of Chavez, the UFW is rarely heard from today. The NEA should be so lucky. Although the NEA and the AFT are mentioned often, it is rarely (except from their own ranks) with any fondness and appreciation.

As Thomas Hopkins said in The Overlooked Factor,


History shows that in crises the people in power tend to refine and intensify the status quo system which eventually destroys them. This is the present movement in education? (15, p 697).


Written a generation ago, the establishment is just that much further down the road today.




1. Alexander, Kern, "Executive Leadership and Educational Reform in Florida," pp. 145-168. In The Fiscal, Legal and Political Aspects of State Reform of Elementary and Secondary Education, edited by Van D. Mueller & Mary P. McKeown (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Pub. Co., 1986).


2. Bendiner, Robert, The Politics of Schools, A Crisis in Self-Government(NY: Harper & Row, 1969).

3. Bennett, William J., The De-Valuing of America (NY: Summit Books, 1992).

4. Braun, Robert J., Teachers and Power, The Story of the American Federation of Teachers (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1972).

5. Crow, Mary Lynn, and Merl E. Bonney, PHI DELTA KAPPAN (September 1975).

6. Darland, David, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) Symposium, Dec. 1, 1969.

7. DuCote, Jackie, "What One 'Parent Volunteer' Did to Bring Change to Inner City Schools" (Harrisburg, PA: The Commonwealth Foundation, 1990), pp. 79-88.

8. Educational Freedom, Spring-Summer 1994.

9. English, Raymond, "Research and Improvement in The Social Studies: Reflections of a Private Sector Practitioner," Private Sector Initiatives in Educational Reform. Proceedings of a National Advisory Council on Educational Research and Improvement conference, April 2, 1987.

10. Fantini, Mario, What's Best For The Children? (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974).

11. Faust, Clarence H., Student, School & Society, edited by John A. Dahl (San Francisco Chandler Pub. Co., 1964).

12. Feldman, Sandra, Letter to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal, November 15, 1995.

13. Goodlad, John I., Facing The Future,, edited by Judith S. Golub (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1976).

14. Haberman, Martin, "Twenty-Three Reasons Universities Can't Educate Teachers." In The Journal of Teacher Education, Summer 1971, pp. 133-140.

15. Hopkins, L. Thomas, "The Overlooked Factor," PHI DELTA KAPPAN, June 1974, pp. 694-697.

16. Kendall, Elaine, Peculiar Institutions (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975), 1976.

17. Knight, Al, "If money's the solution, then that's the problem," The Denver Post, Sept. 29, 1991.

18. Kolderie, Ted, "A Guide to Charter Activity," Public Services Redesign Project (Saint Paul, MN: Center for Policy Studies, August 1996).

19. Kristol, Irving, "The Inevitable Outcome of 'Outcomes," The Wall Street Journal, April 18, 1994.

20. Lieberman, Myron, John A. Dahl, et al. Student, School & Society (San Francisco Chandler Pub. Co., 1964).

21. Lieberman, Myron, "Why Reform Was 'Dead on Arrival," Education Week, Jan. 29, 1986.

22. Mayer, Martin, Social Studies in American Schools (NY: Harper Colophon Books. 1964).

23. Merrow, John G. II, et al. Politics of Competence: A Review of Competency-Based Teacher Education (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, National Institute of Education. 1975).

24. Moloney, Michael, Kentucky Senator. Testimony before the Pennsylvania State House Education Committee, March 11, 1993.

25. Moore, Thomas, "The Blooding of Chris Whittle," U. S. News & World, Report, Nov. 6, 1989, pp. 442+.

26. Nathan, Joe, "Activist School Reform," Education Week, Feb. 21, 1996, pp. 40 & 43.

27. Riley, Pamela A., Letter to the Editor, The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20, 1996.

28. Schmidt, Peter, "Private Enterprise," Education Week, May 25, 1994.

29. Sewall, Gilbert T., Necessary Lessons (NY: The Free Press, 1983).

30. Shanker, Al, AFT "Lessons For Life" Resource Packet, AFT Online, 1995.

31. Student NEA News, January 1967.

32. TEACHER Magazine, "Republican Revolution Postponed" (Current Events in Brief).

33. Waugh, William J., "School Vouchers Would Give Parent Dollar Power," The Express (Easton, PA, April 10, 1971), p. 2.

34. West, E. G., "The Perils of Public Education," The Freeman, November 1977, pp. 681-699.