Thursday, January 3, 2019

Not Quite Seven Reasons To Ditch Teachers Unions

The Foundation for Economic Education may be the oldest libertarian thinky tank in the US, and they are a missionary group, set "to make the ideas of liberty familiar, credible, and compelling to the rising generation." So it comes as no surprise to find them running an article entitled "7 Reasons To Say Goodbye to the Teachers Union."

Author Daniel Buck is a bit of a mystery on line, but he lays claim to a masters in education and a teaching job in someplace that's urban/diverse; probably 9th grade English, judging from all the Romeo and Juliet tweets. And writes/edits for a site called "The Lone Conservative." From reading his tweets, I learned that he would pay to keep the union rep out of the lounge and once shook Scott Walker's hand and thanked Walker "for all he's doing to improve education in Wisconsin." He dresses up for school, appears to take a serious and conscientious approach to the work, and he's in his second year of actual teaching. If I worked next door to him, I think we'd get along and I'd probably like him. But this thing he wrote...

Preliminary disclaimers

I should say right up front that I am not knee jerk booster of the union. I've been a local president, and I've been on the phone telling my state president what he's messing up. A scan of this blog will find more than a few criticisms of the teachers unions. I know some reasons that the teachers union has, at times, made me want to ditch it.

Detach me from this carousel, and I will win the Kentucky Derby
Also, I'm aware that some folks may see this post as punching down at some teacher newbie for some not-very-well-informed opinions, but Buck appears to have his big boy pants on, and I'm not going to call him names-- but when something like this gets put into the world, that requires a response also to be put into the world.

At various times in my career, I considered reasons to ditch the union. Let's see if Buck actually came up with seven.

The wind-up

There's a pull quote about supporting teachers, not unions. Buck says, sure, unions did swell things in the past, but we no longer have troops stationed in Cold War locations like Germany (little comfort to my brother-in-law who's being deployed to watch Russians from Poland in a few months). But just so we're clear-- Buck is arguing that teacher unions should be dissolved.

Here are his seven reasons.

They are advocacy groups as much as unions.

What he appears to mean is that they are a liberal advocacy group, NEA has committed to things like being for Black Lives Matter and against Confederate monuments. The unions give most of their money to Democratic candidates.

This is half a valid point-- the unions contain a huge number of conservative and GOP members whose interests are not necessarily reflected in support for Hillary. I have always chafed a bit at some non-education issues that the union takes a position on-- and they've taken some bad stands on education issues as well (Common Core, anyone). And don't even get me started on the boneheaded early-in endorsement of Clinton.

At the same time. Politics shapes how teachers do or don't get to do their jobs. It hasn't always been true, but for the past twenty-some years, some of the biggest obstacles to being able to just do the work have been created by politicians (Common Core, anyone). If teachers don't collectively advocate for the politics most likely to create better conditions in schools, who will. And if you teach children of color and you can't see why advocating for the removal of statues raised to honor those who fought to keep Blacks as chattel-- well, you need to get some more schooling yourself. Buck also lists arming teachers as an issue that NEA should be leaving alone. Nope. That's not a conservative-liberal issue, that's a stupid-not stupid issue. If I were still in a classroom, you can be damn sure I'd expect the union to do its best to keep guns out of my building.

I expect teachers unions to advocate for issues that affect public education, and that means politics.

They have more money in politics than just about everyone.

Buck notes that unions contribute more to politics than other individuals, which is true if you compare the union to one person at a time, but of course that's not how it works. Look at this report from the (not union affiliated) Network for Public Education for examples of how billionaires, working together, outspend everyone.

Now, truthfully, if this were a few decades ago, I'd be sympathetic to this point. I'd be troubled that the unions were throwing this much money into political campaigns. But now we live in a post-Citizens United world, a SuperPAC world, a world in which rich folks can exert as much financial pressure on the political world as they like-- hell, with dark money tools, they can do it anonymously.

So why shouldn't teachers fight back? After all-- union political contributions are not teacher dues, They are contributions collected voluntarily and specifically for political purposes. Why shouldn't unions be free to pass the hat to collect the contributions of teachers, contributions that carry far more weight bundled than individually. The Kochs and Waltons and the rest can do whatever they like when it comes to wielding political influence? Why should teachers be limited?

Mind you, in my universe, everyone would be limited. Contribution limits, and no dark money ever. But until that happens, we play by the rules we have.

Their policy ideals won't cut it.

Here Buck offers a salad of old talking points. Unions want more money for school, but we already spend too much without a return-- except of course "return" here means "higher test scores" and just from his Twitter feed I know that Buck knows better  than to think that test scores measure what matters.

He also resurrects whinging about "hard to fire" and strict pay scales. It's old and tired. He's correct to note that a lot of money is spent badly by districts and states, but there are better solutions than taking the money away, and anyway, what does this have to do with unions? They advocate for this stuff? So what. Every contract was negotiated by two sides. If your contract truly makes it impossible to fire a teacher, it's because your board did a lousy job. Otherwise, it's only hard to get rid of terrible teachers if you have administrators reluctant to do their jobs.

They block meaningful reform

Unions block the reforms that will structurally change a broken system and in return, promise increased funding, which will, in turn, be drained away by the broken system. Namely, they oppose school choice, merit-based pay, standardized tests, and the Praxis, an entrance exam for teachers.

This echoes the worst, looniest anti-union rhetoric in which the whole public school system is just a scam perpetuated by the union in order to make the union rich. From this premise, we get the notion that opposition to reform is not based on a professional judgment that such reforms are bad for education-- it's all just to keep the money flowing. All the "teachers are swell it's the union that's bad" rhetoric in the world can't mask how insulting this is to actual teachers. Yep-- they're all just corrupt money-grubbers who want to keep children deprived of real education.

The four issues that Buck mentions are all issues that can be debated by reasonable people-- but not if you assume that only evil, selfish, or stupid people would oppose you. In fact, all four policies have ben shown to have terrible flaws, and more thoughtful reformsters are willing to discuss some of those issues. But if you assume that all opposition is just corruption speaking, you'll never get a step closer to improving your ideas.

They breed a culture of entitlement

Again, the "I like teachers" slip is showing. Naughty bad teachers just keep adding because the union protects them.

The unions tell us that we, the teachers, deserve our jobs and better pay regardless of the success of our students, but in reality, we deserve more money and respect only if we do our job well. To suggest anything else is a disservice to the profession.

I don't know that I've ever heard the union say that. Part of this is about job protections, in which case the union says that a teacher get deserves to be fired for a reason, not an administrative whim. Buck need only imagine some left-wing administrator who's out to get rid of him because of his conservative views to understand why a union and job protections are useful here. We don't have enough time to get into the pay question, other than to point out that the insurmountable obstacle to merit pay is the lack of any sort of reliable way to measure teacher merit (spoiler alert-- it's not test scores).

They bargain for mediocre benefits.

The old "if they just gave me the money, I'd be much better at investing it than the state." The pension situation varies from state to state. As a retiree, I can tell you that my pension is pretty good. For nearly forty years, I've considered it one of the compensations for my job, including the fact that I didn't have o become a part time portfolio manager. Buck is sad that the retirement benefits he's offered don't allow him to invest more, but of course he can invest more if he wants to. I benefit from a fixed benefits plan (a rapidly vanishing animal, I know). I wonder what the effects would be of a do-it-yourself fund in a year like 2008 if a district was up to its ears in top-dollar teachers, none of whom would consider retirement because they couldn't afford it.

We can bargain for ourselves.

Oh, honey.

Buck has a story to tell about how a fellow teacher was falsely accused of hitting a student, and the principal "under convoluted district rules" wanted to fire him. That teacher walked into the office with test scores and student testimonials and student projects-- oh, and video records that showed his innocence. This, somehow, is proof that teachers can negotiate for themselves. I'm unimpressed. There was no negotiation here, no "convoluted" rules-- assaulting a student is a pretty straightforward offense-- and no part of the defense that mattered except the proof of the facts of the case.

But I'd ask Buck, once again, to consider how this would have gone if the teacher in question was one the administration didn't like, or if the administration had a friend's child he wanted to give a job, or a touchy liberal who wanted an excuse to get rid of a pesky conservative staffer. How well would "negotiating for yourself" go then?

Self-negotiation has one other major problem. Districts are going to have a finite pile of money for personnel, which means teachers will be negotiating against each other in a zero-sum game. What does that school look like, where supporting another teacher means taking money out of your own pocket? And while this might still look like a good idea to Buck now, I invite him to imagine being thirty-five with a family talking to an administrator who says, "Why should I give you a raise when I can hire this twenty-four year old for less than I pay you now?"

That's before we even get to issues like a coach not playing a school board member's kid enough, or a single teacher who turns down date requests from the wrong people, or a teacher who belongs to the wrong church or wrong political party, or a teacher who tries to stand up for a mistreated student and is told to stop rocking the boat.

The history of teacher pay is not the history of People In Charge saying, "Let's give them a raise and better working conditions. It'll cost us money, but it's the right thing to do." It isn't even the history of People In Charge acknowledging market forces. We're several years into a widely observed teacher "shortage" and still nobody wants to acknowledge that the Free Market tells us what to do-- make the job more attractive. If entire states won't budge in order to close staffing gaps of hundreds or thousands of teachers, what makes Buck imagine a world where an administrator says, "Well, Mr. Buck, we certainly want you to be happy, so here's a big fat raise."

Is that seven, yet?

As I said, I totally get the frustration, I really do. Union leadership is often slow to act and can do a really lousy job of listening to membership. Every time the firing process has to be defended because some yahoo with a teaching certificate did something stupid, I cringe. I rail away every time some union person uses "unity" to mean "shut up and agree."And there is nothing like the crappy feeling that comes when you see the new contract terms and realize that things important to you did not make the cut this time.

But the unfortunate reality is that an individual teacher has virtually no power over work and pay conditions, and the People In Charge have no reason to want to give her any. As it is, unions don't have all that much power and are regularly getting more of it stripped away. You will notice that in a state like, say, Wisconsin, the stripping of union power is not followed by the state and school districts saying, "Phew-- at last we can give you all the money and job security that the union stood in the way of."

Teachers need some level of protection to make it possible for them to be teachers; right now, the best way for them to get that is via unions. Yes, that's inconvenient for some folks who would like teachers to shut up, sit down, know their place, and accept what the People In Charge feel like giving them. That's why folks like FEE are always happy to find teachers like Buck to make their case for them. It's so much simpler when you can get obstacles to power to just unilaterally surrender.

So, not quite seven reasons to ditch the union. And I'm not even going to get into all the ways that non-union members benefit from the union they disdain. In the meantime, Daniel, hit me up on Twitter at @palan57. We can cyber hang out and talk about how to do cool R&J video projects, and I promise not to hassle you for being a free rider.


  1. As someone who works in a state where teachers aren't even allowed to join a union or negotiate collectively for their contracts, I whole-heartedly agree with every point. Here in North Carolina we have one of the lowest levels of teacher pay in the nation, only have decent benefits because those were established long ago as being the same as all other state workers (and include a single state pension that even the legislators are part of, so you know it's protected), and virtually no job protections beyond what our individual districts provide in their attempts to poach good teachers from one another. I'm lucky enough to work in a rich and progressive district that treats us fairly well because the voters (and resulting school board) want us treated well to maintain the districts high reputation and educational standards. Plenty of others are not so lucky. I'd still be better off (and better paid) with a union, and plenty of my fellow teachers elsewhere in the state would be vastly better off. It's only those who have the protections, like Mr. Buck, who are safe enough to proclaim that they don't need them.

  2. I have also complained to my state NEA affiliate and to the NEA itself. I felt that endorsing Obama for his second term was as premature as the early endorsement of Clinton. We should have made Presiden O work for the endorsement...such as a promise to dump Duncan and RttT.

    Most recently, I wrote angry posts, tweets, and emails to our state affiliate for jumping into political bed with Stand for Children in order to get the state to put more money into teacher salaries. (To be fair, the state Pres did say that they were "going in with their eyes wide open" and "being careful."

    I'm also a former local officer (VP), committee chair, and state delegate. When I retired I joined for life.

    Now, all that being said, if you hate the union as a knee-jerk reaction you likely haven't been through negotiations with a school board that wants its teachers to just "shut up and teach." My guess is that you haven't spent years trying to get a half hour of your day set aside for prep time, or a legally required 30 minute lunch. Unions are no longer necessary? Only if you don't know how you got the benefits that you've got! Once the union is gone who's going to stand up to prevent the principal from firing you to make room for the School Board President's daughter-in-law? Who's going to fight for due process (something we lost in Indiana) before they tell you to pack up and get out?

    Peter, your comment near the end of this post says it all..."You will notice that in a state like, say, Wisconsin, the stripping of union power is not followed by the state and school districts saying, 'Phew-- at last we can give you all the money and job security that the union stood in the way of.'"

    Until something better comes along, we need the union for teacher and student advocacy. Trusting your employer to "do the right thing" without any incentive is naive.

  3. Yet another former Union leader (local) and consultant for the state EA chiming in. I've seen the bad / greedy / incompentent side of unions, up close and personal, and still believe that, on balance, teachers need unions.

    The longer I taught (and the more unsavory stuff about unions that I witnessed), the deeper that conviction became. Learning to appreciate the union and the power they can wield is a matter of time and hard-won experience. They really are the good guys. And when they're not, it's usually because members aren't holding up their end.

    I was pretty sure, in my second year of teaching, that an exemplary teacher like me would never need a union, and that I could navigate the issues, from salary to misconduct, without formal representation. I was completely wrong.