How we educate our kids is an emotional topic. I've written about this in my book, Locally Grown: The Art of Sustainable Government, and in my podcast and blog. My latest podcast and blog, "America is Only as Good as It’s Public Education System" is a great primer for this conversation. If you’re reading this and you haven’t read that, I would recommend you do that because it spends a lot of time talking about the serious challenges we have in the American educational system, both in public schools and in universities. I share lots of data and try to work down to the root cause of problems. I also cite lots of examples of how we can improve education with proven methods. One surprising root cause I found in our public primary and secondary schools, is illegal immigration. It’s hard enough to teach algebra, but even harder to teach algebra to kids that don’t speak English. In March 2020 there 321,000 undocumented children enrolled in US public schools and this number sadly grows steadily with the surge of politically enabled illegal immigration through our open borders. This costs money and it short-changes the kids of tax-paying citizens.
However, illegal immigration is not the major root cause by far. It’s teachers’ unions. Not teachers, but the unions most teachers are coerced into joining. We need great teachers, and we need to pay those great teachers. Full disclosure, I was the product of a great Massachusetts public school system where my father was a career teacher and member of the union contract negotiating team. As a freshman “doolie” at the Air Force Academy, I remember being shocked to hear my sobbing mother’s phone call detailing how Dad had enough and abruptly resigned from his teaching job after 20 years. Luckily, he had a career Plan B that worked out pretty well. It was him who opened my eyes years ago how the union became a problem in public education.
Yup. It’s the teacher’s unions that are powerful left-wing, taxpayer-funded political action committees embedded in nearly every school district in America whether we like or not.
This article focuses on strategies to eliminate teachers’ unions or at least diminish their influence in our public K-12 schools. There are important improvements we need to make in our public schools, but the unions stand in the way of most of them, which makes the first step pretty clear. I can sense questions bubbling in your mind so it’s probably helpful to review some of the more common canards that are trotted out when anyone criticizes teachers’ unions. So, let’s get started.
1. If you are anti-union, you are anti-education and anti-kids.
The interest of parents and children are fundamentally at odds with the mission of teachers’ unions, which exist for the benefits of their members. The power of teachers’ unions to collectively bargain for more salary, more retirement benefits, less teaching time, less accountability, and control of curriculum is at odds with student and parent interests. FDR warned us over 85 years ago of the dangers of this conflict of interest with ALL public employee unions, not just teachers.
2. Parents have no business telling schools what they should teach.
These now famous words were uttered during the fall 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election by Democrat Candidate Terry McAuliffe. This Freudian slip doomed his campaign and handed victory to Republican Glenn Youngkin who campaigned on education reform in a blue state.
Terry McAuliffe doesn’t believe public school officials should be accountable to parents, most of whom pay their salaries with their local property tax dollars. It reflects the belief that teachers, not parents, know best what children need to learn. That means when The NEA and AFT actively supporting the highly divisive anti-American Critical Race Theory in school curriculum, parents should just shut up and live with it.
3. Teachers are underpaid and if you paid more, you would get higher quality education.
Here's the data: The average cost per student at public charter schools, which don't require union membership for teachers, is $7,131 average per student. Their district union counterparts average is $13,187 per student. And yet a study by Stanford University’s found that charter schools showed better outcomes than their district school peers on a national basis. A 2011 study, Assessing the Compensation of Public-School Teachers, by Jason Richwine, Ph.D., and Andrew G. Biggs, Ph.D., concluded that public school teacher total compensation (when including retirement and generous benefits) is 52% greater than the equivalent private sector job with comparable education and skills requirements.
What Do We Mean by Teachers’ Union?
I could go on, but I think it might be more instructive to define our general term “teachers’ union” and review a little history of how they got started in America. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) are by far the two largest unions with collectively 4.8 million members. It’s worth mentioning that there are also about 270,000 school administrators (e.g. principals, superintendents) that are also part of the conversation. However, only about 10% are union members meaning that the vast majority directly report to school committees, suggesting they could be part of the solution rather than the problem. For our purposes, teachers’ union is collectively the AFT and the NEA.
History of Teachers’ Unions
Now for some history on the growth of labor unions generally, and teachers’ unions specifically.
· In 1857, the National Education Association was founded. For its first 100 years, the NEA was apolitical and worked to further the interests of the education profession as a whole.
· In 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act to prevent anticompetitive practices considered harmful to consumers (monopolies, cartels, and trusts). However, courts interpreted it as making many labor union activities illegal. This was landmark legislation that was needed to counter the abuses of concentrated capital formation at the expense of American workers at the time.
· In 1914, Congress passed the Clayton Antitrust Act which included safe harbors for union activities including boycotts, strikes, picketing, and collective bargaining. By doing this, Congress essentially created a pathway for some unions to grow to become protected monopolies themselves.
· In 1916, the American Federation of Teachers was founded by teachers who wanted to organize a union outside of the NEA that excluded school administrators from membership. The AFT was more politically active than the NEA.
· In 1935, the Wagner Act guaranteed private sector employees the right to unionize while excluding public sector workers. FDR lobbied hard against the inherent conflict of interest between unionized public employees and the taxpayers they serve.
· In 1947, seeing the rapidly growing power of unions and how labor disputes threatened key components of the national economy, Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act (over President Truman’s veto) that prohibited many kinds of strikes and allowed states to pass right-to-work laws.
· 1959 Wisconsin became the first state to pass legislation allowing public sector unions.
· 1961-62 New York follows suit, when it gave sole collective bargaining power to AFT affiliate, the UFT, which promptly organized a massive strike with 20,000 teachers that shut down 25 of the city’s public schools. Time Magazine called it the “biggest strike by public servants in U.S. history.” Buckling to political pressure, President Kennedy issued an Executive Order that recognized the right of federal employees and teachers to bargain collectively. It's telling that this was an Executive Order, rather than legislation that probably wouldn’t have passed Congress.
· Finally in 1965, Congress passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that dramatically expanded the scope of teachers’ unions power to lobby for state and federal funds and shape public policy.
Their Words, Not Mine
The reason, I spend time on history is that it shows that the teachers union power is primarily a creature of government. Major legislation that created public sector unions happened when Democrats controlled Washington DC. So, it's no surprise that the union’s massive political donations have gone 94% to the Democrat party for decades. The old adage "follow the money" comes to mind.
That said, there have been plenty of differing opinions on the mission and limitations of the American labor movement within its leadership over the years. No less a figure than George Meany, a founder of the labor movement and president of the AFL-CIO for 24 years said the following.
“It is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.” When government unions negotiate, they sit across the table from people they helped put in office with generous campaign contributions. And when these unions go on strike, they walk out on the taxpayer."
Contrast this to a 2020 quote from the Los Angeles teacher's union boss Alex Caputo-Pearl who admitted, “We have a unique power – we elect our bosses. It would be difficult to think of workers anywhere else who elect their bosses. We do. We must take advantage of it.”
In the private sector, if a business is forced to pay its workers more money, those costs are passed on to the consumer. If the cost of a product is raised too much, the customer can go elsewhere. Most private sector unions get this and realize they can’t bargain for excessive salaries and perks. But some unions push things too far and ultimately price their members out of a job, as was the case with the United Auto Workers in the late 1970s, whose exorbitant demands drove car buyers to Japanese models and automakers to produce cars elsewhere, thus sending Detroit down the road to ruin.
But with government unions, consumers can’t shop other places for services because the government has a monopoly on them. When union negotiators and elected officials agree on exorbitant pay packages and protections for cops, prison guards, firemen and teachers, what can the public do? Call a different fire department if their house is burning down? With schools, wealthier people can at least send their kids to private schools where they pay twice, once with their taxes and then with private tuition. This touches on the indispensable aspect of our 246 year American experiment. Freedom. Freedom of speech. Freedom of choice. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans don't have that freedom when it comes to educating their children.
While all government unions do damage, teachers unions are particularly destructive because their collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) have been a disaster for students and good teachers alike. The unions don’t treat teachers as professionals, but rather as interchangeable components that have equal value and skill. To differentiate between effective and ineffective teachers, in terms of what students actually learn, requires eliminating pillars like socialist one-size-fits-all salary scales and seniority tenure. Many studies have borne out the harm of CBAs to America’s children. “The Long-run Effects of Teacher Collective Bargaining,” a 2018 study by researchers Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willen, found that, for males, being educated in unionized schools depresses students’ future annual earnings, decreases weekly hours, and reduces employment and labor force participation. The Lovenheim-Willen study was not the first to detail CBA’s harm to students. In 2007, Stanford professor Terry Moe reported that collective bargaining “appears to have a strongly negative impact in larger school districts.”
This is not to say that the unions have not made important contributions to the improvement in public schools over history. In the early 20th century, teachers were making less than factory workers despite mostly having college degrees. Many were forced to punch a time clock, and when they missed work due to being sick, they had to bring a doctor’s note. Female teachers were pressured to leave the classroom as soon as they became pregnant. The AFT was also an important supporter of the early civil rights movement. These are all great examples of common-sense American progress.
However, private enterprise was an even more important driver of American progress because it created the economic environment that lifted all boats and made America the envy of the world. However, some companies became so successful that they became monopolies that crushed competition, not with better products, but with predatory tactics that were anti-consumer. Small cartels of powerful companies controlled railroads, steel, oil and banks, forcing the federal government to pass the Sherman anti-trust act. In my book, I talk extensively about how bigness in everything eventually becomes inefficient, unsustainable and corrupt.
Teachers’ unions served a good purpose for some of their history but the time has come for them to go. American public education has become stagnant and expensive, especially in disadvantaged communities. We cannot be seduced by the cartel and its political protection that caused this problem, that they are the ones to fix it. History tells us they just engineer more power for themselves. More negotiating or collective bargaining is not the answer. It just makes the problem worse because the source of the disease is allowed to fester. We wouldn’t do this with a cancerous tumor. No, the "fixing" comes when the power of the teachers’ unions, and all public sector unions for that matter, are eliminated.
How Do We Do This?
Get ready. Here comes the ruthless part of this article. I just don’t see wasting any more time trying to find middle ground or negotiate or collectively bargain with teachers’ unions under the auspices of “reform.” The root of the problem is the union. No more analysis needed. For me, and an increasing number of Americans, the solution to problem of fixing public education is quite simple. Focus on defeating union interests anytime and anywhere possible.
If it were only that easy. It took more than a hundred years for our country to get into this position so the problem will not be solved overnight. We have to eat the elephant one bite at a time, but we don’t have a century to do it. The unions are an incredibly powerful network that was built from the bottom-up, one school district at a time. The grass roots are a great place for the resistance to start.
We already starting to see it across the nation. More than 300,000 students were locked out of Chicago Public Schools starting last Wednesday after unionized teachers refused to teach in-person, citing that COVID made this too dangerous. This despite the investment of $123 million of mostly federal money into upgrading school infrastructure to mitigate risk. Not only is the strike illegal under Illinois law, it also violates the union’s own contract. Now a group of Chicago parents have filed a lawsuit against the Chicago Teachers Union, calling this week’s school closures an “illegal strike” and demanding that teachers return to school for in-person learning.
Parents need to care enough to attend school committee meetings to make their voices heard. Citizens need to really pay attention to school committee elections to vote for people who are committed to the elimination of union power, starting with steadily diluting the power of collective bargaining agreements. The negotiating position of all unions at the time of contract renewal is to use the previous contract as the baseline from which they bargain for more money, more benefits, more favorable work rules etc. Now imagine reversing the momentum, when the starting point for the school committee is 10% less than the previous agreement? And the following year it is 10% less again. Crazy right? I don’t think so but we have to be ready for the ensuing lawsuits union pressure for their political allies to come to the rescue.
The next theater for battle is at the state level. States must amend their constitutions to ban collective bargaining agreements with teachers, and possibly all public sector employees. But In order to defend against challenges to those state amendments in federal courts, efforts would need to be preceded by comprehensive legislation protecting teachers and other public sector employees from discrimination, abuse, and denial of due process. Without such legislation, the constitutional amendment process risks being invalidated based on elimination of rights previously given to a group without just cause, among other legal challenges. (Similar to the challenges to the California Marriage Protection Act). This is a longer-term task due to the need for broad public support, voter approval, and the generally difficult process of amending most state constitutions.
In the interim, more states need to pass “right-to-work” laws. Currently, 27 states have given workers a choice when it comes to union membership. Labor unions still operate in those states, but workers cannot be compelled to become members as a requirement of their job. Kentucky became the 27th right-to-work state when it enacted HB 1 on Jan. 9, 2017. In contrast, 23 states don’t have these laws and require many government workers to pay union fees as a condition of employment. That sounds crazy and unfair, but it’s been the law for years in these states. The good news is that, in 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that non-union government workers cannot be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service. This landmark case restores the First Amendment rights of free speech and freedom of association to more than five million public school teachers, first responders and other government workers across the country.
I cannot emphasize enough that this not a war against teachers and schools because that’s how unions, and their political supporters will portray the resistance. We want and need great teachers and we want to pay them well for doing great work and getting the results the taxpayers and parents expect. Fair work rules, transparent merit-based compensation and solid market-oriented benefits.
I think Robert Chanin, the 41-year general counsel for NEA said it best. At the union’s annual meeting in 2009, Chanin gave a legendary speach announcing his retirement, explaining why the NEA has been such an effective advocate for its members. “Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a “great public school for every child.” NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”
Chanin was completely correct. It’s a power they never should have been given and it’s long-past time to take it away. Yes, it’s time to abolish teachers’ unions.