Taking on the Unions

Tuesday, January 30, 2001

Anyone who wants to improve our nation’s schools would be wise to ponder a basic fact: the teachers’ unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society.

The unions shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining. These activities are so broad in scope, and lead to contract rules so numerous and restrictive, that virtually everything about the organization of schools is affected. The unions also shape the schools from the top down, through political action. Their massive memberships and awesome resources give them unrivaled power in the politics of education, allowing them to affect which policies are imposed on the schools by government—and to block reforms they don’t like.

Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

Despite their importance, the unions have not been on the radar screens of reformers. In the hundreds of official reports on school reform published over the last few decades, they have almost always been ignored, as though they are irrelevant to an assessment of problems and solutions.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. It is especially troubling because union interests are often in conflict with the public interest. The unions are fundamentally concerned with promoting the job security and material well-being of their members, and with increasing the size, financial strength, and power of their own organizations—and these interests can lead them to exercise power in ways that are not good for kids and schools.

The unions push for rules that make it impossible to get rid of bad or mediocre teachers. They push for salary, promotion, and transfer policies that rely heavily on seniority and have nothing to do with teacher quality. They resist efforts to evaluate teacher performance, and they even oppose testing current teachers to see if they are competent enough to be in the classroom.

These examples are just the tip of a large and threatening iceberg. Because of the unions, schools have grown bureaucratic and inflexible. And because of the unions, efforts to create a more dynamic and responsive system—mainly through proposals for school choice—have been sabotaged in politics, despite their popularity with parents.

If real reform is ever to come to American education, our leaders must face up to the teachers’ unions and do what is best for kids and schools. The catch is that many leaders are unwilling to do this—for the unions’ power is very real. Indeed, they have colonized the Democratic Party, whose officeholders and candidates almost never take positions on education that conflict with union interests.

So Americans who want better schools shouldn’t hold their breath. In the near term, the teachers’ unions will remain firmly in the driver’s seat—making sure that we don’t actually go anywhere.

Progress will not come easy. But the more Americans are aware of what the teachers’ unions are doing, the more likely the unions and their political allies will be held to account. And the more likely things will finally change.