In self(ish) defense

How teacher unions harm students and teachers alike

By Patrick R. Gibbons
  • Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 decided that racial segregation in education violated the U.S. Constitution. It was a significant victory for the civil rights movement. Yet, more than 60 years later, significant inequality problems persist, including a horrifying achievement gap between white and minority students.

Given the problems that exist and the widespread consensus that America needs immediate and meaningful reform, why has reform been so slow to take hold?

An organization that has been looking closely into this issue for a long time is the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights. The group's goal is to "eliminate the racial and ethnic achievement gap in public education by working to create an effective school for every child."

In service to this end, the Commission recently examined the relationship between the teachers unions and education reform in the report, "National Teachers' Unions and the Struggle Over School Reform."

Over "the last decade," notes the report, "the national leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have made their unions implacable foes of laws and policies designed to improve public education for disadvantaged children." Recent attempts by the unions to terminate the successful D.C. voucher program for disadvantaged children are just one of a long list of civil rights offenses against students and teachers alike.

According to the Citizens Commission, the unions have opposed holding schools and teachers accountable for the progress of their students, sought to water down academic standards, attacked assessments designed to measure progress, tried to prevent comparisons of schools and maligned or stalled many other reforms that have proven to increase the quality of education.

Education activist David W. Kilpatrick recently summed up the U.S. teacher unions' stance on education reforms:

The Unions do everything possible to maintain [the status quo]...They invariably call for variations of the status quo, 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.

From such a powerful indictment, one might assume that Kilpatrick is simply a right-wing, hard-core, anti-union zealot, perhaps on a religious crusade to promote parental choice. But you would be wrong. David W. Kilpatrick was a top officer in both the National Educators Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the two largest teacher unions in the country.

Of course, not all the teacher unions behave badly. But many insiders like Kilpatrick know that unions went from protecting teachers from malevolent management to becoming concerned only with their political power and money. This has meant opposition to school reforms that benefited disadvantaged students. It has also meant penalizing hard-working teachers, forcing teachers to follow the party line and working to make teachers totally dependent on the union.

Dissent and free-thinking are not allowed, and Nevada is no exception to this rule. Just last month, liberal educator and pundit Chip Moser highlighted the local teacher union's efforts to squash political dissent on the Clark County School District's web service. Moser described the incident as "union officials attempting to intimidate [the teacher] — to keep him from expressing his opinions, in an appropriate forum, about matters of gravity concerning teachers."

Given Nevada's growing achievement gap between white and Hispanics students, you'd think an "education association" would have better priorities. This gap was highlighted in NPRI's report, "Failure is No Longer an Option." It noted that, while 71 percent of Nevada white students in the fourth grade read at grade level, just 47 percent of African Americans and 42 percent of Hispanic students do so. Sadly, the unions have opposed many of the reforms proposed in that paper.

Yet teachers and students won't be subject to educational malpractice from the teacher unions forever. Social scientists and policymakers are becoming much more aware of what reforms work. Groups like the Democrats for Education Reform are forming, and protests over the cancellation of the D.C. Voucher Program show that serious education reform is a bipartisan issue.

Thus, the unions will either support meaningful reforms, or they will soon become irrelevant. Democratic policymakers can't be hostage for much longer.

Education reform is a civil rights issue.

Patrick R. Gibbons is an education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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