Union Controlled Classrooms – What Happened to Public Education in the U.S.

The United States spends more per pupil on public education than any other country in the world, about one trillion dollars annually, but it is at the bottom of the class. In 2009, 15-year old American students ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 32nd in mathematics in the PISA international assessment of academic achievement. In 2000, they ranked 18th in math and 14th in science. 500,000 students from 34 OECD nations participated in each assessment.

A glance at the final exams given in 1895 and 1912 to 8th grade students is a striking example of how far we have fallen as a nation. [1, 2] 12-year old students in Salina, Kansas in 1895 had to pass the five-hour exam to qualify for admission to high school. Sample questions include:

–  Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
–  If a load of wheat weights 3942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cents per bushel, deducting 1050 pounds for tare?
–  Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
–  Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate correct pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

How many adults in 2013 could pass this test?

The decline in scholarship of America’s students parallels the unionization of public education. Teachers unions did not exist in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries when student achievement in the Unites States was the envy of the world. They are a fairly recent development.

Founded in 1857 by 43 teachers as a professional association, the National Education Association became a labor union in the social chaos of the 1960’s. Their metamorphosis into a union has negatively impacted the course of public education and the character of educators.

At its 50th anniversary, the NEA had a membership of 5,000. By 1960, the number had increased to 700,000. At its 150th anniversary in 2007, membership had ballooned to 3.2 million. The annual costs for public education during this period also ballooned, from $13 billion to $900 billion. [3]

Annual per student spending in constant 2011-2012 dollars rose from $3,648 in 1960 to $9,941 in 1995. In 2000, the average cost was $8,854. [4]  Today, it exceeds $10,000. In New York and the District of Colombia, the cost is $20,000, yet DC students have the lowest scores in this country as well as in all 34 of the countries in the OECD. [5]

There is an inherent structural flaw in the motives and priorities of a labor union being entrusted with the academic health and welfare of the nation’s young citizenry. In the transformation from a professional association to a union, its primary focus has shifted to the needs and welfare of the 3,500,000 teacher members, not the 55,000,000 young students placed in their care. [6]

The change in identity from a professional association to a labor union has had profound political, sociological and psychological consequences. These effects are linked to the decline in public education and academic scholarship and on the quality and performance of teachers. In their wake, America has become a global embarrassment. It is important to distinguish between teachers and teachers’ unions. Americans respect and trust teachers. They do not view unions in the same light. The difficulty lies in the lack of awareness of the union’s control over teachers and schools by the American public.

The NEA is dedicated, first and foremost, to the extent of its own power and political influence. Although unions claim to exist for the good of their members, they exist mainly for their own self-interests. The interests of the teachers are secondary. Those of the fifty-five million public school students are dead last.

With more than $1.5 billion in annual revenue from the mandatory dues of its 3.5 million members, the NEA has become a major player on the national political landscape. It is the largest contributor to the Democrat Party. [7]  The NEA can muster vast sums of money and numbers of votes for candidates in local, state and national elections or to defeat ballot initiatives that threaten its monopoly in public education.

To protect their interests, teachers unions have bludgeoned the citizens of California time and again at the ballot box. In 1993, the CTA spent $17 million to defeat Proposition 174 for school choice and $26 million in 2002 to defeat Proposition 38, a similar school voucher initiative.

They mortgaged their own headquarters in 2005 to raise the $56 Million that was needed to defeat the school reforms proposed by Governor Schwarzenegger. Had the CTA needed even more funds, its parent organization would have covered the shortfall with the staggering war chest the NEA has made available to any of its state affiliates. [8]

The continual increase in federal investment in public education and corresponding decrease in class size has not produced an increase in student performance. Quite the opposite has happened. The rate of literacy in our armed forces has steadily declined throughout the 20th century from 96% in WWII, to 81% in the Korean War to 73% in Viet Nam. [9] Thirty percent of current Navy recruits can’t read at a 9th grade level, the minimum required as a precaution in order to comprehend equipment instructions and operate them safely. [10]

Among high school graduates, the statistics are far worse. 75% of freshmen in 2-year colleges and 40% in 4-year colleges require remediation in reading and math. The US itself ranks 49th among the nations of the UN in its literacy levels. After 12 years of education in the nation’s public schools at a cost of $120,000 per student, America has an embarrassingly small return on its investment.

The 1895 and 1912 8th grade exams are a troubling reflection of the corrosive effects unionization has had on educators, students, the curriculum and the nation itself. Most teachers of that early era in our history had only a basic education. A high school education in the 1890’s provided a more solid understanding of mathematics, geography and literature than does most college degrees today.

Classes were large and often shared by students from several different grade levels. The curriculum was rigorous and every student was expected to master the Three R’s. The Bible, world atlas, US Constitution and the McGuffey Readers were often the only textbooks available. Strict rules promoted learning and kept disruptiveness to a minimum.
Public education in America was once among the nation’s greatest achievements. Its schools produced many of the world’s greatest minds (Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford) until the sixties. That remarkable achievement appears to have been lost since the intrusion of the powerful teachers’ unions, a footnote in our national history.

The NEA also changed the character of educators. Images in newspapers and on TV of angry teachers in the streets of Chicago and New York with placards demanding higher wages while their students are locked out of their schoolrooms for days stand in stark contrast to the well-dressed, soft-spoken teachers of our childhood.

Mob thuggery has inserted itself into public education. The educators who march and chant in favor of unions are often very emboldened and brutish. Although many teachers disagree with this unseemly and unprofessional behavior and would never voluntarily abandon their students, they are voiceless within the union.

The NEA has co-opted the teaching profession. Teachers have become members of a union, not of a highly esteemed profession. In its wake, the NEA damaged our schools, our students and our educators. There has been a dumbing down of our teachers, 41% of math teachers and 51% of those in chemistry and physics lack even a minor in their area of specialization and a correspondent dumbing down of our students, 23rd in science and 32nd in math on international assessment of academic competence.

Public education in America is literally on its deathbed. The only treatment to save its life is radical reform. There are no other options. Absolute control must be wrested from the teachers union.

Solutions to Revitalize Public Education in the United States:

(1) The Right to Work policy should be implemented in all states as should the right to opt out of mandatory dues and agency fees.

(2) Seniority, step increases in salary and automatic tenure after two or three years are rules that should be revoked.

(3) Assessment of teacher performance, disciplinary matters and design of the curriculum should be under district control with continual input from the community as should hiring and firing of teachers.

(4) Charter schools, single-sex schools and parental choice should all be made widely available.

It is time America took back control of the education of its future citizens. The purpose of this series will be to examine the effects of unionism on U.S. public education and academic achievement, quality of the teachers and the curriculum being taught by them and of the massive fraud of the federal monopoly in education.

It is our hope that exposure of the malignant effects of the unions on public education and the threat for the nation’s future will provide some direction for a much-needed public discussion about an issue that may be among the most critical for our continued survival as a world leader.

R. Claire Friend, MD, is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.


1. http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~kssvgs/school/8th_exam_exp.html

2. http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews/2013/07/no-youre-probably-not-smarter-than-a-1912-era-8th-grader/#ixzz2bEdfZHU3

3. http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009020.pdf

4. http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/Education.html in constant 1995 dollars

4. http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d12/tables/dt12_213.asp in constant 2011-2012 dollars

5. Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessman, Endangering Prosperity, p. 50

6. http://www.census.gov/newsroom/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/cb11-ff15.html


8. http://www.followthemoney.org/database/topcontributor.phtml?u=20205&y=0


10. https://www.google.com/#q=percent+of+US+navy+recruits+who+are+illiterate

Additional Notes:

Annual cost per student by state:

Annual cost per student in constant dollars:
Eric A. Hanushek, “Deconstructing RAND,” Education Next 1, no. 1 (2001), online edition: http://www.educationnext.org/2001sp/65.html.

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