Teachers Unions Reforming Themselves?
Not going to happen. If change comes, it will be from the outside.
Mike Stryer is a former teacher and co-founder of NewTLA, a union reform group that came into being in 2010. One of its goals was to get the powerful United Teachers of Los Angeles to adopt a sweeping education reform agenda. Now Vice President for Programs at Teach Plus, he wrote “A Crossroads for Teacher Unions?” for Huffington Post last week.
As teacher unions step up their calls to stop the “corporate agenda” in education and to confront the “privatization” movement, there is a far more real and serious threat facing teacher unions. The threat comes not from billionaires or charter schools or philanthropists. Rather, it comes from many teacher unions’ difficulty to modernize and reshape themselves in the midst of profound demographic changes of their members. At stake are the relevance and even existence of teacher unions–a force that historically has played such a vital role in American public school education.
Stryer believes that the younger union members aren’t going to put up with their stodgy old out-of-touch, anti-reform elders.
Teacher unions and teacher union leaders that continue to ignore the voices of the new majority of early career teachers do so at their own peril. The choice should be clear: modernize and reshape teacher unions in ways that professionalize teaching and attract early career teachers or become a disappearing force that plays a marginal role in American public education.
I wish he was right, but history has shown otherwise. Attempting to placate younger teachers and the general public, union leaders have for some time now been pledging to engage in reform, raise teaching standards and, in general, bend and change with the times. But when push comes to shove, the same old agenda remains in place.
It is true that younger teachers as a rule are not much interested in the traditional union agenda and the more idealistic ones like Mr. Stryer are downright opposed to it. And, yes, the bulk of the activists are indeed older members. But the young eventually become older, and inevitably the traditional “protect my job and perks at all costs” mentality kicks in. Tenure, seniority, the step-and-column salary scale and loopy dismissal statutes become infinitely more enticing as the years go by.
Long time teacher union watchdog, Mike Antonucci, addresses the union reform issue in “Let’s All See the Plan.” While praising NewTLA’s efforts, he writes,
The teacher union reform field is littered with the bodies of those who sought to alter the union’s primary mission – protecting teachers – and found themselves ousted in favor of challengers who promised to get tough with administrators.
Terry Moe, another veteran teacher union critic, writes “Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.”
The argument that young teachers are going to transform the unions is just as fanciful, and just as wrong…. Unions are unions. They are in the business of protecting jobs: that is why their members join, that is what their members expect them to do, and that is what they actually do. If you expect them to do something else–to represent children or to represent the public interest–you will be wrong ….
Not to say that teachers unions are invulnerable. In fact, they are very much embattled. But the offensive is coming from the outside, not from the union rank-and-file. For example,
- According to a recent Gallup Poll – continuing a trend – twice as many Americans think that teachers unions hurt rather than help public schools. (But it’s important to note that teachers’ opinions of their unions are not moving in the same direction. In a 2013 Education Next poll, 56 percent of teachers claim that their unions have a positive effect on their local schools. In 2011, the number was 58 percent, an insignificant difference.)
- The right-to-work movement is gaining steam. After successes in Michigan and Indiana, the National Right to Work Foundation is trying to end forced unionism in Missouri, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
- If successful, the Students Matter lawsuit in California will remove the tenure, seniority and arcane dismissal statutes from the education code and render them unconstitutional, thus making it easier to get rid of incompetent and criminal teachers while outlawing seniority as a method of teacher retention.
- If the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case gets to the U.S. Supreme Court, it could conceivably end forced unionism in all fifty states.
- As technology-based education becomes more prevalent, fewer teachers will be needed.
- There has been a steady political shift. Whereas unions historically could rely on across-the-board support from Democrats, many current reform leaders are left-of-center folks who have come to realize that the unions do not act in the best interest of children.
- Parent groups are becoming more influential. Typically led by mothers, these organizations are fed up with the status quo, and are demanding reform in cities and towns nationwide.
Yes, change will come, but don’t wait for teachers or their unions to reform themselves. Ain’t gonna happen. As Terry Moe says, “Don’t expect a cat to bark.”
What about NewTLA?
Launched with a full head of steam in 2010, they ceased to exist just two years later.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.