Watcher’s Forum: How would you change the role teachers unions play in public education?

The Watcher’s Council

Every week on Monday morning, the Council and invited guests weigh in at the Watcher’s Forum with short takes on a major issue of the day. This week’s question: How would you change the role teachers unions play in public education?

The Noisy Room: Overlooking the fact that a US Federal Department of Education is not enumerated among the federal government’s powers and is therefore in and of itself unconstitutional — overlooking that – let us presume that a public education system has any validity to begin with. With that as a foundational premise the purpose of teachers is ostensibly to teach. To convey knowledge to new generations, where knowledge is presumed to be factual and truthful. Therefore, a union of teachers that does not acknowledge the mission of teaching as part of its foundational premise applies a vector not parallel to the mission of teaching. Thus, the role of unions, aside from providing for such mundane things such as insurance and training and best practices (the way a guild might be presumed to work), any such union should strive to improve the level of professionalism and quality of product among teachers as a point of professional pride after the fashion of a guild or other professional association.

Political alignments should be entirely out of scope. We hear the never-ending refrain of teachers as professionals. It’s time they took the professional moniker seriously and transformed the unions into a professional association, such as those associations whose memberships include engineers, scientists and physicians. The unions should become a standards institution, not a bully pulpit.

This is primarily a state’s issue, but whether done at the state level or the federal level, whether one belongs to a union or not should be strictly voluntary with no form of repercussions or punishment attached. Currently, in a number of states, teachers are forced to join the union and that should be stopped. And in a number of other states, they are forced to pay dues whether they belong to the union or not. This in itself constitutes extortion.

In all other professional fields, competition has helped refine and polish the quality of service, the level of professional standards and the state of the art generally. As long as teaching is a public (bureaucratic) endeavor, competition doesn’t exist in any meaningful form. There is no incentive to improve standards or state of the art and teaching as a science stagnates. Consequently, in the interests of improving teaching as a practice, its role as a public sector entity should be eliminated. It should be returned to the private sector and teaching institutions should be made to strive for excellence in a competitive environment.

The Independent Sentinel: The collective bargaining process sets up a corrupt relationship between unions and politicians. For this reason, automatic withdrawal of union dues needs to be stopped. Tenure should be renewable. Teacher evaluations should be based on some quantitative performance measures. Unions do not represent children. One teacher union president told me the job of the union is not to worry about children, it’s to worry about teachers. Unions think schools exist for them, not children.

JoshuaPundit: I see the problem of unions in public education as a seminal one. It is not only a matter of political bias in many states (and anyone who doubts that should just take a look at your local college campus or the sort of people who make up a large chunk of the Chicago teacher’s union) but cultural bias, even coming down to the way young boys and girls are socialized.

The unions can’t be banned because of the First Amendment, but their power and stranglehold on public education could be reduced a great deal with a few fairly simple reforms at the federal level.

While the Federal Government should never have gotten involved in public education, since it is, it’s an opportunity for lemons to be turned into lemonade and the largely superfluous Federal Department of Education to do something useful, for once. The money’s the key.

The Federal Government could very easily promote a nationwide voucher program, thus allowing parents to vote with their feet. This would be particularly popular with minority parents, who at last would be able to take advantage of decent private schools.

When it comes to public school teachers and unions, The Department of Education could even put in place a de facto ban on non-voluntary union dues deductions for political purposes, They could even come up with a standard, non-biased curriculum and texts as well uniform standards for teacher evaluation and get them adopted even in the most Blue, union ruled states… The method is simple…any school district not conforming to Federal standards and practices in these matters would simply not receive any federal funds for education whatsoever.

If you think this is impractical, all you need to remember is how President Clinton forced the 50 states to all conform to his much tougher. 08% blood-alcohol standard for drunk driving. He did it by simply threatening to withhold federal highway funds from any state that failed to comply. The Federal government did the same thing in 1974 to enforce a national 55 MPH speed limit.

Rhymes With Right: I come at this one from the perspective of a teacher in the great state of Texas, which is a right-to-work state. I am also the building rep for one of four teacher organizations that operates in my district, one which explicitly declares itself to not be a union. I therefore look at this particular question with great interest.

First, I’m opposed to banning teacher unions, even though I have made a point of not joining one — even to the point of having moved from a state where union dues are compulsory. Why do I oppose the the solution that so many opponents of teachers unions call for? Easy — the First Amendment ‘s guarantee of freedom of association obviously allows for teachers, like every other group of Americans, to form organizations. What needs to happen, though, is for the courts and Congress to recognize that compulsory union membership in the public sector is improper — and that any requirement that teachers (or other public employees) give any portion of their salary to an organization as a condition of continuing their employment is corrupt on its face. That those dues are used for political purposes makes that compulsion no different than the old practice of “the lug” in which public employees were compelled to donate to the party and favored candidates of the reigning regime as a condition of maintaining public employment. No private organization should have any claim on a portion of the paycheck of teachers or other public employees as a condition of those individuals being allowed to work for the government which they support with their taxes. And if unions are to be allowed to extract mandatory dues from teachers, then those unions should be prohibited from directing even a single dollar to any political purpose, either directly or indirectly — all dues money collected must be spent only on negotiating contracts and dealing with
teacher grievances, which is the putative reason that the unions were initially granted the privilege of collecting mandatory dues in the first place.

A second change I would make with regards to teacher unions is doing away with notion of union monopolies and instead allowing for a competitive system like we have here in Texas. Believe it or not, the four organizations that operate in my district actually compete for membership! Teachers have a choice of joining one of them, switching organizations year to year, or remaining independent of all of them. The result is that multiple views are heard and the organizations hustle for members each year — and also lobby aggressively on both the district and state level for changes that their members see as beneficial to their members. The diversity of views means that good ideas get brought forward and adopted — indeed, about five years ago my organization suggested a change to state law based upon a situation at my school that I brought to my organization’s attention. The result was a law that was good for both schools and teachers. When teachers have choices of organizations, their voices can be heard over the voices of the union oligarchs. Of course, this does require going to a right-to-work system — something that may not happen easily in some parts of the country.

Well, there you have it.

Make sure to tune in every Monday for the Watcher’s Forum. And remember, every Wednesday, the
Council has its weekly contest with the members nominating two posts each, one written by themselves and one written by someone from outside the group for consideration by the whole Council. The votes are cast by the Council and the results are posted on Friday morning.
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