There is abundant evidence that school districts don’t do enough to retain the best teachers or weed out the low performers. For instance, a 2009 report by the New Teacher Project found that 94 percent of teachers in Chicago received “superior” or “excellent” ratings, and just four in 1,000 were rated “unsatisfactory.” Considering the poor performance of Chicago’s schools, there’s no way nearly all of its teachers are superlative. Clearly, the evaluation system is broken.
And while teachers unions share some culpability for our education problems, so do school administrators, school boards, elected officials, communities and parents. Besides, those teacher contracts and state laws people complain about were agreed to by someone in addition to the unions — namely administrators and politicians. There is plenty of blame to go around.
2. Teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.
Like unions representing autoworkers or flight attendants, teachers unions focus on workplace issues. They engage in collective bargaining with management for wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.
But teachers unions are different from private-sector unions in some fundamental ways. For starters, in the private sector, companies can go bankrupt. This generally creates a check on unions’ demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business. Public schools don’t go out of business. Officials involved in the Chicago negotiations said the union’s early demands for salary increases of more than 30 percent were impossible for the cash-strapped city.
In the private sector, there are genuinely two sides negotiating contracts. But teachers unions and other public-sector unions often exert power on both sides of the bargaining table. They exercise political pressure by supporting candidates financially, with coveted endorsements or by calling voters. Because school board elections are often held separately from other elections and have low turnout, teachers’ unions often dominate them. Autoworkers don’t get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can.
3. Teachers unions support only liberal Democrats.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 to 2012 the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated more than $79 million to congressional and presidential candidates. That largesse, which doesn’t include additional millions spent on lobbying and on state and local races, places them among the biggest-spending special interest groups in the country.
While most of the money has gone to Democrats, like any interest group teachers unions will work with whomever can help them advance their agenda. In the past decade the National Education Association worked with pro-states’-rights Republicans to try to undo the No Child Left Behind Act. The association’s Pennsylvania affiliate has given $40,000 to the Republican state legislator who famously remarked that the state’s controversial voter ID law would help Mitt Romney win there in November.