Taking Teachers' Unions to Task

By Richard D. Kahlenberg,
a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and author of forthcoming "Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy"
Wednesday, April 18, 2007


How Teachers' Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers, and Endanger Public Education

By Rod Paige

Thomas Nelson. 224 pp. $25.99

Rod Paige, the first secretary of education under George W. Bush, set off a firestorm in February 2004, when he called the National Education Association, the nation's largest teacher union, "a terrorist organization." He immediately apologized, but in his new book, Paige recounts receiving a call a couple days later from Secretary of State Colin Powell, who joked, "You do education, and let me do terrorism." Paige retorted: "Colin, I've got a better deal for you. I'll take Arafat, and you take the NEA." Powell responded, "Do I look like I am nuts?"

The jocular story suggests that privately Paige was somewhat less remorseful than he was publicly. And although he now calls his terrorist comment "foolish and inappropriate," his tone and message have changed little in three years. According to Paige, teacher unions wage "war against hope" and "hurt children." He ominously notes that "the decline in our education system over the past several decades parallels the rise in influence of teachers' unions." And he says the "biggest" single reason that American schools aren't doing better is the power of the teacher unions.

Like his old boss, Paige doesn't "do nuance," even when given more than 200 pages to state his case. Granted, teacher unions are by no means perfect. As Paige notes, too often the unions protect incompetent teachers and resist efforts to pay the teacher who works long hours any more than the one who springs for the parking lot the moment the bell rings. But "The War Against Hope" does little to acknowledge the innovative proposals that some teacher unions have backed on those two issues and the positive roles they play in education.

There is no mention, for example, of programs championed by unions in Toledo and elsewhere to weed out incompetent teachers through a system of "peer review." In Toledo, it turns out, teachers are even tougher judges of their peers than principals: A fourth-grade teacher pays a price when her underperforming colleague in third grade passes along unprepared students. Likewise, Paige makes no mention of union support for a form of merit pay -- higher compensation for teachers who receive a license from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, akin to board-certification of doctors.

Similarly, the book fails to explain why teacher unions arose in the first place. Before they began collective bargaining in New York City in the early 1960s, teachers were even more poorly paid than they are today and were abused by autocratic principals, who made them skip lunch in order to supervise students, held them for interminable after-school staff meetings, and could alter the grades that they gave to students. Nor does Paige acknowledge anywhere in the book that unions are far more powerful in the North than in the South. Discussing this variation would raise an awkward question: Why, if teacher unions are the "biggest" impediment to progress in education, are Southern schools not thriving and delivering a far superior form of schooling?

Paige believes he's scored a knockout punch when he notes that unions are self-interested institutions and push policies that are good for their members. This insight, of course, also applies to principals, who sometimes don't remove chronically disruptive students from the classroom because high suspension rates would make them look bad. The important question to grapple with is not which adults are selflessly concerned about students, but whose interests line up most closely and most often with what is good for students. None of that analysis can be found in this polemic.

To be sure, Paige does single out for praise a few progressive teacher union leaders, such as Albert Shanker, the late president of the American Federation of Teachers; Randi Weingarten, president of New York City's United Federation of Teachers; and Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association. But they are mentioned mostly to serve as a contrast to so-called typical union leaders who Paige says thwart "authentic school reform."

Paige's book raises the question: Why are conservatives so worked up about teacher unions? In 1996, Bob Dole singled out teacher unions for tough rhetoric in his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination, ignoring other groups -- from auto workers to the NAACP -- that have equally strong ties to the Democratic Party. One possibility is that teacher unions lie at the intersection of two institutions that many conservatives dislike: public education and organized labor. In an economy that has otherwise sought to move toward "market solutions," our system of what Paige tellingly refers to as "government-run schools" stands as an annoying anomaly to many conservatives, and the political strength of the teachers unions is the single most important reason why publicly funded private-school voucher proposals have mostly failed.

More annoying still to some conservatives, the teacher unions are a thriving and growing segment of an otherwise dwindling and vanquished U.S. labor movement. Of course, to many other Americans, free trade unions and public education are central pillars of our democracy -- the very thing, ironically, that real terrorists hate.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company