Teacher layoff policies a lesson in union survival

Demonstrators at the Capitol building in Madison are protesting Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to cut public employees' benefits and eliminate most of their collective bargaining rights.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 12:27 AM

It looks increasingly likely that organized labor will manage to cheat death in Wisconsin. But where does that leave unions? Merely near death, that's where. Only 7 percent of private-sector workers are unionized, down from about 25 percent in the 1970s. Public-sector unions are doing better, but a movement restricted to public employees is one that has lost its soul. I'm not going to join the chorus of pundits dismissing the need for public-sector unions - there is no reason a group of janitors at city hall should not be able to join together and demand better wages and working conditions - but they're clearly less necessary than private-sector unions.

So the fact remains: A win in Wisconsin does nothing to reverse the decades of losses that unions have suffered everywhere else. Andy Stern, former president of the Service Employees International Union, put the problem to me bluntly. Unions "seem like a legacy institution and not an institution of the future," he said. "And legacies get shed."

Here's an example of what he means: State budgets are in worse shape than Charlie Sheen. With federal aid running out and local economies still struggling, the next few years will require deep cuts in spending. And where do states spend much of their money? On education - which is to say, on teachers.

The prospect of firing tens of thousands of teachers is bad enough. But, as a chilling report from the New Teacher Project explains, about 40 percent of the nation's teachers work in states where their contracts don't allow administrators to take performance into account when making layoffs. That is to say, they cannot try to lay off the bad teachers while saving the good ones. Instead, they're forced to use the "last-hired-first-fired" mechanism. The newest teachers get the pink slip, no matter how good they are. This will turn a crisis into a catastrophe. And let's be clear, it's the fault of the teachers unions.

That's not just a problem for schools, children, taxpayers and teachers. It's also a problem for the labor movement as a whole. Americans don't care what most unions are up to. But Americans do care, a lot, about what their child's teacher is up to. And if they think that teachers unions - which are public-employee unions, for the record - are standing in the way of good schools and good teachers, then their verdict will be much worse than "not an institution of the future." They will see unions as hurting our future - and their children.

That puts the fate of organized labor in the hands of Randi Weingarten. Elected to head the American Federation of Teachers in 2008, Weingarten has systematically worked to put her organization on the right side of the school reform wars. That November, she pledged that "with the exception of vouchers, no issue should be off the table." In January 2010, she set out five principles that should govern teacher evaluation - a necessary precursor to a better process for firing bad teachers and rewarding good ones. On Thursday, during a speech in Washington, she laid out the AFT's opening bid for that process. Teachers rated as "unsatisfactory" by administrators would be given a detailed improvement plan written by their supervisors and other teachers. If a year later they were still rated as unsatisfactory, then termination proceedings would begin within 100 days.

For teachers, this creates a clear and transparent process for evaluation. It ensures that instructors will know why they've been rated poorly and be given a supervised opportunity to improve. It means that decisions about hiring and firing will have to fit into some clear definition of what good teaching is and how it can be achieved - an important comfort at a time when ambitious school supervisors with budgets to balance see a political upside in doing something, anything, that makes it look like they're improving schools without spending money.

That isn't to say the AFT's proposal goes far enough. "It's still cumbersome, and it doesn't offer the accountability we need," says Andy Rotherham, co-founder of Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-minded education consultancy. And it's many, many years overdue. But it's a start. "There is value when the president of the AFT recognizes that these things are actually problems," Rotherham says. "A few years ago, the debate was about whether these things were problems."

If unions are to not just survive, but to actually flourish again, they need to create an identity beyond being a protection service for people who aren't very good at their jobs. For too long they've been defending individuals at the expense of the collective. Every time an incompetent teacher or overly aggressive cop hides behind a union, unions in general become a bit less attractive to everyone else. Next year, when a slew of beloved and decorated teachers are fired not because they were worse than the teachers who kept their jobs but because they were younger, good people everywhere will find themselves that much less sympathetic toward organized labor.

Scott Walker's overreach in Wisconsin has done unions a great favor. The public may not hold them in the highest esteem, but it doesn't want to see them destroyed. That is, however, a low bar to clear. The question now is whether unions can persuade the public of something altogether more difficult: that it has reason to want to see them thrive. If in five years the words "education reform" make you think of teachers unions rather than the people who tangle with them, my guess is organized labor will be well on its way to making a comeback.

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