These are common descriptions of the two major U.S. teachers unions — the National Education Association, which is the largest union in the country, and the American Federation of Teachers — which are rarely discussed without some modifier about their power. Or at least they were before the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that public unions can no longer collect fees from nonmembers who still benefit from negotiated contracts the unions work out with governments.
But are these descriptions entirely accurate?
If power is the ability to direct or influence how other people behave to ensure a desired result, then one could say the teachers unions have not been terribly successful for some time in areas that matter a great deal to them. And some of the things that unions are credited with — or blamed for — aren’t what the conventional wisdom says they are.
Let’s consider their supposed political power, which is commonly cited when conservatives, such as the Koch brothers, and wealthy philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, spend millions on school reforms that they champion but the unions don’t.
Yes, teachers unions donate millions of dollars to local, state and federal level candidates. Their political, social, educational and labor agendas line up far more with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party, and most of their contributions go to Democrats. Both the NEA and the AFT endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. What’s more, tens of thousands of members can be called upon to help get out the vote.
Still, somehow, with their extraordinary power, Donald Trump won the White House. In addition, both houses of Congress have Republican majorities. Most states — 33 — have Republican governors. There are 32 state legislatures controlled by Republicans.
And, of course, conservative Republicans are a majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. As a result, the unions got smacked on Wednesday by the court with a 5-to-4 vote.
Now, let’s consider the ability of teachers unions to call strikes to press their agendas, which are portrayed by critics as being motivated by greed. Given that teachers in numerous states don’t earn enough to pay their bills without taking a second job, and that teachers in general make only 60 percent of what similarly educated professionals in the United States do, it’s hard to argue they are trying to fleece the public with contract demands.
Yes, teachers unions in some cities — take Chicago, for example — have enough political power to call a strike. The Chicago Teachers Union did in 2012, with the support of the community. But the teachers unions did not originate the now-famous teachers’ strikes of early 2018 in half-a dozen Republican-controlled states. In fact, in some places, the unions were skeptical of the strikes. Instead, the strikes were organized by teachers themselves to boost low wages and funding for schools with few resources. (Interestingly, there wasn’t anywhere near as much criticism in political circles of these teachers who were striking as in Chicago, when the union called the strike.)
It is also commonly said that teachers unions prevent school districts from firing bad teachers. Really? Teachers aren’t fired in any greater numbers in right-to-work states.
And if the unions were so powerful, you might think that education policies they support would be at the top of every president’s agenda. Nope.
Were the unions supportive of the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, the key education initiative of President George W. Bush, the law that elevated the role of standardized test scores in the evaluation of schools? No, they weren’t. This 2002 Education Week story reported that “a number of members of Congress turned to the NEA and the AFT” for advice in writing the bill — but they didn’t take that advice. Unions were accused of fighting change — as opposed to resisting changes that they knew would not work in practice — and, the story said, “few union fingerprints” were visible on No Child Left Behind. The story went on to say:
The unions, though an important force when it comes to shaping education policy, can point to only a handful of wins and many more losses on what may be the most significant piece of federal precollegiate legislation to come along in decades. Despite polite press statements praising some aspects of the law, the unions’ attitudes were so lukewarm that neither endorsed the measure that could have major ramifications for their millions of members for years to come. Now, the unions must look to the states to find ways for the law to be carried out more to their liking.
Authors of No Child Left Behind knew that the goals they set for public schools in the bill were unreachable — but they figured Congress would rewrite the law before there were serious consequences. Congress didn’t get around to it. But when it became obvious even to many supporters the law was fatally flawed — at some point, nearly all public schools in the country were deemed to be failing — nobody bothered to remember that the unions had had legitimate objections. The Obama administration had to hand out waivers to states from the most onerous parts of No Child Left Behind.
The NEA and AFT, for all of their Democratic leanings, came to oppose President Barack Obama’s longest-serving education secretary, Arne Duncan. He coerced states into doing his favored school reforms, which unions came to realize were damaging public schools — things such as evaluating students, teachers and schools by standardized test scores; and rushing implementation of the Common Core State Standards. In 2014, the NEA called for Duncan’s resignation. The AFT came close. It didn’t happen. So much for union power.
None of this is meant to suggest that unions haven’t in some situations been resistant to change and have been ineffective in their main job: representing teachers. But the notion that unions are standing in the way of real reform is laughable. This is from a book called “You Can’t Fire the Bad Ones!” by William Ayers, Crystal Laura and Rick Ayers:
In current public discussions about education and schools, teachers’ unions loom as the biggest, brightest, and apparently most convenient target for the champions of market-based reforms.
Fortunately the repeated assertions that the teachers’ unions are hindering student performance or acting as the main obstacle to school improvement is a theory that’s quite easy to test. Here goes: Collective bargaining for public school teachers is prohibited in Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and the Carolinas and is severely limited in “right-to-work” states that disallow binding contracts for teachers. These states are consistently ranked at the bottom in national comparisons of student achievement according to the standardized tests favored by the anti-union forces. Those at the top? States like Massachusetts, with the strongest teachers’ unions.
Nine out of the ten states with the highest average achievement scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests were states with the largest number of teachers covered by union contracts. 10 Further, teachers at the prestigious University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (among others) all belong to a strong teachers’ union. This fact-based reality holds true internationally as well: Finland and Canada, for example, where teachers’ unions are strong and where practically every teacher is a member of the union, have among the highest average achievement scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests. So, the theory that teachers belonging to a union equates with school failure turns out to be utter nonsense from top to bottom.
The dominance of this myth has much more to do with the frequency of its repetition and the ferocity of its messengers than with any evidence whatsoever. In terms of political clout, the combined political action spending of the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) amounted to $56 million over the two decades from 1990 to 2010,12 a drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of millions spent by the leading anti-union forces (Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, Eli Broad, Michael Bloomberg), most of whom also have a stake in making profits in the education “market.”
The anti-union myth making has a range of short-term and long-term costs. One insidious toll is the undermining of public confidence in teachers and schools, and another is discouraging people from entering the profession altogether. The myth encourages a split between teachers and families, falsely casting teachers as standing in opposition to the interests of children and communities, when in reality their interests largely overlap: Smaller schools and smaller class size are good for teachers, true, and they’re also good for student learning. Sustained time to prepare helps teachers teach, true, and it also helps students engage in classroom activities as well.
One thing the unions have been lousy at is public relations. They have been unable to make a case about the importance of the labor movement in the creation of the middle class in this country or about their genuine concern for students. They have even been unable to stop attacks from Democrats.
That’s how powerful they’ve been.