The Coming Fall of the Teachers' Unions

A review of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools, by Terry M. Moe (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 513 pp., $34.95

Seldom has the raw power and unbridled selfishness of teacher unions been more on display than it is today in state capitols around the country.  Teachers led the union riot that shut down Wisconsin's state government for more than two weeks, making legislators afraid to enter government buildings while angry mobs defaced public property and shouted threats against elected officials.

Terry Moe, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and author of numerous books and studies on education policy, has written a highly insightful book about teacher unions and their impact on education policy.

The sheer volume and quality of information in Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools make it a major and timely contribution to the debate.  As one reads about how teacher unions operate, it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate this state of affairs.

The book begins by telling the hard truth about unions: "As the most powerful group in American education, they use their power to promote [their] special interests-in collective bargaining, in politics-and this often leads them in to do things that are not good for the children or the schools."

The unspoken question is why we, as a society, put up with this.  One answer might be the slow process by which we all acquiesced to their control.

Public school unionism originated in the "progressive" belief that the nation needed to first centralize, and then professionalize, the delivery of education.  The National Education Association (NEA) was originally designed to be a tool of administration, not unionization.  It was set up to improve the quality of teaching.  This centralization, however, made it much easier for unions to organize, and they gradually gained the power necessary to subvert, and then control, the entire system.  Had the nation's schools remained decentralized and independent, they would not have been so easy to unionize.

Moe demolishes many of the myths surrounding teachers and their unions.  The most important of these is the myth that teachers are unhappy with their unions and yearn to shed their yoke.  Not quite.  Teachers strongly support their unions.  Whereas 55 percent of teachers agree "tenure and teacher organizations make it too hard to weed out mediocre and incompetent teachers," the same group opposes removal of tenure, by a 77-to-23 margin.

Are school boards a check on unions?  No, they are easily captured and controlled by unions, Moe shows.  Local control is an artifice, not a fact.

Are teachers underpaid?  Not when you take benefits and staffing demands into account.

Does collective bargaining increase the cost of education without any appreciable benefit for the student?  Yes.

Is there such a thing as "reform unionism," where leaders are willing to cede some ground for the benefit of the children?  No.  Reformist union leaders are quickly cashiered, and any concessions are overturned by their successors.

The book shows teacher unions are an inexorable force imposing their will on education policy at the federal, state, and local level.  Reforms and reformers are blocked at every turn by a political juggernaut built over decades and intricately designed to block reform.

The only good news comes in the closing chapter, where the author talks about two powerful forces undermining union power.  The first, described as endogenous, is an internal battle of shifting political alliances, primarily in the Democratic Party.  The second is exogenous, and it comes in the form of radical disruption by technological advances in the delivery of education.  The slow economy, which portends declining resources for the education bureaucracy, is a force multiplier for both of these phenomena.

The political discussion is informative, but the impact of digital learning, online education, and technology-driven delivery is far more fascinating.  The changing political landscape and economics alone would not be enough to defeat the unions' grip on education, Moe states.  On the other hand, he argues, "education technology is a tsunami that is only beginning to swell."  It can't arrive soon enough.

This brings me to my only complaint regarding this valuable and informative book.  After detailing the havoc visited upon American children and taxpayers by unions, Moe says the coming changes "will happen gradually," with "much of it coming over two (or three) decades."  Decades?!  Why not two or three years?

As deeply researched, well-written, and informative as this book is, it is missing a sense of outrage that many of us working in the trenches of school reform have been feeling and expressing for years.  Why should another generation or two of children be forced to attend poor-quality schools when we know, from books like this one, what the underlying causes are?  Where is the outrage?  It is time to challenge the moral legitimacy of teachers union power as President Ronald Reagan challenged the now-defunct USSR.

There are, in fact, reasons for optimism.  Moe writes "the most potent and direct way to undermine the teachers unions' power, for example, is to pass new laws prohibiting collective bargaining in the public schools."  He says "this is unlikely to happen."  He apparently penned that concession before Wisconsin's new governor did exactly that.  Ohio and Idaho have followed suit.  And Utah has just passed an aggressive digital learning bill, with money following the child to the online providers.

Moe has given us the data and facts we need to take on teacher unions in the most important political battle of our lifetimes.  It's up to us to supply the outrage.

Bruno Behrend (bbehrend@heartland.org) is director of the Center for School Reform at The Heartland Institute.

A review of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools, by Terry M. Moe (Brookings Institution Press, 2011), 513 pp., $34.95

Seldom has the raw power and unbridled selfishness of teacher unions been more on display than it is today in state capitols around the country.  Teachers led the union riot that shut down Wisconsin's state government for more than two weeks, making legislators afraid to enter government buildings while angry mobs defaced public property and shouted threats against elected officials.

Terry Moe, a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution and author of numerous books and studies on education policy, has written a highly insightful book about teacher unions and their impact on education policy.

The sheer volume and quality of information in Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools make it a major and timely contribution to the debate.  As one reads about how teacher unions operate, it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate this state of affairs.

The book begins by telling the hard truth about unions: "As the most powerful group in American education, they use their power to promote [their] special interests-in collective bargaining, in politics-and this often leads them in to do things that are not good for the children or the schools."

The unspoken question is why we, as a society, put up with this.  One answer might be the slow process by which we all acquiesced to their control.

Public school unionism originated in the "progressive" belief that the nation needed to first centralize, and then professionalize, the delivery of education.  The National Education Association (NEA) was originally designed to be a tool of administration, not unionization.  It was set up to improve the quality of teaching.  This centralization, however, made it much easier for unions to organize, and they gradually gained the power necessary to subvert, and then control, the entire system.  Had the nation's schools remained decentralized and independent, they would not have been so easy to unionize.

Moe demolishes many of the myths surrounding teachers and their unions.  The most important of these is the myth that teachers are unhappy with their unions and yearn to shed their yoke.  Not quite.  Teachers strongly support their unions.  Whereas 55 percent of teachers agree "tenure and teacher organizations make it too hard to weed out mediocre and incompetent teachers," the same group opposes removal of tenure, by a 77-to-23 margin.

Are school boards a check on unions?  No, they are easily captured and controlled by unions, Moe shows.  Local control is an artifice, not a fact.

Are teachers underpaid?  Not when you take benefits and staffing demands into account.

Does collective bargaining increase the cost of education without any appreciable benefit for the student?  Yes.

Is there such a thing as "reform unionism," where leaders are willing to cede some ground for the benefit of the children?  No.  Reformist union leaders are quickly cashiered, and any concessions are overturned by their successors.

The book shows teacher unions are an inexorable force imposing their will on education policy at the federal, state, and local level.  Reforms and reformers are blocked at every turn by a political juggernaut built over decades and intricately designed to block reform.

The only good news comes in the closing chapter, where the author talks about two powerful forces undermining union power.  The first, described as endogenous, is an internal battle of shifting political alliances, primarily in the Democratic Party.  The second is exogenous, and it comes in the form of radical disruption by technological advances in the delivery of education.  The slow economy, which portends declining resources for the education bureaucracy, is a force multiplier for both of these phenomena.

The political discussion is informative, but the impact of digital learning, online education, and technology-driven delivery is far more fascinating.  The changing political landscape and economics alone would not be enough to defeat the unions' grip on education, Moe states.  On the other hand, he argues, "education technology is a tsunami that is only beginning to swell."  It can't arrive soon enough.

This brings me to my only complaint regarding this valuable and informative book.  After detailing the havoc visited upon American children and taxpayers by unions, Moe says the coming changes "will happen gradually," with "much of it coming over two (or three) decades."  Decades?!  Why not two or three years?

As deeply researched, well-written, and informative as this book is, it is missing a sense of outrage that many of us working in the trenches of school reform have been feeling and expressing for years.  Why should another generation or two of children be forced to attend poor-quality schools when we know, from books like this one, what the underlying causes are?  Where is the outrage?  It is time to challenge the moral legitimacy of teachers union power as President Ronald Reagan challenged the now-defunct USSR.

There are, in fact, reasons for optimism.  Moe writes "the most potent and direct way to undermine the teachers unions' power, for example, is to pass new laws prohibiting collective bargaining in the public schools."  He says "this is unlikely to happen."  He apparently penned that concession before Wisconsin's new governor did exactly that.  Ohio and Idaho have followed suit.  And Utah has just passed an aggressive digital learning bill, with money following the child to the online providers.

Moe has given us the data and facts we need to take on teacher unions in the most important political battle of our lifetimes.  It's up to us to supply the outrage.

Bruno Behrend (bbehrend@heartland.org) is director of the Center for School Reform at The Heartland Institute.

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