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Split in Teachers Unions Threatens Solidarity

Long considered a monolith, teachers unions are facing a serious challenge from within their ranks. The threat made its first significant appearance in New York City and in Los Angeles, homes of the nation's largest and second largest school districts, respectively.

The Los Angeles Times published a column on Jan.16 about the creation of NewTLA in response to frustration with the status quo ("Dissident L.A. teachers want more from their union"). Specifically, NewTLA charges that UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles) refuses to support reform proposals from classroom teachers, including steps to remove ineffective teachers and to implement better professional development programs.

The New York Post reported on Jan. 26 that Educators 4 Excellence are motivated more by what's best for their students than what's best for themselves ("Maverick teachers' group bucking UFT"). According to the Post, membership has doubled to about 1,300 after a $100,000 grant from the Gates Foundation and a $160,000 grant from the Education Equality Project, which was founded by former Chancellor Joel Klein and the Reverend Al Sharpton. E4E wants to eliminate seniority as the basis for layoffs and implement merit pay, among other objectives.

It's too soon to know if the formation of these two groups signals the beginning of a fundamental change in union solidarity, or if it is merely an aberration. In the mid 1960s when I began teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, there was a group known as PELA (Professional Educators of Los Angeles), which believed that teachers unions by their very nature were harmful to professionalism. Although some veteran teachers joined, PELA never gained traction.

But that was then, and this is now. There is a growing belief that changes have to be made in the way teachers are evaluated and rewarded. The divide usually - albeit not always - is along generational lines. Younger teachers tend to be more inclined to embrace new proposals than their older colleagues. Their support may be explained in part by union policies that emphasize time served rather than demonstrated merit.

Yet I wonder if younger teachers don't take for granted the many benefits they enjoy. Prior to strong teachers unions, collective begging was what Albert Shanker called collective bargaining. Teachers had few rights. Their ability to defend themselves against unfair charges and to create needed reform was severely limited. Only when teachers went on strike did matters change. New teachers need to be reminded that the conditions they work in and the salaries and benefits they receive were not granted to them out of the goodness of the hearts of school boards. They were won by sacrifice.

But this message is likely to be muted today because of cuts in spending on education brought about by the Great Recession. Faced with layoffs, teachers are anxious. What they don't understand, however, is that without union protection, the most highly paid or the most outspoken among them will be those most vulnerable. By the time they wake up, it will be extremely difficult to regain what they lost.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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