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Blame It All on Teachers' Unions

In what has become a mantra, corporate reformers argue that powerful teachers' unions are the primary cause of the failure of students to perform ("Teachers Unions vs. Charter Schools, The Wall Street Journal," Nov. 20, 2013).  But the reality is quite different.  

The National Education Association has lost 230,000 members, or seven percent, since 2009, with more losses predicted. The American Federation of Teachers has grown slightly to 1.5 million members, but the number is misleading because many members are part-time teachers or retirees. Moreover, NEA and AFT memberships overlap since their locals maintain dual affiliations ("Teachers unions face moment of truth," Politico, Dec. 8, 2013).

Wisconsin serves as a case study of the trend toward weakened teachers' unions. In Sept. 2013, the Kenosha Education Association was decertified after it missed a deadline in the certification process.  But Kenosha was not unique.  In 2011 and 2012, about 13 percent of 207 Wisconsin school districts were also decertified ("Wisconsin Union Mutiny," The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 18, 2013). I doubt new teachers there and in other states appreciate the rights they enjoy as a direct result of action by unions in the past.  By the time they wake up, however, it will be too late.

Lest I be accused of selective perception, I pose the following question: If teachers' unions are the villains, as charged, why do states, such as Arkansas and Mississippi, where they are weakest, persist in posting appalling results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress? Conversely, why do states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, where they are strongest, continue to post the highest scores?  Clearly something else explains the disparity, but it is given short shrift by the media.

The decline is not limited to teachers' unions.  Union membership overall has dropped to 11 percent of the workforce from 35 percent in the 1950s.  Last year, 21 states introduced right-to-work laws ("Boeing contract underscores decline of union clout," Los Angeles Times, Jan. 7).  I don't think the public sees the connection between the dissappearance of the middle class and the plummeting of union membership. 

If charter schools and other schools where unions do not exist or are figureheads can demonstrate that they educate students better than traditional public schools when they play by the same rules, serve similar populations, and receive equivalent funding, I believe a case against teachers' unions can be made.  But I've yet to see evidence that charter schools, private schools and religious schools are inherently superior to traditional public schools. And I certainly don't think that teachers unions are to blame for any differences.

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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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