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Abolishing Teachers' Unions Will Not Improve Schools

The refrain that teachers' unions are the cause of all the ills afflicting public schools appears regularly on the opinion pages of newspapers ("The Lost Education Opportunity," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 6).  No matter what the problem is, blame it on the teachers' unions.

I'm not an apologist for their shortcomings, but I doubt that student outcomes would be significantly better if teachers' unions were abolished tomorrow.  Public schools are not Lourdes. They can do only so much in overcoming the huge deficits that too many young people bring to their doors because of their chaotic backgrounds.

The usual retort is that my view is an excuse since many charter schools are posting impressive results with similarly disadvantaged students that traditional public schools have badly failed ("A Tale of Two Schools, One Building," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 7).  I can't emphasize enough, however, that the comparison is unfair.  Charter schools are almost always devoid of unions, but they are chosen by parents and operate by a totally different set of rules.  Traditional public schools must enroll all who show up at their doors, regardless of their desire or ability to learn. They are indeed the schools of last resort. Of course, most charter schools are going to do better.  Why is that any surprise?

Parental choice alone should be enough to expose the weakness of the anti-union argument. Stripping teachers of the right to join a union will not make them miracle workers. They do not possess the wherewithal to compensate for factors in the home and neighborhood.  Yet the argument is repeatedly made that teachers' unions are the clear villain.  Why would putting teachers, say, on yearly contracts that stipulate they can be fired at any time make a difference in solving the ills afflicting so many public schools?

Foes of teachers' unions like to point to the examples of ineffective teachers who remain in the classroom when they should be fired.  Yes, they certainly do exist. They need to be removed if they cannot improve  with additional support. But what about the exemplary teachers who would also be fired if it were not for the existence of teachers' unions?  I've written before about what happened in 2004 at Brooklyn Tech, one of New York City's elite high schools. An abusive principal made life so miserable for his staff who questioned his policies at that coveted school that several of them with outstanding records asked for transfers ("Principal's War Leads to a Teacher Exodus," The New York Times, Jan. 28, 2004). 

Let me follow this through.  When a teacher is fired, who will act as a replacement?  Do we really believe that there is an ample supply of highly qualified teachers simply waiting in the wings?  Even if there were, why would they want to teach in schools that have a deserved reputation for recalcitrant students and/or despotic principals?  They're neither masochists nor missionaries. Yet the fantasy continues unabated.  It's time to get real.

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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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