A.F.T. Head Backs Voucher Proposal For Public Schools
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has told aft members that he supports the concept of a public-school voucher plan.
Mr. Shanker's endorsement of the idea, contained in a speech he made late last month at a meeting of the aft's New York State affiliate, marks the first such comment by a national teacher-union leader.
In an interview last week, Mr. Shanker elaborated on the speech, in which he said that he supports a system that would allow students to "move from one school to another and from one district to another within the public system." He said his endorsement represents "a substantial change" in his thinking on the issue.
He also said in the interview that he has decided to support choice in public schools because he believes it will help "professionalize" teaching and will fend off support for public aid to private-school students.
U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said last week that he is "extremely pleased" with Mr. Shanker's announcement.
"All parents should be able to exercise greater choice in what, where, and how their children learn," Mr. Bennett said.
Public-school voucher plans currently are under consideration in the Minnesota, Colorado, and Iowa legislatures. Officials of the aft affiliate in Minnesota have said that they cannot support Gov. Rudy Perpich's statewide plan but would consider supporting a limited trial project. (See Education Week, May 1, 1985.)
In his New York speech, Mr. Shanker said teachers "have to take a step beyond" collective bargaining. He urged the aft members to support a variety of measures that he said would provide teachers with status, dignity, and a voice in policymaking.
Mr. Shanker said that while collective bargaining has been and remains "a good mechanism," he maintained that professionalizing teaching today is as important as collective bargaining was for teachers 15 years ago.
"We will not get people into teaching who are among the best and the brightest if teachers continue to be treated as workers in a factory," he said.
In addition to supporting a public-school voucher system, Mr. Shanker said that teachers, in fighting for professional status, should back ca-reer-ladder plans, a professional examination for teachers, and peer-evaluation programs, such as that used in Toledo, Ohio.
Mr. Shanker said he favors choice in the public schools because it would strengthen the case against tuition-tax-credit and voucher proposals involving private schools.
"It very substantially reduces the argument for giving money to parents to send their children to private schools," Mr. Shanker said. "We could turn to a parent and say, 'You've got a huge number of choices here in the public sector, why not take them?"'
In addition, he said, a system of choice would "get rid of the notion that people are captives."
In other professions, consumers are free to choose among services and providers, Mr. Shanker noted, but in the public-school system, children are assigned to a school and to a teacher.
"We ought to think about why, if there is a personality dispute beel5ltween the student and teacher, they have to be stuck with each other all year long," he said.
Teachers also should be able to move from district to district without incurring a financial penalty through loss of seniority and reduced pension benefits, he maintained.
Competition for Talent
School administrators should learn a lesson from business, he added, and "steal" talent from other districts by offering higher salaries or better working conditions.
Mr. Shanker conceded that such a proposal probably would create "an administrative nightmare."
"But," he said later, "all those districts that mistreat their teachers should have nightmares."
Mr. Shanker also called on teachers to join him in supporting a national professional examination--"a tough examination of subject matter, not the cheap $20 kind that you score on machines, but something that requires the people who are taking it to think and to write and to organize their thoughts."
In January, Mr. Shanker became the first national union figure to suggest that all new teachers be required to pass a such an examination and said that the aft is prepared to require the test of its new members.
Mr. Shanker also asked aft members to "consider a restructuring of the entire way in which educational services are delivered."
Such a restructuring would provide high salaries for "career teachers" to direct the work of bright college graduates who join the teaching force temporarily, "like going into the Peace Corps."
"If we had a structure like that," he said, "we could deliver a system in which the public would have a substantial amount of confidence."
Running for Final Term
In an earlier speech in New York City, Mr. Shanker announced that he is running for president of the 70,000-member New York City local but that it will be his last two-year term. He has been president of the aft affiliate since 1964.
In making the announcement, Mr. Shanker said he will relinquish the presidency of the local in order to give full attention to the aft, of which he has been president since 1974. Mr. Shanker also is a vice president of the afl-cio