In Defense of the Unions

By Vaishali Honawar — August 26, 2008 1 min read
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In Denver, it’s been all about performance pay for the last few days. First the school district and the teachers’ union settled a long-running dispute over changes to the teacher merit-pay plan, and now the Democrats at their national convention are all set to embrace performance pay as a party-platform issue.

For the teachers’ unions, which are out in full strength at the convention, this has not been a blessing, exactly. In fact, they have been looking like everyone’s favorite punching bag.

The unions have long disliked any deviation from teacher tenure and seniority, and the National Education Association has been vehemently opposed to any form of merit pay based on student test scores. The American Federation of Teachers has been slightly more open to the concept, and new President Randi Weingarten even negotiated a merit-pay plan in New York City last year.

But on Sunday, speaking at an education symposium, Washington schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is embroiled in her own performance-pay dispute with the Washington Teachers Union, blamed the unions for standing in the way of reform.

Al Sharpton also took a potshot at the unions and their refusal to change with the times, saying they were more interested in protecting their interests than in uplifting children.

Read more about opposition to the unions at the Democratic convention from my colleague Michele McNeil here.

But having long covered performance-pay plans nationwide and the unions, I wonder: Isn’t everyone being a little too quick to judge here?

The national unions may indulge in rhetoric against performance pay and refuse to endorse it outright, but many locals around the country, including Minneapolis and New York City, have partnered with their districts on performance-pay plans, and many more are working on them.

In states like Arizona, which has long had a career-ladder performance-pay plan in effect, the teachers’ union has been fighting to expand the program. In Denver itself, the performance-pay program was created jointly by the union and the school district. Groups like the Teacher Union Reform Network of NEA and AFT Locals exist to help progressive local leaders partner with districts on school reform.

Change may be slow in coming to teachers’ unions, but it is coming, and maybe they deserve some credit for that. Or don’t they?

You tell me.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.