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Education Letter to the Editor

‘Unions and School Reform’

February 27, 2007 3 min read
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To the Editor:

The first article in your two-part series “The Unions and School Reform” asserts that the National Education Association “is perennially in the position of weighing its members’ rights against the needs of public education, a dilemma that goes away only if you insist that teachers have no self-interest apart from children’s” (“NEA Wants Role in School Improvement Agenda,” Jan. 24, 2007).

What needs also to be considered is whether public education necessarily has interests that are against those of teachers. Is it necessary, for example, to abuse teachers to improve public education? Will the beatings continue until morale improves?

As an example, the article cites Mike Antonucci, a critic of teachers’ unions, who implies that their support for reforms such as class-size reduction is predicated first and foremost on self-interest: presumably, in the case of class-size reduction, because it adds to the number of teachers to recruit to the union. The assumption that public education has no inherent interest in smaller class sizes is clearly ludicrous, yet it goes unchallenged.

The Teacher Working Conditions Initiative in North Carolina has demonstrated that teachers care very much about class size, while the Tennessee studies of the 1990s demonstrated that small class size positively affects student achievement. Add to that the obvious preference of affluent private school parents, who cite small class sizes as one of their primary motivations for paying often-extreme tuitions.

Where then is the separation of teacher and educational needs in class-size discussions? Does it exist merely because Mr. Antonucci and other anti-union writers insist it does? The North Carolina initiative’s survey results suggest, as the state’s governor, Michael F. Easley, has said, that “teacher working conditions are student learning conditions.” That makes sense to me.

Similarly, anti-union writers often cite a so-called need to assign those they blithely label as “the best teachers” to wherever management wants them, as a needed “reform.” Why can’t we take our best teachers and place them where they are most needed? The need is asserted without an examination of whether it makes any sense, or will have any actual benefits or unanticipated damage.

Why is it that no one explains why a teacher, forcibly assigned to a school he or she did not want, will suddenly bring fabulous results? Why would a forcibly assigned teacher be good for the neediest students? And if the key is to make teachers want those assignments, then the presence of a union should not be an obstacle.

How do we “choose” those teachers, and how do we compensate them for doing as the reformers want? For these anti-union “reformers,” the key seems to be that educators should have no say in those matters.

The unwillingness of these reformers to mutually agree about issues suggests that perhaps there is another agenda at play, and that simple capitulation of unions is the actual goal. The anti-unionists merely want to do whatever they want to do. When teachers aren’t “nice” about accepting management fiat, it’s as true to say that the anti-unionists are “hiding behind the children” as it is to accuse unions of doing so with, for example, class-size proposals.

Similarly, those in the union movement who object to these demands are called a “rear guard,” a term used uncritically in the story. In fact, the NEA’s policies, as in all things, are determined democratically—often painfully so. I suggest that the teachers objecting to simple capitulation to anti-union demands are in fact the core of the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, not a “rear guard.” These unions are only representing those teachers who pay the dues. If this representation occurs, as a former union activist quoted in the article insists, through the NEA’s structures and culture, and that culture is determined democratically, then it surely isn’t a rear guard.

The problem I have as a unionist with your article is that it uncritically accepts the definitions and terms imposed by anti-unionists, at least in part one of the series. It’s easy to do so. But Education Week should not take the easy way.

Paul J. Phillips

President

Quincy Education Association

Quincy, Mass.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as ‘Unions and School Reform’

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