Education Letter to the Editor

‘Unions and School Reform’

February 27, 2007 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


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’

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP