Education Funding

Monday Reading: The Unions and Race to the Top

By Anthony Rebora — May 24, 2010 1 min read
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The education-policy community is abuzz over an article by journalist Steven Brill that appeared in the New York Times Magazine yesterday (though it’s been online for a few days). Titled “The Teachers’ Unions’ Last Stand,” the piece looks at the powerful reform forces that have coalesced around the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition (with particular emphasis on its teacher-accountabilty provisions) and at the seemingly out-of-touch—not to say doomed—efforts of teachers’ unions and their supportors to resist wholesale changes to teachers’ protections.

One flashpoint of the article is a devastating comparison (on first blush, anyway) of a regular public school and a higher-performing charter school that share the same building in New York City. As Brill comments, “School reformers would argue that the difference between the two demonstrates what happens when you remove three ingredients from public education—the union, big-system bureaucracy, and low expectations for disadvantaged children.”

Brill also looks in detail at how union pressures in effect brought down New York’s initial bid for Race to the Top funding—and at how the competition, especially in the aftermath of its first round, has influenced new legislation and contract agreements embodying seemingly significant union concessions. “If [President Obama] really sticks to this,” Paul Pastorek, the superintendent of Louisiana schools, tells Brill, “education will never be the same.”

As mentioned, Brill’s piece is getting a lot of attention. Here’s a sampling of the reactions from around the Web:

Leonie Haimson of NYC Public School Parents calls it a work of “hack Journalism”:

The article blames all our educational problems on the union (as usual); doesn't mention any of the controversial charter co-locations that are squeezing space from our regular public schools; doesn't mention any of the myriad charter school financial scandals, or their abuse of student and parent rights; omits any reference to the ongoing (and inexcusable) opposition of the charter school industry to audits, and manages to leave out the fact that it is the hedge fund operators who with their millions of dollars in campaign contributions are driving these policies.

Megan McArdle of the Atlantic Monthly, on the other hand, thinks Brill is dead-on in his portrayal of the union’s staunch opposition to meaningful reform:

The issue with the teachers' unions is not the unions per se—agitating for higher pay wouldn't make much difference, and is indeed probably a great idea. The problem is that the structure they impose makes it almost impossible (though not quite!) to innovate, and to spread the innovations that work. The cushy job protections and strict work rules are great for the teachers. But the schools aren't there for the benefit of the teachers.

Gail Robinson of the Gotham Gazette charges Brill with playing “fast and loose with the facts” in order to weight the scales against the unions:

While saying Harlem Success charter serves the same community as P.S. 149, Brill does not look into complaints that charters do not have the same number of challenging students—special ed kids, English language learners and homeless children. He discusses the cost of teachers but conveniently leaves out the cost of administrators, notably Harlem Success' Eva Moskowitz who makes far more than Klein, and of private management companies.

Valarie Strauss of The Washington Post‘s The Answer Sheet agrees that Brill, in his two-schools-same-building description, is comparing apples and oranges:

Traditional public schools have to educate every student who is eligible to enroll. They can't counsel students out, as many charters do, or select who they want. This is not an excuse for bad schools. But it is part of the reason that the job of the traditional public school system, which still educates about 95 percent of all schoolkids, is far more complicated than many reformers today would have you believe.

Eduwonk, meanwhile, calls the article “fantastic” in its details and says it raises the curtain on a “really interesting time for the field,” but thinks it simplifies the problems schools face:

And I'm not sure the teachers' unions as the uber villain here really does justice to the complexity of the issue and how broken aspects of education culture are. That's not to say the unions don't contribute to the problem, a lot, only that if they vanished there would not be an immediate golden age.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.