Do Labor Unions Help or Hurt Education?

Unions help fix failing schools

There's a big lie being circulated that teacher unions are the main obstacle to education reform. This is nonsense. The people responsible for this lie don't care about evidence-in fact, evidence gets in the way of their anti-public-schools agenda. So the public needs to know that teachers and the unions they elect to represent them are working hard to make every American school a place where students can work and learn and parents can gladly send their children. But we can't do it alone. No matter how "powerful" we are, we need partners-parents, superintendents, school boards, and others.

This is not mere rhetoric. For example, teacher unions all over the country are moving front and center to help fix failing schools. A while back, I wrote a column about how the New York City teacher union helped to turn around a Harlem school that everyone had given up on. And just the other day, Randi Weingarten, the new union president, offered to jointly operate, with the board of education, a troubled New York City school. There is nothing surprising about the prescription in these cases- but it is powerful. It includes high academic standards; proven, research-based programs; smaller classes; special help for students who are falling behind; and professional development for teachers.

And the prescription is not limited to New York City; it's also being used to good effect in other struggling urban school districts. In Washington, D.C., for example, a new superintendent and the union are sitting down together to work on bringing standards, accountability, and order to schools that have a national reputation for low achievement.

Although those spreading the big lie make a lot of noise, we're not the only ones who say that unions are getting it right. In mid-1998, at a meeting of the U. S. Conference of Mayors, I heard Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston talk about education reform efforts in their cities. Now, Chicago and Boston schools have had serious problems, but with the help of mayors who are committed to education reform, these schools are coming back. Both Daley and Menino went out of their way to praise teacher unions for the important role they are playing in education reform. Obstacles to reform? Daley and Menino scoffed at this idea. Indeed, they called teacher unions "partners" in their reform efforts. And Richard Riordan, the Republican mayor of Los Angeles, also says that he works well with the local teacher union.

In Michigan, the Coalition of Detroit Public Schools Unions endorsed legislation that passed in March and transferred responsibility for governing the city's public schools from the current Board of Education to Mayor Dennis Archer. The 13 labor unions that comprise the coalition, which includes the Michigan Federation of Teachers, have long advocated that the problems in Detroit Public Schools must not be allowed to continue, yet union-initiated proposals to improve the district have been consistently ignored. The legislation, which provided additional monies for the district, and Mayor Archer's willingness to work with, not against, the employees of the Detroit Public Schools will help put the district on the right track.

When you look at it, teacher unions have taken on plenty of tough educational challenges. We were early leaders in the push for national standards and especially for higher academic standards for all our students. We mounted strong opposition to social promotion- the practice of just sending students on to the next grade regardless of whether they have learned the current year's work. And because, as teachers, we know that children cannot learn unless the classroom and the school are orderly places, we've also campaigned long and hard for tougher discipline codes that are consistently and fairly enforced.

Nor have we shirked the difficult issue of teacher quality. The union recognizes that we owe it to our students- and our profession- to make sure that new and veteran (and, yes, even tenured) teachers who are not doing well in the classroom are identified and helped and, if necessary, counseled out of teaching. We've also collaborated on procedures to streamline the process for firing teachers who should not be teaching our students.

These are the kinds of things teachers want to concentrate on. As union members and professionals, we expect to spend most of our time working on improving public education. But we still won't be able to do it alone. We'll need superintendents and school boards, parents and other interested citizens to come forward, sit down with us, and put their passion and wisdom to work in the fight to make all our schools what they should be.

Sandra Feldman is President of the American Federation of Teachers. Louise Somalski, Legislative Coordinator for the Michigan Federation of Teachers and School Related Personnel, an affiliate of the AFT, also contributed to this article.