Teacher unions work against education

By Nitin Julka

The Daily Cardinal | January 28, 2004


Imagine a $1.5 billion mega-corporation using its tremendous influence in Washington to destroy American education. Picture this company wielding its monopolistic power to shield itself from accountability, extort its customers and prevent exceptional employees from receiving bonuses. In addition, the executives in this business earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, embezzle millions and are free from scrutiny by both the popular press and academia. To make matters worse, this company does a terrible job at delivering the essential service it is meant to provide.


This company is not a company, but rather your neighborhood teacher union. The National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers and their local affiliates are destroying American education.


Peter Brimelow and Leslie Spencer from Forbes Magazine have been studying the rise of teacher unions for the last two decades and believe that the problem lies in the unions' huge monopolistic clout. Economically, the function of a union is to monopolize the labor supply to increase wages. Public education represents another monopoly such that every parent must pay for the schools (in the form of taxes) whether or not they use or want the service. The NEA and AFT also represent the only unions teachers may choose to join. Therefore, the teacher unions are a monopoly on top of a monopoly on top of another monopoly. Or put more elegantly by Brimelow and Spencer, the NEA and AFT represents a "near-monopoly supplier to a government-enforced monopoly consumer."


The results are catastrophic. While per-pupil spending and union activism have significantly risen over the last 30 years, teaching quality has seriously declined. Dr. Myron Lieberman from the Education Policy Institute asks, "How do the NEA and AFT raise the costs while lowering the levels of student achievement?"


His answer can be found in his 1997 book, "The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Parents, Students, Teachers and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy." Lieberman started his career as a teacher and union activist in the 1950s. His rise up the ranks of the AFT culminated in being considered for president of the organization. His in-depth knowledge of the teacher unions and their history place him in a unique position to critically evaluate their activities.


One problem, according to Lieberman, is the union's unreasonable stance on disciplining incompetent teachers. The tenure system in American schools protects the worst teachers along with the best. A teacher may drink before class, deal drugs or fail a basic skills test, but still cannot be fired because of the tenure system. One study by the New York State School Boards Association estimated it takes 455 days and $177,000 to dismiss a tenured teacher. The result is a huge number of incompetent teachers entrenched by an outdated tenure system.


An even more destructive stance by the teacher unions is their view on teacher compensation. The NEA and AFT alliance insists upon a single-salary structure, which means all teachers get paid the same regardless of the subject they teach or their ability. This causes a barrier in attracting qualified math and science teachers, who can earn more in other professions. The teacher unions adamantly oppose the obvious solution of paying math and science teachers more money. Instead, they use the dearth of math and science teachers as a reason to increase pay for all teachers.


These unions also oppose awarding exceptional teachers with pay increases. Raises are solely based on seniority. This causes a socialistic culture that refuses to award success or punish failure. The teacher unions' opposition to "merit pay" causes an overall decline in teaching quality and student achievement.


The major trouble is unions are strongly against any competition in their market. They value job security and benefits above children, parents and teaching quality. The NEA and AFT's opposition to home schooling, school choice and charter schools is all based on their desire to maintain their monopoly. Even though teacher unions are the biggest setback to improving American education, their unambiguous solution is always to increase spending.


And each spending increase is accompanied by an increase in mandatory dues to local, state and national teacher unions. Most estimates place the annual dues between $400 and $500 per teacher. This puts the NEA in the league of a $1.5 billion industry with enormous political and financial clout. The NEA also has more than 3,000 employees making more than $100,000 a year-much more than any teacher. But because the unions can hide behind the facade of protecting the teachers or helping the children, the problem remains a largely ignored issue.