Facing the Union Challenge

The following is an excerpt from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, a new book edited by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Richard Sousa for Hoover Institution Press. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “Facing the Union Challenge” by Terry M. Moe.

For well over a quarter century, the NEA and the AFT have been the most powerful groups in the politics of education—with more than four million members, formidable sums of money for campaign contributions and lobbying, well-educated activists manning the electoral trenches, and organizations that blanket the nation, allowing them to coordinate all these resources toward political ends. [1]

Superior power doesn’t mean that the teachers unions always get the policies they want. The American system of checks and balances makes that impossible, because its multiple veto points ensure that shepherding new laws through the political process is extremely difficult. The flip side, however, is that blocking new laws is much easier, for opponents need succeed at just one veto point to win. And this is how the teachers unions have used their political power in shaping the nation’s schools: not by imposing the policies they want, but by blocking or weakening those they don’t want—and thus preventing true reform. Throughout, they have relied on their alliance with the Democratic Party to do that. The teachers unions have been the raw power behind the politics of blocking. The Democrats have done the blocking.

The modern era’s two great education reform movements, for school accountability and for school choice, attempt to bring major changes to the traditional structure of the American education system. Accountability seeks to put the spotlight on teacher performance, provide rigorous evaluations, link pay to performance, and move poor performers out of the classroom—all of which, from the unions’ standpoint, are threatening departures from a traditional system in which performance was never seriously evaluated and all jobs were secure. School choice is highly threatening to the unions too. For when families are allowed to leave the regular public schools for new options—charter schools or (via vouchers or tax credits) private schools—the regular public schools lose money and jobs, and so do the incumbent teachers in those schools. And the unions lose members.

In recent years, choice advocates cheered because Indiana and Louisiana adopted new voucher programs and because charter schools—boosted by President Obama’s Race to the Top program and movies like Waiting for Superman—continued to expand and attract supporters. But the bigger picture doesn’t offer much to cheer about. The choice movement has been pushing for vouchers and tax credits since the 1980s, and as of 2013 these reforms still allow only about 200,000 children to attend private schools with government assistance. Compare this to a public school population of more than 50 million children. And charter schools? The first charter schools were authorized in Minnesota in 1991, and more than twenty years later, despite all the excitement surrounding them, charters enroll less than 5 percent of the nation’s public school children. In most states and districts, they provide very little choice for American families and very little competition for the regular public schools. The explanation for the meager progress of school choice is very simple: the teachers unions (backed by school districts) have used their considerable power to stifle it. [2]

The same is true for accountability. Proponents are currently excited because, in the wake of Race to the Top, most states have passed laws requiring that teachers be evaluated with some reference to their performance. But again, what is the big picture? The big picture is that, throughout the entire reform era, teachers have not been seriously evaluated at all. Literally 99 percent of them have regularly received satisfactory evaluations. And almost never have teachers actually been dismissed merely for being incompetent. Why did the nation have to wait a quarter century to get even a modicum of change? The answer, again, is that the teachers unions are opposed to performance-based evaluations (as are most districts), and they have used their power over the years to stand in the way of genuine reform.

For accountability advocates, performance-based evaluation is their mountaintop of success. The rest of the educational landscape is littered with disappointments. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act was a monumental achievement in 2001—and the union’s greatest political defeat in the modern era—but in subsequent years it was NCLB that found itself being transformed, and ultimately eviscerated, by powerful political blowback from unions and the intransigence of the districts. Meantime, state accountability systems regularly test students—but do not, in fact, hold teachers or schools accountable for how much students learn and rarely impose any consequences for poor performance. No one loses a job. Real pay for performance remains a rarity. And the evidence so far is that, even in states that have passed new laws requiring rigorous, performance-based evaluation, virtually all teachers are getting satisfactory evaluations, just as before. [3]

The accountability movement has surely had an impact. The nation’s focus is on performance now more than at any other time in the history of the public school system. Performance measures are made public. There is heightened pressure on school districts and teachers to raise test scores and promote learning. But the reality is that the nation’s fifty-plus-one accountability systems do not actually hold anyone accountable. They are pale reflections of what well-designed accountability systems would actually do. They are the victims of power.

The Future

As long as the teachers unions remain powerful, America’s schools cannot be organized in the best interests of children. At the local level, the unions use their power in collective bargaining to impose special-interest work rules that make no sense from the standpoint of effective schooling. In the policymaking process, they use their power to block or weaken reformist attempts to correct for the system’s pathologies and produce top-flight performance.

Is there any hope that the problem of union power can somehow be overcome? Under normal conditions, the answer would be no. Yet these are not normal times. American education stands at a critical juncture—and due to an unusual confluence of events, the stars are lining up in a unique configuration that augurs well for major change. [4]

Endogenous Change

Two separate dynamics are at work. The first is arising endogenously within the education system and its politics. Reformers are gaining political strength, and the teachers unions are on the defensive as never before.

One reason is that the modern political environment has become increasingly polarized, and conservative Republicans—propelled by Tea Party devotees, the fiscal crisis, and big gains in the 2010 election—have taken on the unions like never before. In several states—Wisconsin, Indiana, Tennessee—they passed historically unprecedented legislation that limited collective bargaining and union prerogatives. [5] This is not, however, a uniform national phenomenon. And even in these few states, control of government will eventually shift to politicians more sympathetic to labor who will attempt to reverse course.

Another political development is more fundamental—and more damaging, in the long term, to the teachers unions. This one is taking place within the Democratic Party, where the unions’ opposition to reform has led to increasing dissatisfaction—led by groups like Democrats for Education Reform, vocally expressed by moderate and liberal opinion leaders, energized by a growing network of education activists (many with roots in Teach for America), and funded by well-heeled philanthropists like Bill Gates and Eli Broad. [6] This ferment hasn’t come close to converting most mainstream Democratic officeholders, who remain union allies. But President Barack Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, are clearly in the reform wing of the party, and they bucked the unions in 2009–10 with their Race to the Top, a competition for funds that induced states to pursue system-bending reforms. Since then, as I’ve noted, one of these reforms—-performance-based -evaluations—has become the centerpiece of the nation’s reform agenda. [7]

The tide has turned against the teachers unions, and they are in defense mode. Yet even reformist Democrats, from Obama on down, have made it clear that they have no intention of taking action to limit collective bargaining or weaken the power of the unions. They are serious about improving the nation’s schools. But they intend to do it collaboratively within an education system filled with powerful unions that must be accommodated and made “part of the solution.” This intention is reinforced by a brute political fact: the power of the Democratic Party itself is highly dependent on the power of the unions, and thus on the continuation of collective bargaining. [8]

The political dynamic we are now witnessing in American education, then—an endogenous development that has emerged within the system itself—is not equipped to bring about major change. It propels the education system in the right direction. But it is inherently limited, because it does little to reduce the power of the teachers unions—and they will continue to use their power to prevent the schools from being effectively organized.

Something more is needed. Something that does reduce union power.

Exogenous Change

That something is the worldwide revolution in information -technology—an exogenous development, originating entirely outside the education system, that is among the most profoundly influential forces ever to sweep the planet. With its roots in information and knowledge, it cannot help but transform the way students learn, teachers teach, and schools are organized. It is the future of American education—indeed, of world education.

Already, online curricula can be customized to the learning styles and life situations of individual students, giving them instant feedback on how well they are doing, providing them with remedial work when they need it, allowing them to move at their own pace, and giving them access—wherever they live, whatever their race or background—to a vast range of courses their own schools don’t offer and, ultimately, to the best the world can provide. By strategically substituting technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive), moreover, schools can be far more cost-effective than they are now—which is crucial in a future of tight budgets. [9]

Because technology stands to have enormous impacts on jobs and money, the teachers unions find it threatening. And throughout the 2000s, they have used their political power—in state legislatures, in the courts—to try to slow and stifle its advance. But they won’t succeed forever. Education technology is a tsunami that is only now beginning to swell, and it will hit the American public school system with full force over the next decade and those to follow. Long term, the teachers unions can’t stop it. It is much bigger and more powerful than they are.

The advance of technology will then have dire consequences for established power. There will be a growing substitution of technology for labor and thus a steep decline in the number of teachers (and union members) per student; a dispersion of the teaching labor force, which will no longer be so geographically concentrated in districts (because online teachers can be anywhere); and a proliferation of new online providers and choice options, attracting away students, money, and jobs. All of these developments will dramatically undermine the membership and financial resources of the teachers unions, and thus their political power. Increasingly, they will be unable to block, and the political gates will swing open—to yield a new era in American education. [10]

Terry M. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a member of the Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 education, and the William Bennett Munro Professor of political science at Stanford University.

Reprinted from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, edited by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Richard Sousa, with the permission of the publisher, Hoover Institution Press. Copyright © 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

1. For evidence on the arguments in this section, see Moe, Special Interest, chaps. 9 and 10.
2. For a summary of the evidence on choice, see Moe, Special Interest, chaps. 9 and 10.
3. On this last point, see Jenny Anderson, “Curious Grade for Teachers: Nearly All Pass,” New York Times, March 30, 2013. For a summary of the evidence on accountability, see Moe, Special Interest, chaps. 9 and 10.
4. On critical junctures and how they figure into analyses of institutional change, see Paul Pierson, Politics in Time: History, Institutions, and Social Analysis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004).
5. See, e.g., Richard Locker, “Tennessee Legislature OK’s Ban of Teacher Bargaining,” Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), May 20, 2011.
6. See, e.g., Steven Brill, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011).
7. On Race to the Top, see Moe, Special Interest, and Brill, Class Warfare. On state laws requiring performance-based evaluations, see National Council on Teacher Quality, “State of the States 2012: Teacher Effectiveness Policies” (Washington, DC: National Council on Teacher Quality, 2012).
8. For a detailed discussion of the prospects for “reform unionism,” see Moe, Special Interest, chaps. 8 and 10.
9. Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, and Curtis W. Johnson, Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008); Terry M. Moe and John E. Chubb, Liberating Learning: Technology, Politics, and the Future of American Education (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009); and Paul E. Peterson, Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).
10. Moe and Chubb, Liberating Learning.

Last Updated


Notify Me When Education Next

Posts a Big Story

Business + Editorial Office

Program on Education Policy and Governance
Harvard Kennedy School
79 JFK Street, Cambridge, MA 02138
Phone (617) 496-5488
Fax (617) 496-4428
Email Education_Next@hks.harvard.edu

For subscription service to the printed journal
Phone (617) 496-5488
Email subscriptions@educationnext.org

Copyright © 2024 President & Fellows of Harvard College