Strange Bedfellows? Why School Reformers Should Rethink Teachers Unions

Unions can tell us what goes on behind the scenes.
Thousands of striking Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters march around City Hall in October 2019. One person in front holds up a sign that reads, "Our Students Matter."
Thousands of striking Chicago Teachers Union and their supporters march around City Hall in October 2019.

School reformers have long criticized teachers unions, often for good reason.

In big cities like New York, teachers unions dominate education politics, negotiating hundred-page contracts and making it impossible for administrators to manage anyone, much less terminate the incompetent. The most notable urban public-education success stories have come from charter schools like the Knowledge Is Power Program campuses, where principals operate free from cumbersome union contracts.

Since the 1980s, national leaders like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have tried to make American public schools less social and more academic, and they often view teachers unions as roadblocks to reform. I, too, assumed that empowering educational administrators and disempowering unions would lead to better academic outcomes.

My assumption was incorrect. Hundreds of hours of fieldwork in public schools, capped off by serving on my local school board, showed a reality far removed from big-city collective bargaining agreements. In the public schools out here in flyover country, the unions representing teachers often support the academic missions of schooling more than the educational administrators overseeing teachers.

Even before running for school board, I noticed that many of the best teachers—the ones parents like me want teaching our kids—are active union members for self-protection. Here’s why: good teachers care about kids and academics. Administrators care about athletics, finance, facilities, technology, messaging, hiring friends and family members, and padding their resumes with the latest educational fads like self-esteem programs or social emotional learning—almost anything but academics. Most of all, administrators care about loyalty and teamwork.

Even though most teachers are women, school leadership remains a male game. Nationally, 76 percent of superintendents are men, for whom the path to promotion often included athletics. Fifty-three percent of male principals and likely a higher percentage of superintendents are former athletic coaches. We can surmise that an even higher number played sports.

Most of these men are decent and hardworking, but many are just not interested in academics; otherwise they might have stayed in the classroom. Ask them about their best game, and they have engaging stories. Ask about their favorite academic course, and you may find less enthusiasm. One principal observed in fieldwork declared that the most exciting thing about his school was not students comprehending science, great literature, or the Constitution, but rather kids “developing their own brand on social media.”

Naturally, such leaders view academic-improvement plans imposed by distant policymakers as paperwork to file, not goals to strive for. Policymakers need to know that often, asking educational administrators to prioritize academics is like asking pacifists to improve military readiness.

This helps explain why, even in states unconstrained by collective bargaining, public schools rarely terminate teachers. When administrators do fire teachers, it sometimes reflects perceived disloyalty rather than bad teaching. Many administrators view themselves as coaches and teachers as players, and on their team, the wide receiver doesn’t get to question the coach’s play.

In this culture, teachers unions play a vital role, offering legal counsel to guard against personnel actions based on matters other than merit. Unions also fight to protect teaching time against the pep rallies and self-esteem-related activities which some would have dominate the school day.

Finally, in most school districts of any size, school-board members and central-office administrators know little of what goes on inside school buildings. Along with parents, teachers and their unions can tell us what goes on behind the scenes. When my school board had to terminate two administrators for ethical failings, the teachers who worked with these individuals on a regular basis suspected bad behavior long before board members perceived problems.

While teachers unions gained too much power in some big cities and became corrupt, in school systems where administrators dominate, we need teachers unions as competing factions to keep the rest of us honest. Healthy competition is, after all, part of the American way.

Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, edits the Journal of School Choice, and serves on his local school board.

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