It must feel empowering for teachers upset by current developments to hold big rallies with thousands of union members chanting slogans. They must finally feel like their voice is being heard, as Diane Ravitch, Valerie Strauss, and the new breed of teacher union advocates make their case.
While this may all feel like success to the teacher unions, I suspect that it is actually breeding failure. The unions succeed by intimidating politicians with their raw power while convincing the public that teacher unions love their children almost as much as the parents do. Maintaining this double-game is essential because it disarms parents, media elites, and others who might otherwise mobilize against teacher unions and apply their own direct pressure to politicians.
As long as teacher unions act like Mary Poppins to parents, media elites, and others, the general public is willing to suspend their normal inclination to desire choice and competition in the goods and services they consume. Mary Poppins is an extension of the family and we don’t apply market principles to our family. The family is a refuge from the rough and tumble of the market which is instead governed by a sense of mutual obligations and affection. Where the family ends, the market begins and people think the market needs choice and competition to stay healthy.
But when the public face of the teacher unions is the Army of Angry Teachers, they no longer seem like Mary Poppins and begin to look a lot more like longshoremen beating their opponents with metal pipes. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss may provide psychological comfort to angry teachers (some of whom seem so irate that they may need professional psychological help to manage their anger), but it undermines the double-game that is at the heart of the teacher union strategy.
Giant mobs of yelling protesters and blogs filled with tirades may increase the intimidation politicians feel, but it seriously undermines the image of teachers as an extension of our family. And as that Mary Poppins image is significantly eroded, media elites and the general public will increasingly think of education as something in the marketplace that requires choice and competition. And this erosion is extremely hard for teacher unions to reverse.
What feels like success to angry teachers is actually sowing the seeds of failure for the teacher union.
-Jay P. Greene
Last updated July 20, 2011