The Teacher Unions Strike Back

Author(s): Robert Holland and Don Soifer
Posted in: Education

Richmond Times-Dispatch

If the national teacher union chiefs are embarrassed by the suddenly pointed criticism the major media are leveling at their school-reform obstructionism, their actions don’t show it. Indeed, they are engaged in pitched battles coast to coast to preserve tenure and seniority-based pay systems that keep public schools safe for mediocrity.

In addition, they are lobbying for harsh new federal measures that would strip charter schools of their most basic operational independence. The Virginia Education Association’s leadership has been forceful in its doctrinaire opposition to charter schools, unmindful of the strong educational benefits to struggling Virginia schools.

But make no mistake: The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers at last are being forced to defend such archaic policies as the granting of tenure (basically lifetime employment) to teachers after just a few years of lightly supervised and evaluated service, and pay scales that reward excellent and incompetent teachers equally.

In states such as Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Minnesota, the NEA and AFT have dug in their heels so tightly against statehouse proposals to institute merit pay and to consider student results in teacher and principal evaluations that they have seriously weakened those schools’ chances of receiving hundreds of millions of dollars on incentive grants from the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top.

Although the unions have reason to be grateful to Obama (whose presidential candidacy they supported) for helping them terminate a small but effective program of private-school vouchers for needy Washington, D.C. schools, they are not yielding an inch to his push for performance-driven evaluations of schoolteachers.

Moreover, after focusing their efforts in the opening months of the Obama Administration on pushing non-education, pro-union agendas like loosening union-organizing procedures, the 3.2-million member NEA is now aggressively seeking to roll back the clock on school reforms. The NEA’s 170-page blueprint to overhaul federal education law differs substantially from Obama’s – one exception being that both ruthlessly wipe out parental choice.

One constant in the NEA’s resistance to education policies of a Republican President it opposed (Bush) and a Democrat President it backed is the union’s fondness for the pre-2001 status quo in education when the federal government pumped ever-increasing billions into education while requiring minimal results in return.

While many people across the political spectrum believe No Child Left Behind needs improvement, the NEA’s proposal would terminate some of NCLB’s most positive elements that challenged establishment orthodoxy. Notably, the NEA would:

• End all public and private school choice options currently offered for parents of children in chronically underperforming schools to choose a better public school. This NEA objective runs counter to several leading civil rights organizations that are seeking expanded choice for low-income parents whose children are stuck in bad schools.
• Institute massive new regulation for public charter schools. This includes removing state authority to permit flexible hiring and employment practices for charters, changes that would mostly negate the autonomy that allows successful charters to innovate.
• Erect huge barriers to alternative certification of new teachers, an approach that has been popular in Virginia. The NEA would demand no less than 450 hours of student teaching before a non-traditional teacher could be deemed qualified. Given that more than one-third of all new teachers now come from alternative tracks, this turning back of the clock would exacerbate teacher shortages.
• Substantially scrap multiple-choice standardized testing in favor of soft techniques such as portfolio assessment – judging student progress subjectively according to their accumulated class projects.

While pursuit of such an agenda may distance the current teacher-union brass many of their more talented and forward-thinking members, don’t expect them to throw in the towel. Bolstering union power and coffers is what they do – not reforming schools to make them produce a better education product for America’s families.