While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing the American education system. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.
One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.
This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.
Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).
Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.
The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.
First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.
Second, if unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community. That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.
It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.
In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.
Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.
In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.