The Power Of Teachers’ Unions

Larry Price
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Wednesday - March 19, 2008
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It was announced last week that in five years the state Board of Education plans to offer students the option of getting a more-advanced high school diploma called the College and Career Ready Diploma. This new optional diploma would require students to take an additional credit as well as higher levels of math and English. BOE officials say it would better prepare them for college or help them get a job right out of high school. The BOE says it is trying to ensure that teachers will have the skills and training to teach the students the intensive-writing courses required by the new optional diploma. The regular diploma option still would be available to the general student body.

This is a good idea, but it makes you wonder what the teachers and their unions think about the added pressure on them to be more productive.

One of the most powerful forces in the education industry is the National Education Association (NEA). It plays a significant role in the education system of the United States. The organization began as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1857. By the end of World War II, with its main agenda the betterment of teachers and students, NEA’s membership included about half of all educators in the U.S. NEA leaders were able to gain a monopoly once they seized power, and forced the government to require that all teachers must accept union representation as well as pay union dues. NEA’s leaders consequently have the power to call strikes, intimidate teachers and collect dues.

Teachers in unions have the right - and have exercised that right - to have the unions fight on their behalf. It will be interesting to see where the unions stand on the additional pressure on teachers to be more productive. This is where we will see pressure from government officials and taxpayers to question whether teachers in these unions are being productive or if they are just riding on the coattails of their unions. It’s common knowledge that, in Hawaii, it is easier to fire an incompetent judge than a union teacher who is incompetent.

It is interesting to note that, at their 1994 convention, teacher union leaders passed many resolutions establishing their position that teachers are to be hired and promoted solely on the basis of seniority. Even more interesting, they opposed alcohol- and drug-testing of teachers, and also opposed competency tests. It appeared to the outsider that their actions directly opposed the supposed purpose of the union, which was the betterment of not just teachers, but also of students.

An academic perspective on unions and education suggests that a student’s achievement is negatively affected by the unionization of public school teachers. Why? Partially because there is an increase in administrators while there is a reduction in actual instruction time. However, while there have been negative effects by unions, there also have been some positive achievements. In Hawaii, these include increased preparation time, teacher experience and smaller teacher-to-student ratios.

There are many variables when dealing with productivity within the educational industry and multiple ways of measuring it: hours in the classroom, standardized test scores and even teacher-to-student ratio, but there is no standard measurement used across the board.

Unions and teachers are not the only contributing factors. In Hawaii, the decline of education productivity, like lack of resources and poor resource distribution in the state, districts, schools and to students, misdirection of existing funds, and bureaucratic school structures also aid in rising costs and the decline of productivity.

What this all suggests is that new teacher salaries should be more competitive, educational management should be more broad and hands-on, and financing should be restructured to be more equitable and goal-related. Since experience, training and schooling all play some role in productivity, then they must affect the end result, our standard of living. The BOE needs to ask some tough questions about our educational industry: what does and does not work in raising productivity.

With the image of 400 Campbell High students armed with their innocent signs descending on the Legislature still fresh in every taxpayer’s mind, maybe the unions who represent the teachers and students should take the lead in improving the increased productivity the BOE is searching for.

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