Even with all of its faults, I’m sticking with the union

Given the national wave of public sector union bashing, it’s not surprising that people like Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is out making speeches about the virtues of collective bargaining in public education.

The case against teachers unions has been simmering for decades, with horror stories about the rubber room in New York (now gone); countless instances of union resistance to modification of rigid seniority rules in promotion and layoffs, and, often, general insensitivity to the needs of children and the concerns of parents.

It had to blow – and what more likely time than during a recession and the accompanying tight state and local budgets. Nor does it come only from the Republicans of Wisconsin and Ohio (and Washington, D.C.), but from national foundations and from fully certified liberals like Davis Guggenheim, whose film Waiting for Superman portrays Weingarten as a villain in the struggle of parents to get their children into decent schools. Even Barack Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan don’t seem so sure.

But Weingarten’s effort – I heard her in the East Bay suburb of Lafayette last week – was but a frail dike against that wave. She told stories to illustrate how bottom-up input in collective bargaining from the people in the classroom helps make schools both more effective and fiscally more efficient.

Randi Weingarten, AFT president
Randi Weingarten, AFT president

She argued that her union has worked hard to make teacher evaluations – including dismissals of bad teachers – fairer and faster; that there should be more focus on improving teaching and less on testing; and, perhaps most tellingly, that debates about federal policy – most immediately revisions in the fraying No Child Left Behind law – are almost irrelevant when states and local districts are being ravaged by fiscal crises and laying off thousands of teachers.

She left out much on both sides of this complicated story. She said little about the long history of union intransigence, especially by the National Education Association, far and away the bigger of the two national unions, which brought us to this point. (Asked whether her stories about the leadership of her own organization in school reform applied to the rival NEA as well, she diplomatically allowed that there was a lot of diversity in the movement; slowly, she also seemed to suggest, the NEA was letting itself be dragged into the 21st Century.)

Defenders of public schools against privatization

But she didn’t say anything about – or maybe forgot  to mention – things that may have been all too obvious: It’s been the teachers unions, for all their intransigence, that have been the most effective defenders of the common schools through three decades of increasingly virulent attacks from the voices of privatization. It’s the common schools that promise, even if too often they fail to deliver, the acculturation and social integration on which citizenship rests.

Even as she was speaking, the Republican-dominated Indiana legislature was passing HB 1003, the most sweeping voucher law in the country. It will provide a private school voucher to any child from a family with an annual income of under $60,000 who’s currently enrolled in a public school.

Proponents of the plan argue that since the voucher, which would come out of the budget of the transferring student’s school and vary according to the student’s family income, is never worth more than 90 percent of a school’s public funding (and often much less), the schools would in fact gain from the program.

But since schools can choose applicants according to their usual standards, it in effect makes the public schools, which have to take all comers, the default system for those rejected by the private schools – assuming any were accessible.

And since parents can supplement the voucher with their own funds, the program not only becomes a public subsidy for families who can afford private schools, but a subsidy for those schools. Eventually, if the statements of the law’s proponents are credible, the means test will be liberalized and children already in private schools will also become eligible. They’re playing with similar ideas next door in Ohio.

Unions modeled on industrial labor organizations were never a comfortable fit for teaching, which is not supposed to be assembly line work but a profession unrestrained by fixed working patterns and rules.

Moreover, they sit on top of a civil service system already providing tenure and promotion rules (themselves sometimes debatable) and exercise great political power in state legislatures, on school boards, and in the Democratic Party. That’s clout on top of security on top of yet more security.

But after all that’s said, public employee unions are not even remotely the cause of our present budgetary difficulties, they’re the fall guys in a fiscal system that – no secret to anyone – tilts heavily toward the rich and powerful and a public ethos that’s nearly forgotten the critical importance of community, equality, and public services in the maintenance of a good society.

For the 30 or 40 years after the mid-1930s, recalling what things had been like before, Americans celebrated and broadened public services provided by social democracy. In the past generation or two we’ve forgotten that past, or take it for granted. At this moment, for all their flaws, it’s the unions that are  the biggest defenders of adequate public services.  That history, too, is something that people like Weingarten – and a lot of others – should be talking about.

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

Author: Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future” and “California: America’s High Stakes Experiment.” His latest book is “Not Fit for Our Society: Immigration and Nativism in America” (University of California Press). He is a frequent contributor to the California Progress Report (californiaprogressreport.com) and is a member of the TOP-Ed advisory board.

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