Education is an increasingly politicized profession. Not unlike other political discussions, education reform is wrought with emotional appeals and disingenuous tactics to win support.
Union supporters turn opposing views into an assault on teachers' work in their classrooms.
Many union representatives claim that opponents of teachers unions don’t respect teachers. Such backlash and cynicism from union supporters only hurts the chances that honest education reform dialogue could occur.
Teachers unions have existed in America with varying degrees of power since the 1850s. While the initial goals of teachers unions may have been laudable, they have crept far beyond their original purpose. Since the semi-nationalization of education in the late 1970s, teachers unions have become powerful lobbying agents and contributors to candidates who would secure union power via legislation.
As such powerful agents in the federal political process, teachers unions align themselves with the negative perceptions that the American public has on government. According to a Pew survey released on April 26, 2012, “Just a third of Americans have a favorable opinion of the federal government, the lowest positive rating in 15 years.”
The favorable view of government increases at the state on local levels at 52 percent and 61 percent, respectively, but Americans pay attention only to the federal political process. Thus, American pessimism of the federal government damages the image of teachers unions at the state and local levels. But, teachers unions at the state and local level do their part to contribute to their negative public perception, including teachers.
On behalf of Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next, researchers conducted a survey to gauge public opinion about teachers unions. The results were staggering for the unions.
The researchers found, “Only 22% of Americans think unions have a positive effect on schools."
The authors continued, “The survey's most striking finding comes from its nationally representative sample of teachers. Whereas 58% of teachers took a positive view of unions in 2011, only 43% do in 2012. The number of teachers holding negative views of unions nearly doubled to 32% from 17% last year.”
Public opinion will continue to decline as long as teachers unions oppose an open, genuine discussion on education reform.
Unions avoid student-centered reforms by placing member interests over student outcomes.
For example, two issues that constantly come up in teachers union contract negotiations are pay and teacher to student ratio. Unions fight for higher pay and lower classroom sizes, which contradicts basic laws of economics.
Like family budgets, school district budgets are finite. Taxpayer money is scarce. Thus, if teachers request smaller classroom sizes, the district must employ more teachers. Hiring more teachers means the limited salary budget would be spread across more employees. Salaries will naturally be lower with smaller classrooms than with larger classrooms.
Unions can’t have their cake and eat it too. Like other unions, teachers union leaders often ignore economic reality and manipulate the electorate’s emotionsto gain more power.
Teachers unions must set aside their special interests and come to the school reform discussion with a clean, student-achievement slate. All parties at the table must focus on what is best for the kids it the classroom.
In an honest education reform discussion, teachers will find that parents respect what teachers do in the classroom. And teachers unions will discover that they don’t need to inject themselves as heavily into the political process.