Teachers Unions and School Boards Must Disconnect
Two powerful entities in public education have very different agendas. The teachers unions’ goal is to derive every benefit possible and to protect every last one of its dues paying members no matter how incompetent they are. School boards are governing bodies that are mandated to be responsive to children and to the values, beliefs and priorities of its community. Together, in most states, the two bodies must join to hammer out a “collective bargaining” agreement that regulates working conditions. (A future post will go into detail about collective bargaining issues.) As former Secretary of Education Rod Paige says, “Organizations can’t serve two gods … They serve one. And in the case of teachers’ unions, it is the interests of their members.” Period.
Stanford professor and education reformer Terry Moe describes the conflict:
School-board elections are supposed to be the democratic means by which ordinary citizens govern their own schools. The board is supposed to represent “the people.” But in many districts it really doesn’t. For with unions so powerful, employee interests are given far more weight in personnel and policy decisions than warranted, and school boards are partially captured by their own employees. Democracy threatens to be little more than a charade, serving less as a mechanism of popular control than as a means by which employees promote their own special interests.
Moe then gets into the details.
The most direct evidence comes from a study of 245 California school district elections and the 1,228 candidates who competed in them during the years 1998–2001. A multivariate statistical analysis shows that, for candidates who are not incumbents, teacher union support increases the probability of winning substantially. Indeed, it is roughly equal to, and may well exceed, the impact of incumbency itself.
The comparison with incumbency is instructive. These are low-information, low-interest elections, and because incumbents tend to be well-known, effective campaigners, and relatively well funded, there is every reason to expect the power of incumbency to be considerable. My statistical estimates show that it is. That the estimates for union impact are comparable, then, says a lot about the lofty level at which the unions are playing the political game. They are heavy hitters.
Their total influence, in fact, appears to be even greater over the long haul. When the unions succeed in getting nonincumbents elected to school boards, these people become incumbents the next time around. Then their probability of victory is boosted not just by their union support, but also by the power of incumbency. When the two factors are combined, as they are when union winners run for reelection, the candidates are virtually unbeatable. (Emphasis added.)
Obviously this is a treacherous scenario. Yet Moe does offer a few bright spots:
Yes, they are powerful, but they don’t always dominate, and they can’t have everything they want. In particular:
•They sometimes face opposition from other organized groups, especially in large urban districts. When this happens, business groups are the most likely to represent effective opposition.
•Because incumbents have their own bases of power, they can be more difficult for the unions to defeat than other candidates. As a result, the unions sometimes support incumbents who are not as pro-union as the unions would like in order not to alienate an eventual winner.
•Because voting patterns are shaped by the political culture of a district, unions in conservative districts sometimes find themselves supporting candidates who are less pro-union than they would like in order not to lose.
•After election to the school board, the experience of being on the board—and part of “management”—seems to make members somewhat less pro-union over time; as a result, the unions cannot count on gaining complete control of school boards even when they are continually successful in elections.
So while the unions have way too much sway over our children’s education, the scenario is not all bleak. And there are a few other areas of light.
One solution to the unions’ natural financial advantage and ready teacher voting army is “outsider money.” This past winter New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg poured $1 million into the Los Angeles school board races, and Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst added another $250,000 (but with only partial success).
In Colorado, where there is no defined state labor law, school boards have extensive discretion whether and how to engage and bargain with a union. Most districts are non-union, but they overwhelmingly tend to be the small-to-medium-sized variety.(H/T Ben DeGrow)But last September,in Douglas County, the third largest district in the state, the school board
… voted to officially end negotiations with the teachers union over their collective-bargaining agreement with the district. The board also voted to end the collection of union dues and to stop paying union leaders with district money.
The Dougco school board action predictably ruffled many a union feather. Douglas County Federation of Teacherspresident Brenda Smith grumbled that the policies caused teachers to feel “not valued, trusted or engaged,” and predicted that there would be a teacher “exodus” from the district. And in May, a group of discontented teachers announced they were indeed planning to leave the district because of the evisceration of the union.
But as EAG’s Ben Velderman reports, that didn’t happen.
Not only are teachers not fleeing the district in droves, but Douglas County schools’ teacher turnover rate is smaller this year (11.7 percent) than it was last year (13.2 percent), reports TheColoradoObserver.com.
The district’s current attrition rate “is normal for large districts in (Colorado),” the news site notes. Looks like the union-led revolution will have to wait …
… until November when the board members who voted to kiss off the union are up for reelection. Hence, the jury is still out in Douglas County.
In another bold move, Rod Reynolds, an Everett, Washington man, is running for school board and not playing nice with the local teachers union. Not only did Reynolds turn down the union leaders’ offer, but the
self-described watchdog and whistleblower responded to the invitation with a lengthy letter explaining why teacher unions shouldn’t get involved in school board races at all.
“Quite frankly, I don’t think your union should issue an endorsement of any school board candidate, and I don’t think any board candidate should accept one,” Reynolds writes in the June 19 letter to the union.
“The school district and its employees’ unions are natural adversaries. …You represent the teachers of the district; school directors represent (theoretically) the taxpayers-citizens who elect them. I don’t see how a school board candidate’s acceptance of a union endorsement could be anything but a conflict of interest.” (Emphasis added.)
Clearly, Reynolds gets it. It is a major conflict of interest.
Unfortunately, Los Angeles has yet to evolve. The embarrassing subhead in a recent LA Times story read:
An L.A. school board member tells UTLA activists that the union must fight public perceptions that it protects bad teachers
These words were written by newly-elected, union-backed, “reform-minded” candidate Monica Ratliff. Please note she doesn’t say she wants the union to stop protecting bad teachers; she just wants to change the perception. In other words, we don’t have a bad teacher problem, just a PR problem.
Until the public realizes that the union/school board nexus is real and very unfair to children and their families, the inequities and the failures it causes will continue. Statehouses all over the country should be thronged by an army of concerned parents and citizens demanding more bang for their buck, better education for their children and a brighter future for the country.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.