Teacher unions carry a lot of fire power in their holsters, wielding greater influence on the public schools than any other group in American society, including voters. On first glance, one could say it is all “bottom up” influence due to their membership numbers (the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have a combined membership approaching 5 million). Unions drive collective bargaining activities which result in agreements so comprehensive that the organization of public schools is virtually dictated by the union. There is also “top-down” influence, in which politicians are lobbied to pass laws and regulations that are typically anti-reform and block or weaken any attempt to curb union power.
In an article for New York Magazine, author Sarah Jones writes on the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest teachers union, and their plans for the 2020 elections. She reports, “On Tuesday evening, the American Federation of Teachers rolled out its candidate endorsement process to approximately 30,000 members in a tele–town hall, its first major foray into the nascent Democratic-primary race.”
The NEA and AFT are the largest contributors to candidates in federal elections and play large rolls in local and state elections. From a personal experience of managing a campaign for a State Representative in Washington State, I can affirm that the WEA’s pockets run deep.
Teacher union power is a problem. Unions should not have more power over public schools than parents, tax payers, policymakers, and teachers. So how does one resist the union pressure? The most obvious answer would be to pass legislation limiting union protections of teacher seniority and tenure. However this does not ultimately fix the issue. Discovery Institute Senior Fellow Don Nielsen writes in Every School, “though unions are, in my mind, the major constraint to improving our schools, they are not the source of the problem—management is!”
Nielsen suggests that what needs to occur is for effective leadership take the place of poor management in order to build trust between school system leaders and union representation: “working on improving leadership first is a basic requirement of mitigating union opposition to constructive change…[this] constraint can be accommodated if there is effective leadership at the principal, superintendent, and board levels of management.”
His views are shaped by his experience on the Seattle School Board, where he and his colleagues had appointed reformer Superintendent John Stanford. In dealing with the Seattle teachers union, they approached the union with a plan to give principals more authority and accountability. The union agreed to eliminate seniority as the basis for hiring teachers and replaced the seniority hiring basis with a leadership team which would “work with the principal in the selection and hiring of new teaching staff, in setting rules for the daily operation of the building and in the preparation of the school budget.”
This experience is an example of how effective leadership and the cultivation of trust can lead to an upgrade for public education. Nielsen writes, “the school district [was] able to upgrade the quality of principals, but principals in turn dramatically improved the quality of teachers working in schools…this resulted in increased test scores, reduced drop-out rates and dramatic decrease in violence and disruptions.”
Above all, for schools to succeed, leadership must prevail. Improving the quality and quantity of leaders is an essential step in improving our schools. This must happen at all levels before the diminishing of the all-too-powerful unions can bear fruit.