A recent EducationWeek article, provocatively titled “These Shop Teachers Told Their Students to Form a Union,” focuses on Aviation High School in Long Island, New York, where students were encouraged to create a classroom much like the workplace of a union. Teachers José Vaz and Antonio Pepenella mention that students have more control over their education. This includes students electing officers (including foremen and a union representative) who are in charge of enforcing the class contract and ensuring student rights are protected and mediating conflicts between their classmates.
Although a novel concept, which allows children out of their seats and away from the Pythagorean theorem, the approach is actually anti-innovation in that it builds a follow-the-leader mentality.
At the core of the approach is a fallacy. Vaz states that “students at this age, and people in general, tend not to like to be told what to do, so now it comes from their peers.” But as the title of the article notes, the teachers told them to form the union. So much for student autonomy.
Another important point to consider is that Vaz is his school’s chapter leader for the New York City teachers’ union, The United Federation of Teachers, whose main objective seems to be the preservation of the status quo. Historically this has included coercing support from non-consenting members. Fortunately, with the 2018 Supreme Court decision, Janus vs AFSCME, that has changed. SCOTUS ruled that public employees cannot be forced to pay union fees to cover the costs of collective bargaining.
Furthermore, as the EducationWeek author, Madeline Will, points out, “this type of classroom exercise might not fly with parents in more conservative areas.” Which is why Colin Sharkey, the executive director of the non-union professional organization, the Association of American Educators, states “There are times when students might feel like that model of ‘we all must agree’ doesn’t fit what they’re looking for.” This is a justifiable assertion. Not everyone is enamored with the pro-union approach of Aviation High School. Yet, what the teacher unions appear to be doing is what Spencer Dryden, the drummer for Jefferson Airplane advocated: “Get them while they’re young and bend their minds.”
Terry Moe, Stanford University political science professor, further cautions that the Aviation High School model may give the wrong message to students: “I think it’s possible that they’ll walk away with an unrealistic or distorted view of what collective bargaining looks like in the real world.” And don’t count on the teachers, who are union loyalists themselves, to give an objective view of the pros and cons of unionization.
Don Nielsen rightly summarizes that unions, especially teacher unions, “tend to restrict flexibility and school autonomy, drive up the cost of education without improving quality, and entrench the role of the union position in labor contracts, weakening management rights.”
Aviation High School is perpetuating the harmful effects of unions on public education by sharing a one-sided narrative. Teacher unions strongly oppose anything that would create competition for public schools. Why else would a pro-union state like New York be teaching about unionization and its benefits?