How Teacher Unions Have Ruined Our Public Schools
Human Events, February 3, 2003, Vol. 59,
The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are
Destroying American Education By Peter Brimelow
Harper Collins, 2003, $24.95, 336pp.
A rotten apple squishes and oozes when picked up
because there`s nothing of substance left inside and it
is certainly nothing that anyone now wants to eat. In
his newly released book
The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions are
Destroying American Education, Peter Brimelow
depicts the National Education Association (NEA) and its
lesser counterpart, the American Federation of Teachers
(AFT), much the same.
The substance of a good education has become a mealy
brown mass of government mandates and regulations
riddled with holes of substandard results in basic
subjects. Brimelow begins by pointing out the misnomer
of public schools. "Public schools are not public in
the sense of being something you can use without cost.
You pay for them in taxes and they are very expensive.
Nor are `public schools` controlled by the public in any
meaningful way. They are locked away in a tower of
government regulations–heavily guarded by teacher union
The NEA is simply not a soft and fuzzy organization
of teachers working together to make things better for
the kids, but a brass knuckle labor union bent on
controlling its own membership while being heavily
involved in partisan politics. Teacher unions are, in
essence, an arm of the Democratic Party.
Despite its verbiage in support of women breaking the
glass ceiling, the overwhelming Democratic NEA with its
a heavily female membership has a slew of male officers.
Running a union is about the exercise of raw power. For
example, attendees at a recent convention were lectured
on the necessity of not only opposing school vouchers
but also boycotting any company that supports them.
What kind of trouble are the schools in? A reporter
for the San Francisco Examiner
found that many teens could not identify the country
from which we
won our independence. And no, it was not Japan,
Canada or China. Too many students in the top 55
colleges could not identify Valley Forge, words from the
Gettysburg Address or basic principles of the U.S.
Constitution. Only 30% of 17-year-olds can read well
enough to digest Forbes. The vocabulary of the average
14-year-old has fallen from 25,000 words to 10,000 words
in the last 50 years.
The dynamics of school enrollments have also changed
in the last 40 years. The percentage of secondary
students attending Roman Catholic schools has fallen
from 12.6% in 1960 to 4.7% today. Non-Catholic private
school enrollments are up from 1% to 6.5%. Home
Schooling estimates are between 1.6 and 2 million
children. Any of these alternative educational
situations cost less than a public school education. Yet
school boards and taxpayers are repeatedly lectured on
the dire necessity of increasing education funding now.
Brimelow insight fully says, "Because people are
so used to viewing the government school system as a
sort of religion or charitable endeavor rather than as
an industry; they really do assume mat education
spending is good and that more is better–as if
education spending were prayer or good works. Naturally,
their political leaders follow suit… No consumer would
boast about spending more on a purchase than was
absolutely necessary. Why is education different?"
Why indeed? If education is a charitable endeavor,
why does it have unions? If it is an industry, why are
cost considerations viewed with such disdain?
Reducing class size is often cited as a panacea for
educational reform. Brimelow disputes this. Teacher
quality is equally significant. Yet in 1949-1950 there
were 2.36 teachers per school administrative staff.
Today, there are only 1.09. In six states–Michigan,
Indiana, Florida. Oklahoma, New Mexico and
Vermont–administrators outnumber teachers.
An industry that has not changed in 100 years will
change only when competition compels it. Special
education programs are largely controlled in Washington
and states either comply with federal dictates or lose
federal money for these costly programs. Tenure policies
allow incompetent teachers to remain in their positions.
In 1997 in Florida, .05 % of teachers were fired as
compared with 7.9% of employees in the real world. Out
of 72.000 teachers in New York City, three were fired
for incompetence in a two-year period. In Saranac,
Mich., a shoplifting teacher exchanged her resignation
for a year`s salary and benefits.
The NEA even uses
liability insurance to keep its rank and file in
line. If a teacher needs protection against litigious
parents, coverage options are obviously limited.
Tax increases to pay for additional education funding
benefit not only leviathan school systems but union
pockets as well. Every teacher salary increase means an
increase in union dues. Union members generally pay in
the neighborhood of $500 per year ($130 to the national
organization, $300 to a state affiliate and $70 to a
local union). Union dues are deducted from paychecks.
Contract disputes that may raise salaries and union
income sometimes cause layoffs as localities struggle to
pay the bills. In 2000, Sonoma Valley, Calif., cut 70
positions as salaries rose 7%.
Class size reduction is an expensive option supported
by the unions. Additional teachers boost membership,
which provides an increase in union funding. Reducing
class size creates an instant labor shortage causing
wages to rise and new teacher standards to fall to
accommodate the labor shortage. Veteran teachers
transfer to the suburbs leaving the hardest inner-city
assignments to the newest teachers.
Teacher unions provide amazing benefits to their
staffers, including virtually 100% medical coverage and
incarceration pay. If jailed while conducting union
business, employees in the California Teachers`
Association can collect normal benefits and double
salary. It was revealed in 1993 that the Indiana State
Teachers` Association had 40 employees making in excess
of $100,000 per year. Anyone driving more than 8,000
miles per year on union business was eligible for a
The NEA is naturally opposed to school choice and
vouchers because these options give more control to
parents and decrease the union`s influence. Any person
or group who favors such options is labeled an
extremist. Giving parents a choice, instead of merely
taxing them into submission with no alternative
educational outlet, siphons off students from the public
system and possibly even teachers. This leaves the NEA
with the new problem of recruiting members in the
Brimelow has 24 suggestions for disinfecting the
apple and extracting the worm, not the least of which is
the abolition of the Department of Education. Also
included in the wish list: Bust the teacher trust,
reform collective bargaining statutes, pass
right-to-work laws, end teacher tenure, allow merit pay,
institute alternative teacher certification, and privatize
some school services (e.g., cafeterias).
He closes with the words of University of Minnesota
Mark Yudof: "If war is too important to be left
to the generals, then education is too important to be
left only to professional teachers." "Or," adds
Brimelow, "above all, to their unions."