The Worm in the Apple: The Washington Times, February 02, 2003

Republished on VDARE.COM on February 03, 2003

Schools Choked

By  Chester E. Finn

Veteran financial journalist, immigration controversialist and National Education Association (NEA) watcher Peter Brimelow has penned a devastating and marvelously readable account of the malign role of teacher unions in American primary-secondary education. Be warned, though.

Like its subtitle, "How Teacher Unions are Destroying American Education," this volume is about as subtle as a 2 X 4 applied forcefully to the reader's skull. The unions' relentless spin machines —deftly portrayed by Mr. Brimelow in these pages —will strive to dismiss it as yet another attack on public education by the vast right-wing conspiracy. But they ought not to be allowed to get away with that. The emperor's flacks may insist that he's clad in the raiments of public-interestedness and educational improvement, but Mr. Brimelow reveals just how nakedly self-serving he is.

The book contends that America's two big teacher unions, the NEA and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have expertly exploited government's near monopoly of K-12 schooling to achieve a hammerlock over the operation of the schools themselves, the allocation of their resources, the terms of employment of their teachers and staff—and all efforts to change or reform them.

Unabashedly comparing his treatise to Ida Tarbell's famed 1904 expose of John D. Rockefeller's "Standard Oil Trust", Mr. Brimelow views today's teacher unions as menacing public-sector counterparts of yesterday's giant corporate trusts, says that they are at least as injurious to the public interest, and urges trust-busting as the most promising way to rein them in.

He's not alone in this dire view, which resembles that of Stanford's Terry Moe, long-time union critic Myron Lieberman and the invaluable Mike Antonucci, whose "Educational Intelligence Agency" supplied much of Mr. Brimelow's material. All regard teacher unions as the 800-pound gorillas of education policy and politics and the greatest barriers to the renewal of K-12 schooling in the United States.

They're not wrong. Mr. Brimelow adds rich documentation and examples to a familiar and durable recognition among politicians, policymakers and other education groups. I have sat through perhaps a thousand meetings where some promising idea got shelved as soon as someone posed the inevitable question: "But what will the unions think?" The education field's basic operating assumption is that little can happen to which they object.

Exceptions occur from time to time, as Mr. Brimelow notes. A crusading governor will push a "career ladder" or "charter school" proposal through the legislature. A single-minded superintendent will press for performance-based pay or the right of school principals to select their teaching staff without regard to seniority. Limited school-voucher plans have even slipped through the union blockade in a few places. Indeed, today's tidal wave of "standards-based reform," an amalgam of statewide academic expectations, tests and "accountability" arrangements that is America's dominant education reform thrust (and was codified by Congress in last year's "No Child Left Behind" act), has swept forward despite many teacher-union objections.

They're powerful, in other words, but not omnipotent. And they're not wholly evil, although it gets ever harder to find credible contrary examples. Mr. Brimelow does not, for example, give sufficient credit to the fine work done by the AFT—particularly when led by the late Albert Shanker—in promoting solid curricula for U.S. schools and advancing democracy in countries that lack it. (Shanker also pushed for standards-based reform, but he must be seen as the exception that proves the rule. Since his death, the AFT has become far more like the NEA and, indeed, has sought to merge the two organizations into a single behemoth.)

Despite such occasional gaps in their armor, Mr. Brimelow has the unions accurately pegged as enormously influential obstacles to the reform of K-12 education in America. That influence stems from five main sources.

First, their size and deep pockets. Combined, they would comprise much the largest labor union in the land, and their millions of members pour hundreds of millions of dollars in dues into their national treasuries and those of their state and local affiliates. The actual figures are closely guarded but Mr. Brimelow estimates that the annual take totals a stupendous $1.25 billion.

Second, the ubiquitousness of collective bargaining in public education today and the unions' success in cramming more and more education decisions into its jurisdiction. No longer do contracts pertain only to salaries, benefits and working conditions. Brazenly terming this contract-creep "education reform"—the claim is that placing "professionals" in charge of schooling will benefit the students—the "teacher trust" has widened the bargaining process to include budgets, class size, teacher deployment, recruitment and evaluation, the school calendar and schedule, and, perhaps most importantly, issues of academic standards, curriculum and instruction.

The unions seek, in effect, to function as both labor and management. And they have approached that goal in many states and districts, including "closed shop" and "agency shop" rules that force every teacher to join (or, at least, pay dues to and be represented by) the local union. Only a handful of southern and western states have resisted mandatory public sector collective bargaining.

Third, the extent of union political influence at local, state and national levels—and the joining of those levels into a single-minded machine that the NEA calls "UniServe," a structure that resembles nothing so much as a tightly knit and highly structured political party in a country with scant political opposition. This is poorly understood by journalists and policy analysts who tend to focus on events in Washington and the speeches and advertorials of the unions' national spokesmen such as Shanker, current AFT president Sandra Feldman and former NEA head Bob Chase.

Yet the roots of teacher-union power lie in 50 state capitols and thousands of local districts, where it is common to observe brass-knuckled behavior that directly contradicts the Sunday newsprint musings of the high-profile national leaders. That behavior notably includes direct political action on behalf of candidates (for school board, legislature, etc.) who embrace the union agenda and against those who resist.

As Mr. Brimelow explains, "UniServe has had a powerful centralizing effect in at least two ways. It has brought the full weight of the national and state organizations to bear even in the smallest, most remote districts. And it has tended to unify all levels of the teacher unions—national, state, and local—behind a single agenda . . . ."

Fourth, the Teacher Trust's deep reserves of patience, relentlessness and discipline. Even when they lose a battle, they often end up winning the war because they outlast their opponents. A forceful governor like Tennessee's Lamar Alexander or Michigan's John Engler must eventually leave office. When he does, the union is still there, chewing away at unwanted reforms, putting caps and restrictions on charter-school laws, redirecting funds from voucher programs into class size reduction initiatives and emasculating "alternative certification" by bringing teacher licensure under the aegis of an ostensibly independent (but, in reality, union- and ed-school-dominated) "professional standards board".

If education policy in America resembles a giant rubber band that yearns to resume its previous shape just as soon as the tension is released, much of that elasticity comes from the teacher union and their allies.

Fifth and finally, despite making so much mischief, the Teacher Trust has attained what Mr. Brimelow terms a "privileged position" in U.S. society.

It plays the media like a string quartet, alternating among efforts to cajole and reward favorable coverage, to confuse observers with a fog of jargon and doublespeak, and to punish any who throw sand into the gears of its spin machine.

The unions' capacity to retain this position of privilege owes much to its effectiveness in equating the interests of teachers with the vitality of that revered American institution known as "public education" and thus with the long-term well-being of democracy itself. That success arises in part from expert spin (and the intimidation of critics), to be sure but, like so much high-impact public relations, it incorporates a kernel of sincerity. Mr. Brimelow sees the unions as profoundly self-serving, yes, but not as hypocritical. Deep down, they really do believe that what's good for teacher unions is good for teachers and that what's good for teachers is good for public education and its pupils.

Their spin machine is pretty awesome, too, coopting the language and symbols of education reform while employing jujitsu moves to turn their force in different directions. That is why, for example, the unions have positioned themselves as favoring standards and "accountability" while skillfully fending off nearly all efforts to hold educators to account for their results. As a consequence, children who fail to learn enough may be denied their diplomas but those who failed to teach them enough go unscathed.

The unions, moreover, have styled themselves as agents of change, even as reformers of their own least loved practices. Mr. Brimelow shows, however, that claims of "new unionism" have been mooted for decades, always with favorable press coverage, always with little or nothing resulting from it.

Though they're undeniably adept at this kind of thing, it doesn't always work quite as well as intended. Though Americans like teachers and believe in public education, teacher unions themselves don't enjoy an overall positive image. (Few unions do.) Moreover, even as they bore wormholes in the education apple, Mr. Brimelow detects more than a few weaknesses in their own structures, including organizational inflexibility, failure of imagination and slackening enthusiasm among younger teachers.

The unions are also inefficient and costly, lavishing high salaries and privileges on their elites while the incomes of rank-and-file members show only modest gains. Mr. Brimelow repeatedly compares them with the Soviet economy during Leonid Brezhnev's time and implies that they may someday fall of their own weight. Yet he does not think the United States can afford to wait for spontaneous collapse. Just as the Soviet empire's demise was speeded by external pressures from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, so Mr. Brimelow urges a bold and comprehensive set of trust-busting actions to be taken by politicians, policy makers and other influentials.

He lists two dozen such actions, ranging from the reform of state public-sector bargaining laws to breaking up large school systems and outsourcing more school services. Nearly all of his suggestions make fine sense. Together, they would transform public education for the better. But Mr. Brimelow makes a point of not appraising their political feasibility. And therein lies the rub. The biggest obstacle to purposeful efforts to bring the unions to heel is the absence of plucky national and state leaders, of determined, public-spirited trust-busters a la Theodore Roosevelt.

None of them appears to live in Washington, where bipartisanship has become the watchword of federal education policy, which confers upon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy a de facto veto over everything and thus amounts to an insurance policy for the teacher unions. Moreover, while the Bush White House has snubbed the NEA on several occasions, that mainly has to do with pique over the union's refusal to endorse the president's signature "No Child Left Behind" legislation rather than any deeper seated policy disagreement.

The AFT, often nimbler and more astute when it comes to politics, applauded that law and has been rewarded with White House visits and various joint ventures, grants and contracts with the Education Department. Perhaps more important, the AFT's support has made the administration wary of policies (such as school-choice schemes) that would rankle Sandra Feldman.

At the state level, a few governors have triumphed from time to time over union opposition. One thinks of Jeb Bush's recent reelection in Florida as well as John Engler's steely insistence that the unions surrender their exclusive right to furnish liability insurance to Michigan teachers.

A few others (e.g. Colorado's Bill Owens) are fortunate enough to live in right-to-work states where the unions are comparatively weak. Like the White House, however, most state policymakers judge that the better part of valor is not to cross them—or at least to offset measures they don't like with actions that they welcome.

Of late, this stance has become almost as common among Republicans as Democrats, further proof of the unions' shrewd recognition that, in today's political world, they are wise to court (and underwrite) members of both parties. Absent powerful trustbusters, we must count on decay from within. That means Peter Brimelow's excellent list of policy changes is apt to remain a dream for some time to come. The teacher unions are apt to retain much power, though perhaps a bit less than before. And education reform in America is apt to continue progressing at a worm-like pace.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

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