Editor’s note: This is the fourth and final post in a series on the future of teachers unions.
Over the last 20 years, the federal government and state governments have used standards, assessments and regulatory accountability to assert more top-down control over classroom teachers. As state-mandated teacher evaluation and merit pay systems have become ubiquitous, the level of teacher disempowerment and alienation has soared, and teacher unions have hunkered down and become even more defensive and conservative.
School choice is the way out – not only because it is breaking down public education’s 19th Century industrial management model, but because teacher unions are so economically tied to this model they are fighting to preserve it, even though it is bad for teachers and students. Ironically, teacher union dues today are used to perpetuate a dysfunctional management system, and to protect teachers from being abused by this same system. It’s crazy.
I say this as a former teacher union leader.
I started teaching in fall 1977. In January 1978, I sat at a table with other teachers and heard a divorced mother with two young children tearfully tell us she had rejected her boss’ sexual advances and now he was ending her employment contract. At the time, we didn’t have a union or a union contract.
I was 22 years old and became a union organizer while sitting at that table. We organized ourselves, collected cards and successfully petitioned the state to hold a collective bargaining election. We won a court case management had filed to block the election. Then we won the election and bargained and ratified a contract that included protections against arbitrarily firing employees.
In 1984, I joined a more mature union (and the school choice movement) when I moved to St. Petersburg, Fla. to help start one of the state’s first magnet schools. The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association had been a professional association for several decades before turning into an industrial union in the late 1960s. By 1984, its collective bargaining agreement had been in place for more than a decade, and it had established a collaborative working relationship with management.
After the intensity of building a union from scratch, PCTA felt stagnant. The union was part of district management. It did a great job protecting teachers from the abuses of a politically-managed bureaucracy, but there was no energy or vision for progress. PCTA’s only internal and external message was, “We need more money.”
Pinellas teacher salaries increased by an average of 45 percent from 1981 to 1986, yet teachers were still miserable. More money was great, but they wanted greater job satisfaction. Individuals become teachers because they want to make a meaningful contribution to children’s lives, but that’s difficult – and often impossible – in a mass production bureaucracy that treats teachers like assembly line workers and students like identical widgets.
We attempted reform from within. Continue Reading →