Grading Teachers’ Unions

, Peter Seabrook, Leave a comment

Helping or hindering the education of America’s youth? Linda Chavez (pictured) gives a damning indictment of teachers’ unions in her new book, Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics.

“In the past four decades the teachers’ unions have been very successful in persuading Americans that schools need more money,” she notes, mainly to pay teachers “higher salaries,” “give teachers more say in [curriculum] development,” and to decrease class size. Despite this, “reading scores have barely increased in the past three decades . . . and math hasn’t gone up much faster.”

Chavez cites an “excellent book on teachers’ unions” by Peter Brimelow “showing that ‘in any given year, unionization raised inflation-adjusted per-pupil spending by 12.3 percent compared with nonunion districts’ . . . the only thing taxpayers have gotten for the extra billions we’ve poured into education is more unionized employees.” This is hardly surprising, she later adds, considering that “the unions’ dues or agency fees, by the way, are taken directly out of teachers’ paychecks by most school districts.”

Chavez notes that both the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) made hundreds of millions of dollars in the 2001-2 fiscal year. “So where does this money go? A good chunk of it goes to pay union officials’ fat salaries”—in one case, “more than $1.1 million for just three employees,” Chavez writes. “Hundreds of other employees [earn] six-figure incomes in addition to their extremely generous benefits.”

Besides giving themselves opulent salaries, union officials spend much of their members’ money on politics, Chavez maintains. “As far back as the 1970s, a top NEA official, then-executive director Terry Herndon, bluntly stated the teachers’ unions’ true priority: ‘The ultimate goal of the NEA is to tap the legal, political, and economic powers of the U.S. Congress . . . [to] collect votes to re-order the priorities of the United States of America.’”

And what might these “priorities” be? Chavez quotes from the NEA’s current policies, which include supporting: “bilingual education programs,” “a single-payer health care plan for all residents of the United States,” and “family planning, including the right to reproductive freedom;” and opposing: “efforts to legislate English as the official language” and “governmental intrusion or monitoring of library materials and bookstore records,” to name a few of the issues on which the NEA has taken sides. Its “resolutions cover everything from abortion to world hunger,” Chavez writes, “though the ideological range is decidedly more narrow: from left to farther left.”

Chavez points out, however, that while “98 percent of [the AFT’s and NEA’s total $40 million in] contributions have gone to Democratic candidates,” the average teaching members of these unions form a political cross section far closer to that of the general voting public. “Only 40 percent of NEA members characterize themselves as Democrats, according to the union’s own polling.”

She describes one failed amendment sponsored by infuriated educators within the union “that would have allowed NEA members to designate how the political portion of their dues was spent,” which, “with NEA leaders opposing. . . was defeated in the Representative Assembly by a vote of 6,369 to 2,113,” with voters “who function more or less as employees of the union” in a body which “decides 90 percent of motions by simple voice vote.”

Chavez also mentions Proposition 226, a California ballot initiative “which would have required unions to get annual written approval from their members before using union dues for political purposes.” This proposal was also defeated after the California Teachers Association (CTA), whose “660-member state council voted unanimously to oppose [it],” “funded a major initiative to gain support for its position.”

The issue of school vouchers is another area where the opinions of union leadership and members diverge, Chavez contends. “According to the NEA’s own budget, in 2000 the organization spent a remarkable $218 million to defeat school voucher initiatives in Michigan, Arizona, and California. At the very same time, however, an NEA internal poll showed that 61 percent of NEA members believed that it was ‘not very important’ or ‘not at all important’ for the union to take a stand on the school choice issue.”

Even so, Chavez observes, 13.1 percent of all American parents (and 12.1 percent of those who teach) “choose private schools for their children. . . But in urban areas, where poor children would most benefit from voucher programs, a substantial percentage of public school teachers choose to send their children to private schools—for example, Boston, 44.6 percent; Cleveland, 39.7 percent; San Francisco, 36.7 percent; Chicago, 36.3 percent.”

This is where the unions’ political contributions pay off. Chavez recounts the fate of a voucher initiative originally proposed for Washington, D.C. in 1995—a city whose per-student spending is “70 percent higher than the national average—[while] their dropout rate is a whopping 42 percent and their average SAT score is more than 220 points below the national average.”

“Union leaders fought it from the beginning,” as did “a reliable ally, Senator Ted Kennedy” and although “the unions’ lobbying worked [in the Senate]. . . the D.C. voucher proposals would not go away.” The next attempt, in 1997, passed Congress only to fall under a veto. Chavez adds that a Washington Post “poll of D.C. residents show[ed] that 56 percent of District residents wanted school choice. Those who stood to benefit most from vouchers—that is, poor parents who could not afford to get their children out of the failing public schools—supported school choice even more strongly. . . 65 percent of African-Americans with incomes under $50,000 favored the plan.”

Eventually vouchers finally won out, “nearly a decade after the first D.C. voucher program was introduced. . . But the teachers’ unions and their Democratic partners did not give up. . . ‘Even after this vote, don’t bank on vouchers coming to D.C.,’ [Senator Kennedy] said.”

“Though the teachers’ unions make no secret” of the immense power they wield, Chavez maintains, “‘they also have a positive public image from representing teachers that much of labor lacks,’” quoting Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia. Chavez adds that teachers’ unions “capitalize on the image of their members: the humble, hardworking American teacher.”

At one time, the National Education Association, the major American teachers’ union, was indeed “not a union but rather an innocuous professional association, controlled by and made up mostly of school administrators.” That all changed in the tumultuous 1960s, Chavez writes: “by the 1970s, the NEA had kicked out its administrator-members and adopted policies sanctioning strikes, and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) had officially designated it as a union.”

She quotes U.S. News & World Report’s observation that “the AFT and the NEA have given teaching the feel of classic blue-collar work, where winning workers big checks for the shortest possible hours has been the aim and the quality of the product is considered to be management’s worry.”

A rising sophomore at Kenyon College, Peter Seabrook is an intern at Accuracy in Academia.