Unions: To be a scapegoat is a choice

October 25, 2010 •

An article in the New York Times this past week pushed back against the caricature of AFT President Randi Weingarten by Waiting for Superman.

“Ms. Weingarten happens to be the most visible, powerful leader of unionized teachers,” the article notes, “and in that role she personifies what many reformers see as the chief obstacle to lifting dismal schools: unions that protect incompetent teachers.”

The article argues that she has led her (oft reluctant) members to compromises on issues of seniority and evaluation. “She has acted out of a fear,” it says, “that teachers’ unions could end up on the wrong side of a historic and inevitable wave of change.”

Unions are popularly seen as an obstacle to improvement, protecting weak teachers and preventing the entrance of others with potential through certifications. That may be true, though this is changing.

But the power of the (unreasonable) notion that unions are the principal obstacle distracts from the root problem. We ask: So, what if magically the unions disappeared. Then what? We would still be left with the problem that the schools do not function as well as they need to. The teacher-improvement argument does not address the deeper problem—that schools are in need of a fundamental redesign.

The Times was correct in capturing Weingarten’s sentiment that unions have become a scapegoat and that everyone is piling on. That this an excellent time—both politically and on the merits—for unions to get out from under the pile and push back.

The unions’ message, however, can’t be a call for “more of the same.” A better course would be to demand a level of autonomy and authority at each public school that matches the higher than ever expectations being handed down by policymakers, employers, parents and taxpayers. It’s not quite as simple as changing into tights and a cape in the nearest phone booth.

But this kind of “quid-pro-quo”—trading school-level accountability for teacher-led autonomy—may just be the “win-win” opportunity that serves both the policy and political demands now facing American public education.

For more on the need to redirect the debate now raging about how to seize the opportunity in getting to the “win-win” position public education needs, check out an editorial from last week by Educaton|Evolving’s Ted Kolderie on the National Journal online.

Image: Randi Weingarten, from NYT