Teacher Unions Under Fire

By Del Stover

Two years ago, it would have been unthinkable for New Jersey’s governor to pick a bare-knuckle fight with the state’s powerful teachers unions. Why risk a confrontation with the unions’ well-funded war chest, get-out-the-vote political machinery, and considerable influence with the state legislature?

But then came Republican Chris Christie.

With a blunt, no-nonsense approach, Christie has picked any number of fights with the unions since his election last year. He’s butted heads with them on everything from tenure reform to pay freezes, and from layoffs to the need for teachers to contribute more to health and pension plans.

And he’s pulled no punches in voicing his opinion. In one speech, he claimed New Jersey’s school reform efforts are being held hostage by “a selfish, self-interested, greedy union that cares more about putting money in their pockets and the pockets of their members than they care about educating our most vulnerable and needy children.”

Those are harsh words, but what’s notable isn’t that Christie said them. It’s the number of people who are joining him in his rhetoric. Legislators in at least three states -- Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin -- filed bills in February to eliminate or seriously weaken the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees. At press time, Idaho and Tennessee were likely to consider similar measures.

Those moves occurred after Republicans took control of a number of state legislatures following last fall’s elections, but unions have been in the crosshairs of any number of politicians, media pundits and public policy groups for some time. The recent documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” demonized the unions before a national audience. In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a one-time union organizer, has pilloried his city’s teachers union, calling it “one unwavering roadblock to reform.”

Such attacks have put the teachers groups on the defensive, and the anti-union line is forcing the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to reassess their political positions -- and the messages they’re delivering. And no wonder: Across the nation, unions confront challenges to long-established policies on tenure, seniority, and teacher evaluations -- challenges that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

“The old adage proves true once again: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote in an article published on his association’s website in late February. “This isn’t about balancing budgets. It’s about balancing power.”

In many cases, school boards are likely shedding few tears for the unions’ discomfort. Many will be thrilled if lawmakers take advantage of today’s political environment to overhaul tenure rules. Others will rejoice if local school officials gain more flexibility in reassigning or laying off teachers -- or if they can explore new teacher evaluation models that take into account student performance.

And there are signs that these things are happening. A two-day labor-management conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and numerous education groups, including both teachers unions and the National School Boards Association (NSBA), brought leaders from 150 school districts to Denver last month. The event (see sidebar) showcased ways that union leaders, administrators, and school boards are “working together to focus on student success.”

The question is: Will these efforts work, or will things stay the same?

Would you like to continue reading?
Subscribers please click here to continue reading. If you are not a subscriber, please click here to purchase this article or to obtain a subscription to ASBJ.