Do Teachers Unions Actually Care about Kids?

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The 1857 formation of teachers unions was intended to elevate the profession of teaching with the ultimate goal of benefiting the students. The basic idea was to professionalize teaching and standardize education for both teachers and students to ensure a good learning experience for all.

Unions became a popular means of advocating for various groups in the mid-1800s. Teachers unions, primarily comprised of women, utilized momentum from the feminist movement to fight for higher pay, standardization of educational goals, and better conditions for students, including smaller class sizes, which teachers deemed essential for better learning.

Despite these goals, the actions taken by teachers unions have not always benefited students. The problem lies not in the care and concern of individual teachers. I know many amazing teachers, truly gifted in their teaching methods and their ability to connect with their students. The problem lies with public education as a whole—its training of teachers and its submission to  unions which protect teachers from getting the necessary direct feedback from the children and families they supposedly serve.

Nowhere was this more evident than during the pandemic where, in many districts, the unions actually prevented teachers and students from going back to in-person learning despite all the evidence that any serious danger of infection was past.

But the problem goes even deeper. Public education as a whole has had a mediocre record of success at best and is currently in decline. In my home state of Missouri, enrollment in public schools has dropped 2.2 percent over the last five years. On a national level, public schools have seen overall enrollment drop by 4 percent, with individual states at higher rates, a trend that began prior to the pandemic.

Parents are opting out of public schools at great personal cost to themselves financially since they must pay local public school tax assessments regardless. This puts teachers unions in a very powerful position. The unions and teachers are effectively immune from the feedback that would be present in a free market situation. They get their tax money either way—even from parents who do not wish to use the public schools.

Furthermore, the cost of education continues to rise. Peter Brimelow, in his 2004 book The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, comments on the rising costs of education:

Annual current spending per pupil in the government school system has risen …  relentlessly for more than a hundred years. Annual current spending per pupil was $275 in 1890 and $7,086 in 1999-2000—adjusted for inflation and expressed in the year 2000 dollars. That’s more than 25-fold.

While the costs of education have continued to increase over the last two decades, the quality of education continues to decrease. A teacher’s basic job has not changed: to educate children in the basics of reading, writing, and mathematics, but the inclusion of technology adds another factor, one that requires further training and equipment and inflates costs excessively. This trend began in the 1970s when it was thought that literacy could be achieved via more visual means, first with television, then computers. Since then, billions of dollars have been spent on the latest technological fads. Currently, education technology is a fast growing area with projected spending reaching 132 billion by 2032. Meanwhile, actual literacy is in jeopardy with an incredible 19 percent of high school graduates unable to read.

So what we have is this: rising costs driven by educational technology producing little actual education, a decline in the quality of education, teachers whose salaries fall below the cost of living, and unions that seek to continue the vicious cycle of higher spending with same or worse educational results.

Opting out of the unions is possible, and some teachers make this choice, but it’s to their detriment. As David Gordon points out in his review of Peter Brimelow’s aforementioned book, “a teacher cannot be forced to join a union, but the union contract governs his employment whether he likes it or not.” The unions’ best bet is to maintain the status quo, keeping pubic education essentially a closed system which feeds on itself and is free from any real feedback from students or parents. There is no incentive to do otherwise.

So what then is to be done? In order for public education to be effectively transformed, the stranglehold of the unions must be demolished. Currently, only five states—all of them in the South—restrict the scope of education unions largely by prohibiting or limiting the ability of public employees to enter into collective bargaining agreements with unions. The education system in every state must be exposed to real market feedback, and teacher’s salaries must be based on the actual quality of their teaching. Only then will students receive the maximum benefit—and a proper education.

Image credit: “National Union of Teachers” by AnemoneProjectors on Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0. Image cropped.