A Less Perfect Union

Jun 19, 2011 by

Andrew J. Coulson –


Student achievement at the end of high school has stagnated or declined, depending on the subject, since we started keeping track around 1970. Over that period, the cost of sending a child through the K-12 public system tripled, even after adjusting for inflation. Public school employee unions, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, are partly to blame for this, but the attention focused on collective bargaining in particular has been misplaced. The unions’ success in driving up costs and protecting even low-performing teachers stems less from their power at the bargaining table than from the monopoly status of their employer. Taxpayers, and most families, have no place else to go.

In his post-apocalyptic film Sleeper, Woody Allen explained the apocalypse with the line: “a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead.” This was in 1973, when Shanker headed New York City’s muscle-flexing teachers’ union. In those days, the goals of school employee unions were widely understood: uniformly better compensation, greater job security, and reduced workloads for their members. That’s what labor unions are for. If NEA and AFT leadership failed to pursue those goals, their members would replace them with people who would.

But for a while, during the sustained economic growth of the ’80s, ’90s, and early ’00s, the public ceased to think very much about these unions as unions. The NEA and AFT have often portrayed themselves as selfless champions of children, who sought only to improve the quality of American education. It’s hard to say how widely their PR puffery was believed, but certainly it was the dominant framing in the media and was seldom challenged by more realistic appraisals. (Except, ironically, by Shanker himself, who once declared that he would “start representing schoolchildren” when they “start paying union dues.”)

Since the late fiscal unpleasantness began in 2008, all that has changed. It has changed because the money has run out. Think of public schooling as a game of Monopoly in which one of the players, the unions, owns 90 percent of the properties (9 out of 10 American students attend public schools). The other players, taxpayers, have some cash and a few properties of their own, but they can’t make it around the board without paying ever-increasing union rents-just as, in real life, taxpayers must continue funding public schools no matter how much they cost. They can survive for a while, of course, and while they do the unions reap handsome rewards. Eventually, though, the taxpayers run out of money. Game over.

In the board game, we’d call the unions the “winners.” In reality, their victory is Pyrrhic. They’ve been so successful in protecting their members’ jobs (including those of the mediocre and inept), raising salaries and benefits, and reducing workloads (by inducing more hiring to lower the student/teacher ratio), that they have precipitated budget crises all over the country, derailing their own gravy train.

via The American Spectator : A Less Perfect Union.

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