The Teachers Unions First Lost The Media; Have They Now Lost Everyone Else, Too?

The Teachers Unions First Lost The Media; Have They Now Lost Everyone Else, Too?
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Superintendent of Pubic Education Tom Torlakson (left) who is seeking reelection, is being challenged in the November election by Marshall Tuck (right), a former charter schools executive. (AP Photos)

RCEd Commentary

Five years ago, we published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal laying out the reasons why the teachers unions were “losing” the national press. At the time, it was controversial; we both got angry phone calls from the usual cadre of union leaders dressing us down.

Now, nobody seems surprised that “reformer” Marshall Tuck, running for California schools superintendent in the country's most high-profile education election contest, has pulled in every single major newspaper endorsement in California – despite the fact that California and national teachers unions are throwing everything they have against Tuck.

The contrast could not be starker. Every week it’s another Tuck endorsement by celebrities, editorial boards, and parent groups. California’s largest teachers union responded to one humorous and celebrity studded Tuck video (that went viral, of course) by posting a video monologue featuring California Teachers Association’s chief supporting the union favorite: incumbent Tom Torlakson. Losing the media is just a proxy for losing pretty much everyone without a vested interest.

This may mark one of the great missed opportunities in education. With a sympathetic president as a partner, national union leaders could have spent the last five years telling their members the truth: The nation’s classrooms are changing fast, now at 50 percent poor and minority students, and our schools are simply not good enough for too many students. So the entire education sector, including teachers, must change as well.

But they didn’t. Instead, union leaders spent the last five years telling their members that change was not necessary. You are blameless, they insisted in their fight against “reformers.” You’re being demonized. Poverty is to blame, not our schools.

Those demanding change, they insisted, are “corporate reformers” out to “privatize” your schools. What’s needed instead, they told their teachers, was a massive digging-in to block those very changes.

That poll tested, but vacuous rhetoric meant war. And as with most wars, the extremists rose to leadership positions. Today, we have ever more radical teacher union leaders in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere. Inside the unions anything less than stridency is now seen as weakness. In New York, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew was unknowingly recorded bragging about how he had “gummed up the works” to block improvements.

At the national level, the once-deliberate National Education Association rashly voted to fire U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, thus making the conflict another episode of Democrat vs. Democrat political tension over education policy. Even worse, few, least of all the President, seemed to care.

The union leaders pointing to poverty as the source of the problem are not all wrong, but they are overplaying their hand. While the AFT and NEA stonewalled, impatient politicians allowed the growth of independent charter schools, the best of which dramatically improve the lives of poor and minority children. In Los Angeles, for instance, a Stanford University evaluation released earlier this year found that on average, charter students there experience the academic equivalent of 50 more days of instruction in reading and more than 70 days in math compared to similar students in the city’s traditional public schools. As it turns out, it’s not just about poverty.

Perhaps we should not be surprised teachers union leaders opted to dig in rather than innovate. (And here we should note that we also got more discreet outreach from others in the union community saying, “thanks for saying what I can’t say,” these organizations are not monolithic.) The innovations that are required will be huge and disruptive to traditional power arrangements in education. Choice for parents, real professional status for teachers, and a compensation system that rewards excellence as much as longevity work better for students and teachers than for the unions.

Other changes – establishing a common classroom culture geared for learning, ushering in longer school hours, developing a new generation of school leaders, and personalizing learning – are even more complicated but no less threatening to the vested role today’s teachers unions enjoy.

But to maintain a viable system of traditional, local neighborhood schools, this work has to be done. Instead, it was hardly tried and fought at every turn mostly because teachers union leaders chose confrontation over collaboration.

Now, rather than course-correcting, union leaders are doubling down on this bad bet. In California, the unions are pillorying Tuck as a corporate privateer – all because he worked for a bank before leaving finance and embarking on a career as a leader of a successful network of California charter schools serving low-income and first-generation American students.

This strategy might work in the short run. Tuck could well lose and the unions are succeeding at delaying initiatives they don’t favor all over the country. But in the long run they’re dooming the schools they claim to care about to mediocrity and abandonment by the middle class, and putting the union they profess to love on a path to irrelevance.

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