Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders consistently argues against special interests’ influence on politicians. Yet, one of the most powerful special interest groups in America is consistently left out of the conversation—teachers’ unions. As we mark School Choice Week 2016, we ought to understand how consistently teachers’ unions and opponents of educational choice opt to protect their own entrenched interests at the expense of students.
Since 1990, the two largest teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have spent a combined $114 million on campaign contributions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Teachers’ unions spent over $30 million in contributions in the 2014 election cycle alone, and Sanders has received the second highest total of any federal political from teachers’ unions in the 2016 election cycle.
“By any reasonable accounting, the nation’s two teachers’ unions, the NEA and the AFT, are by far the most powerful groups in the American politics of education,” argues Terry Moe, author of Special Interests: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools. “No other groups are even in the same ballpark.”
Moe is not exaggerating. AFT and NEA also spent over $60 million on lobbying from 1998 to 2015. The NEA is the fourth-largest single donor in American politics since 1989. Many of these funds go towards securing favorable collectively-bargained agreements.
Despite the extensive political power of teachers’ unions, some cities have been successful in rolling back tenure and seniority regulations. Under the guidance of former schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, the school system in Washington, D.C. implemented a pay system based on performance rather than seniority. Under this measure, teachers rated “highly effective” have the opportunity to earn additional bonuses. These bonuses have the double effect of motivating stronger performance and keeping younger, better teachers in the school system.
In order to receive the bonuses, however, teachers have to give up several job-security protections. Teachers’ unions largely oppose the bonuses and favor the protections. That is why most cities have not been able to experiment with innovations such as alternative pay scales for teachers, despite studies showing a strong association between alternative pay scales and student achievement.
The bonuses have continued under Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson, and preliminary studies have shown that their effect is positive and substantial, especially when teacher evaluations are based on comprehensive assessments rather than strictly on test scores. Merit pay, combined with the threat of dismissal for poor performance, makes bad teachers more likely to voluntarily retire and improves the performance of the teachers who remain.
Students need improved access to quality education. Results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that only 38 percent of high school seniors are proficient in reading and only 39 percent are proficient in math. In some of the country’s major urban areas, the results are even worse. In Chicago, 21 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in reading. In Detroit, it is only 9 percent.
When we spoke to her for our book “Disinherited: How Washington Is Betraying America’s Young,” Rebecca Friedrichs told us about the effect of union protections on students from when she was first starting out teaching.
My first experience with union abuse was during my year as a student teacher in 1987. Every day, I watched in horror as a neighboring teacher yelled at and belittled her adorable first-grade students. They were terrified of her. How could they possibly learn in that environment? When I asked my master teacher what could be done about this unjust and dangerous situation, she told me that because of tenure laws and strong union advocacy, districts had a hard time ridding themselves of abusive and incompetent teachers. That abusive teacher negatively affected hundreds of children for many years until she finally retired.
Now a veteran California school teacher, she’s the lead plaintiff in Friedrichs vs California Teachers Association, which was heard by the Supreme Court earlier this month.
Education improves when providers are allowed to innovate instead of being guaranteed a job for life. Merit pay for teachers is one such innovation. Charter schools and educational voucher programs are two more. Teachers’ unions oppose all three.
Our nation’s public schools are failing our students—and the economic consequences are dire. Better-educated students make for a more productive workforce, which not only raises wages but also improves our lives through innovation.