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David Kirkpatrick

Teachers and Their Unions

by David W. Kirkpatrick,
Senior Education Fellow, US Freedom Foundation

Teacher unions like to say they represent their members and look out
for their best interests, including protecting their rights to speak out
without reprisal. Teachers are by the nature of their work college
graduates. So it's a bit more common for them to try to have their say than in many other occupations.

Let's see how this works out.

Some years ago, Kevin Irvine was selected Colorado's Teacher of the
Year. The next year there was a voucher initiative on the ballot in his
state and Kevin publicly endorsed it. The result? He was criticized and
threatened by his union and some colleagues.

In another state a teacher appeared at a school board meeting and,
during the period for public comments he objected to the district initiating
a policy of payroll deductions of payments to the unions. The union not
only disagreed with him, as might be expected, but they said he had no right
to speak because the union was the exclusive bargaining agent. The issue
went to court, all the way to the Supreme Court. Essentially, the Court
concluded that the teacher was not trying to bargain but the union was trying to violate his constitutional right of free speech.

In one major city where the union contract specified the required
school hours for teachers, a fairly common provision, the union criticized its
own members who stayed in school longer than those hours, on their own and
without extra pay. The union charged them with embarrassing their
colleagues and engaging in the education equivalent of a speedup.

In that same city, the school district received millions of
foundation dollars to help develop mini-teams in its large high schools whereby 4-5 teachers could work with 100 or so students. Some teachers requested that they be able to agree among themselves as to who would constitute such a team. The foundation had no problem with that. The school board had no problem. The administration had no problem. Ah, but the union did have a problem. It refused to let their members form their own teams.
This is but one example of union hypocrisy about "teacher autonomy."

In a separate instance in which I was personally involved., an ad hoc
group of educators from basic and higher education, including union
staffers, agreed to hear the views of the state's recently announced Teacher of the Year. All of us but one. But we had a unanimity rule. The one objection came from a staffer of the union to which this teacher belonged (And of which I was president when this staffer was hired.). He said,. "If one of
our teachers is going to speak to our group we'll decide who it will be."
Ironically, the rival teacher union staffer had no problem.

Probably the most famous instance of this problem occurred with the
late Jaime Escalante who was so successful teaching calculus to mostly poor
and Latino students in Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. The movie
"Stand and Deliver" was based on his story.

His sin? He had 70 or more students in some classes, more than
triple the maximum permitted in the union contract. Jaime said he would not
deny admission to his classes for any student who wanted in. Union
representatives helped persuade teachers to vote him out as math department chairman.

Jaime naively wrote to his union president, saying "If you looked into
what is going on in this school in the name of the union, I think you...would
be appalled." Wrong!

Even after he was removed as department chairman the harassment
continued, causing him to leave the district. He quickly was hired elsewhere.

So he wasn't hurt professionally but Garfield's students lost access to one
of the best math teachers in the nation. Jaime said he had "thought the
union was going to focus on how to improve our skills. But they're more
interested in politics than kids."

On that, he seems to be right, at least at Garfield..

Anything here pro-teacher? Or pro-student?

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(I'm a Life Member of the National Education Association, and three
of its affiliates, dating from 1961, including president at the local and
state levels.)

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