An aid or a detriment: teachers’ unions face debate

photo by the Center for American Progress

by Olivia Conetta

“Teachers’ unions are not the sole problem, nor will they be the sole solution,” said Rod Paige, former U.S. Secretary of Education from 2001 to 2005, in a Janus Forum lecture Thursday at Brown University. “There are a lot of things that we’ve got to do.”

Paige and Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, squared off in the lecture, called “Teachers’ Unions: The Problem or the Solution?”, over the role and consequences of teachers’ unions in American education.

Weingarten, who spoke first, emphasized the role of teachers’ unions in creating educational and economic fairness as well as giving teachers the tools and conditions necessary to teach.

According to Weingarten, 6 to 7 percent of workers in the private sector currently belong to unions. In the past, union membership reached 34 percent, but the decrease in unionization saw an increase in wage inequality.

The initial role of teachers’ unions was to “create some fairness in school systems,” Weingarten said. But quality of the school systems is now a pressing issue. “It’s not fair and it’s not right if (teachers’ unions) don’t share responsibility for the endeavor of ensuring that kids get a decent education.”

Weingarten said 300,000 teachers — “about 10 percent of the teachers in the United States of America” — have been laid off in the last couple of years. Programs such as art and physical education have been cut. She also stressed the importance of helping children gain skills that will be useful in the 21st century workplace.

Weingarten advocated a teacher evaluation system which ensures that teachers are held accountable for meeting students’ needs.

In the countries that outcompete the U.S. in education, such as Finland and Singapore, people care about public schools, “train their teachers like we train our doctors,” and foster “collaborative environments,” Weingarten said.

But Paige did not see the same benefits of teachers’ unions and claimed that America’s school systems are over-unionized.

“Are [teachers and teachers’ union members) the same thing? I don’t think so,” Paige said. “When I say ‘teachers,’ I’m talking about the under-appreciated, underpaid, overworked education professionals.”

The major problem with teachers’ unions, Paige said, is that they are “simply the most dominant political force in American education.” He called teachers’ unions “top-down, multimillion-dollar political machines” with “political power and communication power.”

Paige directly addressed Weingarten by quoting the mission statement of the American Federation of Teachers. “I didn’t hear the word ‘children’ in that statement at all,” he said, confronting Weingarten’s point that teachers’ unions benefit students. Unions represent a “betrayal of students the teachers are meant to serve,” Paige said.

He pointed to a Buffalo, N.Y., public school strike called by a union leader on a school morning. “Is that the conduct of somebody who’s concerned about children?”

While Paige said he acknowledges that unions have their place, he said they also don’t stand accountable for their actions.

Providence teacher and Providence Teachers Union member Crystal Swepson, who works with poor students, said she thinks “unions can be more socially conscious” than they are now.

She offered tutoring as an example of a change she would like implemented.

Swepson stressed the importance of teacher collaboration to fight poverty and improve public education. “Within the school, the teachers have to collaborate … in order to bring about change. We cannot be fighting each other. … You cannot bring order out of chaos.”

Sara Kinslow ’12, whose father is a teacher in Central Falls, R.I., and a union member, said a teachers’ union helped her father keep his job.

The debate surrounding teachers’ unions tends to get “very oversimplified,” said Michael Stewart ’13. But the debate between Weingarten and Paige made the nuances of the debate clear, he said.


photo of Randi Weingarten by the Center for American Progress

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