It's not that unions have been slumbering, but they have been slow to come to terms with the surging momentum for reform. Critics see them as obstacles to change; even union sympathizers agree that their voice in the education debate has been muted.We are seeing the acclaim given to documentaries like The Lottery and Waiting for Superman which are illustrating how the unions are standing at the schoolhouse door blocking charter schools and forcing families to wait for a bouncing ball to determine if their child goes to a good school or a crummy school full of future dropouts. Teachers unions can't figure out how they ended up being the villain in the story. And they want to block any attempt to further demonstrate to the public how they oppose ideas that would make it possible to fire ineffective teachers. But the pressure is growing and they're starting to lose some battles. The Los Angeles Times has contributed its own efforts to shine a spotlight on how teachers are doing and facing the union wrath.
"The big ideas that are being debated are not the ideas that they put there," said Charles Kerchner, a professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, who has written several books about teachers unions. "They're not forming the agenda."
Or as Jay Greene, a New York-based education researcher and union critic, recently blogged: "We won! At least we've won the war of ideas."
Locally, opposition from a strong union, United Teachers Los Angeles, hasn't been enough to stop the creation of more charter schools than in any other city in the country. These schools — independently operated and publicly financed — are sometimes unionized, but most are not.They'll still spend tends of millions of dollars to elect their Democratic handmaidens, but sometimes, even that is not enough.
Across the country, dozens of states and school districts have proposed or instituted changes in the way they evaluate teachers to take into account how much their students improve on standardized tests. In Los Angeles, some district officials are pushing to rate individual teachers in this way — over strenuous union objections.
The pressure has grown since August, when The Times published a database that rated about 6,000 elementary school teachers using the "value-added" method. A series of articles underscored significant differences in teachers' influence on test scores, even within the same schools. Union leaders unsuccessfully urged the newspaper to take down the database, saying it was unfair and based on flawed results. The union has called for a boycott of the newspaper and alleged, among other things, that a teacher killed himself in response to a "less effective" rating in the database.
In October, UTLA expressed outrage at the district over a proposed legal settlement with civil rights attorneys that could threaten a longstanding "last hired, first fired" principle. The union had been part of the negotiations but ended up on the sidelines.
In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers was left fuming too, as school officials there announced plans to release teacher evaluation data to the public despite an earlier promise that they would try to keep the information private.
And now with Republicans taking 680 seats in state legislators in last Tuesday's election, we can expect more attempts to endorse reforms in spite of the union opposition.
At the state level -- where the NEA and AFT have traditionally wielded even more clout -- the damage couldn't come at a worse time. President Obama's Race to the Top initiative (along with the accountability measures contained within the No Child Left Behind Act) has given school reform-minded governors of both parties cover to expand charter schools (the nation's most-successful form of school choice), and allow the use of student test score data in evaluating teacher performance. Although the NEA and AFT have given some dollars to statehouse Republicans -- most notably North Dakota Governor (and now senator-elect) John Hoeven -- their ties to GOP lawmakers are still much weaker. Expect efforts to enact performance pay plans and eliminate tenure in some of those states; this includes Florida, where teachers' union savior Charlie Crist will be replaced by the less-supportive Rick Scott.And as states follow Chris Christie's path, they will have an opportunity to demonstrate whether or not such reforms work. If they do, we will observe a virtuous cycle where successful reforms will birth more reforms. And the teachers union members will start to wonder what they've gained for all those tens of millions of dues spent trying to elect Democrats.
Meanwhile the NEA and AFT face a longer-term threat to their influence -- the $1 trillion in lavish public pensions and retired teacher healthcare benefits that are now pressuring state budgets. New Jersey, Vermont and even New York State took small steps to force rank-and-file teachers to contribute more to their retiree benefits and retire at ages more in line with what is acceptable in the private sector. More steps will come by 2018, when states have to figure out ways to finance increasingly underfunded pensions for teachers and other state workers.
Considering that the traditional system of near-lifetime employment, degree- and salary-based pay scales and seniority privileges have done little to improve the nation's woeful public schools or attract talented people into teaching, the NEA and AFT will have difficulty defending the status quo.