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December 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 34

  Click Here for a pdf version.

Terry Moe’s Special Interest:
Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools





Public Interest Institute (PII) was given permission by the author to bring you a summary of the key points of Moe’s path-breaking work. The BRIEF that follows is our summary of Terry Moe’s book; the passages below are his words. We encourage you to read this and other books by Terry Moe. This summary was compiled by Amy K. Frantz, PII Vice President.



Why are America’s schools falling so short of the mark and failing so many of our kids? Why are they organized in perverse ways that are so clearly unsuited to effective education? Why have they proven so resistant to change and so difficult to improve? These are the kinds of questions, along with many others, that naturally arise when we try to comprehend the reality in which we live.


If one central thesis arises from this book, it is that the answers to these questions have a lot to do with the teachers unions. It is a fact that they are incredibly powerful, far more so than any other groups with a stake in public education. And it is abundantly clear that the job interests that drive their behavior, and are woven into the fabric of their organization and leadership, prompt them to use their power in ways that often come into conflict with what is best for kids and schools.


The teachers unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society. They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining activities so broad in scope that virtually every aspect of school organization bears the distinctive imprint of union design. They impose bizarre forms of organization on the public schools that no one in their right mind would favor if they were simply concerned with what works best for children. The schools are organized mainly to benefit the adults who work there.


They also shape the schools from the top down, through political activities that give them unrivaled influence over the laws and regulations imposed on public education by government, and that allow them to block or weaken governmental reforms they find threatening. This is obviously true for major and eminently sensible reforms, such as accountability and choice, which, if seriously pursued, would bring fundamental change to the system. But it is also true for extremely simple, easy-to-accomplish reforms, such as getting bad teachers out of the classroom.


Think about this last point for a moment. Why is it, after decades and decades, that the nation has done almost nothing to get bad teachers out of the classroom? What possible excuse could there be for inaction on something so incredibly basic and obvious? There isn’t any excuse. There is only a reason: the teachers unions are extraordinarily powerful, and they are in the business of protecting the jobs of their members. That kids lose out when bad teachers remain in the classroom is just collateral damage, a cost of doing business.


The long-standing alliance between the teachers unions and the Democrats is absolutely central to this nation’s politics of education, and any effort to understand what happens in the political process and why the era of reform has proved such a deep disappointment needs to pay serious attention to it. The failure of reform can’t be attributed to a “lack of political will” or the complexity of the school system or too little money. It is, at its heart, a problem of power and self-interest. Reform has failed mainly because powerful interests, the teachers unions, want it to fail – and those interests are faithfully represented by the Democrats, who cast the official votes.


The Democrats ought to be the party of education reform. Their history and ideals are progressive: they are the party of the New Deal, of civil rights, of Medicare, of poverty programs, of universal health care. They have always prided themselves, quite rightly, on standing up for the working class and disadvantaged….In education…it is…[the] disadvantaged kids and families who are stuck in the nation’s worst schools and desperate for reform. But while the Democrats have been champions of the disadvantaged in virtually every other area of public policy, education is a glaring exception.


Children should always come first. But in America’s system of public education, governed as it is by power and special interests, they simply do not. In the present, many children are sitting in classrooms and learning nothing. Or at least not nearly enough. These kids have only one opportunity to get a good education, and a good education is essential if they are to have productive careers, build promising futures, and contribute to the economic and social well being of the nation as a whole. As the minutes tick by and the years drag on, they are being denied the educations they so desperately need and have a right to. Lives are being ruined. Generations are being lost. In a globalized world of competition, high technology, and demanding work requirements – for independence, autonomy, creativity – kids without good educations are increasingly left behind. And their nations are left behind too.


My purpose in this book is to bring the unions fully into view, and to shed light on the pivotal roles they play in public education generally….With the teachers unions so clearly powerful in public education, there is no excuse for not studying them. How can we expect to understand the public schools – and the nation’s deeply rooted education problems – if the teachers unions are routinely ignored? Yet, for decades…education researchers have done next to nothing to make them a focus of serious, sustained inquiry. This book is an attempt to change that.


Public Interest Institute’s POLICY STUDY, Terry Moe’s Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, can be viewed at


Amy K. Frantz is Vice President of Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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