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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


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


Chapter 7 – Small Victories for Sanity



Teachers unions are playing a lot of defense these days.  Among people in the public arena who follow education closely – journalists, policymakers, think tank types – their popularity has sunk to an all-time low.  New York City and Washington, D.C., are more than just districts whose leaders have aggressively taken on unions.  They are districts whose leaders have become famous and widely admired for taking them on.


But does [their lack of popularity] really matter?  The brute fact is that the teachers unions are powerful.  And whether they are popular or not among people in the know, they can still use their power to resist change, protect jobs, and maintain labor contracts that make a joke of effective organization….In general, the local picture for the last decade had been one of stability, not innovation and change…despite all the pressures – from accountability and charter schools – for districts to be more aggressive in pressuring their unions for major changes in their labor contracts.


Yet…in New York City and Washington, D.C.,…the stars lined up to provide a best-case scenario for real reform: with mayors and school chancellors totally committed to change, unafraid of challenging their unions, and willing to do whatever was necessary in the pursuit of effective organization.


[Chancellor of the Washington, D.C., public schools] Michelle Rhee and [Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education] Joel Klein became rock stars because, unlike almost all other superintendents in the country, they were courageous enough to launch all-out assaults on restrictive work rules, and they won important victories on seniority, performance pay, and teacher evaluations….They [along with then-Mayors Adrian Fenty of Washington, D.C., and Michael Bloomberg of New York City] pushed the envelope and showed the rest of the nation what is possible when a district is truly committed to effective organization and student achievement.


But we shouldn’t get carried away here….Their victories were indeed remarkable under the circumstances – circumstances of powerful resistance and grossly bad starting points.  But they were victories that took many agonizing years of perpetual struggle to achieve.  They were also incredibly expensive, because “reform” is really a process in which the unions hold a near veto and only agree to make work rule changes if they receive enormous financial payments for doing it.


Sol Stern [a journalist with City Magazine], had it right.  These reforms were “small victories for sanity.”  They were small because they could not fully jettison the accumulated weight of their organizational past, which remains debilitating.  And they struck a blow for sanity because they were establishing organizational practices that are simply common sense and that should have been in place a long time ago if the system were actually run to benefit children and deliver quality education.


The key players here – Bloomberg and Klein, Fenty and Rhee – won their victories precisely because they and their situations [were] so unusual.  But their situations [were] not long for this world.  Fenty [lost the Democrat primary to Vincent Grey in September 2010] and Rhee [resigned within a month].  In New York City, Klein stepped down after fighting the good fight for eight years.  Bloomberg [has left office].  The union, [however,] will remain.  It will be the same, and it will use its still-considerable political power to try to regain the ground it has lost – and return the district[s] to normal.




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