Why do teachers’ unions exist? Unions typically arise for low-skill labor trades. But why would professionals with college and post-graduate degrees need a union? Doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, business school graduates, etc., don’t need unions, so why would teachers?
There are undoubtedly a number of reasons, but I believe the central reason is the teachers’ lack of control or power without them. This country began its mission to educate children by forming school boards to oversee all public education in a district. The unintended consequence of this was to put the power in the hands of a single provider of public education in the district; a school board with a monopoly. Taxpayers have only one entity from which to acquire public education services; public school teachers have only one place to practice their trade.
As happens anytime power is too concentrated, over the years, school boards took advantage of this power in various ways. When workers tire of being taken advantage of, they look for a way to gain power or control; thus teachers’ associations gradually became unions which bargained for salaries, better benefits, work rules, etc.
As a byproduct of this, unions forced school boards to treat all teachers virtually the same. But it’s disheartening for great teachers to give 110 percent, only to see themselves treated exactly like that rogue teacher down the hall who is giving 50 percent. Greatness is not rewarded, failure is not punished, and soon professionalism becomes a hollow concept.
The big question is how to provide teachers the same playing field as other respected professionals. The answer of course is to break the school board’s monopoly in the operation of public education. But how?
The answer is charter schools. These are public schools that are open to all students based on parental choice, having no enrollment preferences, no tuition and no teaching of religion. They operate independently of the school district, setting their own budgets, deciding their own curriculum and hiring other professionals who share their passion for children (or firing ones that no longer share that passion).
Consider a system of charter schools bidding against each other for top teaching talent, both locally as well as scouring the country for the best and the brightest because their continued existence depends on attracting students and successful results. Teachers with common goals and expectations can band together to run their own “shop.” This is what professionals do.
Tennessee has a few charter schools, but fast forward five years and imagine Nashville with 30 charter schools. That is 31 public school employers from which to choose. Choices provide power without having one’s union engage in long political battles with school districts and legislatures.
Why then does the union work against the charter school concept? Some of the union’s own teachers want the freedom and power to teach in an environment that they choose. No one is making those teachers leave their district to teach in a charter school. They have sacrificed security for freedom and are willing to be held to a much greater level of accountability for that privilege.
I can understand school boards across the state fighting the charter school concept; it is human nature to believe you have all the answers, and who wants to give up power. Employers love monopolies. The unions may need a powerful foe to justify their existence. But individual teachers would be much better served while enjoying a more professional atmosphere in a system of multiple providers of public education. In such a setting, the NEA and TEA could easily evolve into truly professional associations not unlike those enjoyed by other professions.
The existing system of unions versus monopolies does not work uniformly and never will; way too many children are losing their right to a great education as a result of “keeping the system we’ve always had.”
John Eason is a board member of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association.