If we want to create lasting student-centered reform, we should focus less on teacher contracts and more on state-level legislation—because that is where most of the “action” happens for schools. This is the general point that Emily Cohen and Kate Walsh of the National Council on Teacher Quality make in a recent Education Next article.
The article was a good wake-up call and removed at least one major misconception I’d had regarding education reform. Namely, the prime “authority” in schools is not the teacher contract but rather the state laws. “Last in first out” staffing (which I’ve deplored previously), tenure provisions and certification rules—all lie primarily under the purview of state statutes.
And there’s no doubt that the teachers unions have done a great job of ensuring that certain privileges and rights remain on the books—even if they have been shown to be outmoded. But should that surprise anyone? As Cohen and Walsh make clear, why should teachers unions bother with a contract that must be renegotiated on a periodic basis when it can instead enact laws that in effect last forever? Contracts can support, but not replace, what the backbone of the law provides.
Another article in the same issue (Education Next, by the way, is fantastic!) written by Mike Antonucci highlights just how strong of an influence the teachers unions have—and have had—on state legislatures nationwide. For example, the California Teachers Association (CTA) devoted $212 million to political spending in the last decade—more than any other organization in that state.
I know that my tone implies that teachers unions are an evil force in our society today. I understand the rationale for unions and for many of the provisions that have found their way into contracts and laws. Teachers deserve the same employment rights as others. Academic freedom is considered one of the most essential of American rights. The “system” can abuse teachers (as can students who accuse teachers).
Yet, as things stand today, it’s hard to argue against the idea that the teachers unions have created a number of stumbling blocks on the road to reform.
The question then becomes, who or what will counteract their influence? Of course, there is no definite answer to this question.
Yet, I do think that Michelle Rhee’s announcement of her new education advocacy group, Students First, is a good example of something that might serve as a counterweight to union pull in politics. Students First is an organization that attempts to do exactly what its name implies–put students’, rather than teachers’, interests first. The first step, as Rhee has declared, is to enlist 1 million supporters and raise $1 billion in its first year, to build the infrastructure with which to begin the “fight.”
While some may scoff at Rhee’s inarguably lofty goal, I would argue that such ambition reflects the seriousness and pragmatism with which Rhee approaches education reform. With almost 3 million teachers nationwide and a flawless system of near-universal fundraising (i.e. take money out of almost all teachers’ pockets, no matter whether they want to be unionized, and claim it as “dues” or “agency fees”), the teachers unions are a Goliath in the arena. And the reality is that David got lucky that first time. No rational party would match David with Goliath again. The practical reality is that a force similar in magnitude is necessary to stand up to education’s Goliath. Might Rhee be building students’ Goliath?
Thus, my initial skepticism of Students First has waned. Just as we need great teachers leading the way in our nation’s classrooms, we need ed-minded politicians and legislators governing. And the reality is that who gets put into these positions depends to a great degree on the muscle of various interest groups. Although Rhee’s is not the first to advocate for students (see the Education Equality Project or Democrats for Education Reform), I think hers is one that will rise fast and will, sooner or later, exert influence in ways that will ensure that the promise of educational opportunity touches every child nationwide.