Teachers’ unions support democracy, except when they don’t

Bob Bowdon Executive Director, Choice Media
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Mike Petrilli recently wrote a thoughtful piece for the Fordham Flypaper blog about how education reformers should respond to the defeat of the SB5 collective bargaining reforms in the recent Ohio referendum. He argues that with respect to teachers’ unions, we shouldn’t be afraid to take them on directly while we also contemplate more structural reforms. In other words, we should not only act like halfbacks, structurally circumventing teachers’ unions when we can, but like fullbacks too, running straight at them when we must (my metaphor). Maybe we should consider eliminating school boards entirely, he suggests.

But what really got my attention was the comment section.

I thought that conservatives supported local control. It’s pretty radical to go to the extreme of eliminating 15,000 school boards and centralizing everything in the big state bureaucracies in the hope that this will suffice to silence the teachers’ unions.

At some point, you should let the question of democracy factor into your plans for the nation’s schools.

–Diane Ravitch


Seriously, what problem are you solving for?

Helping kids succeed?

Dealing with an economic recession American workers didn’t create?

Getting rid of any ability for workers to have a voice?

Getting rid of democratic principles?

–Randi Weingarten

The pro-democracy arguments offered by the Establishment Reactionary Dynamic Duo of Ravitch (an outspoken supporter of teachers’ unions) and Weingarten (the president of the American Federation of Teachers) were kind of stunners to me. It’s okay to sentence children to chronically failing and dangerous schools, they seemed to be holding, as long as unions succeed in getting the vote out on off-peak election days.

Apart from the underpinnings of their logic, can we at least hope that they’ll remain consistent in applying this “Democracy First” philosophy no matter where the chips fall? Not so much.

When the elected legislature in Georgia authorized the state’s chartering of schools, the Georgia Association of Educators union wasn’t so happy with the voice of the people. It later filed a brief in support of a lawsuit to strike down the law — and that suit prevailed. Democracy be damned.

When elected leaders in Douglas County, Colorado passed a voucher plan this year, the Colorado Education Association union publicly opposed the wishes of the local voters, with no apparent bout of misgivings over democratic values.

When the Indiana legislature and governor passed a statewide voucher law this year, the Indiana State Teachers Association financed a suit to stop it. Why persuade when you can sue?

And when the elected mayor of New York City decided that empty floors in district schools should be offered to the charter school kids, did the UFT union propose a city council vote on the matter, in a flourish of democratic principles? Nah, they chose a lawsuit instead.

In short, teachers’ unions and their defenders give us lectures about how “the people have spoken” quite economically — i.e., when it suits them. They’re all for honoring the voice of the people, except when they’re not.

The simple fact is that there have been many times in American history when democratic institutions were undermined by bubbles of power and corruption. New York City’s Tammany Hall, Al Capone’s Chicago, Huey Long’s Louisiana and Frank “I Am the Law” Hague’s Jersey City all illustrate this point.

So it’s not that education reformers are against democracy. It’s that when millions of union dollars are shoveled into the campaign coffers of politicians — politicians who swear their allegiances to union bidding at the expense of children — that’s a perversion of democracy, not a manifestation of it.

The good news is that democracy does self-correct; these corrupt institutions eventually metastasize to the point of their own destruction. Tammany Hall didn’t die for lack of cash; it began to lose the contest of hearts and minds. That’s already begun with the teachers’ unions.

In any large war, there are always many battles won by each side. But despite their war chests, despite their ad campaigns, and despite their profligate use of words like “corporate” and “greed” to brand charter and private school operators as collections of Bernie Madoffs — in the aggregate, we education reformers are winning. We might have lost in Ohio, but we won in Indiana and Wisconsin. And we’ll soon win reforms in New Jersey. The public is starting to sour on the insular, corrupt, job-protecting monopolies of teachers’ unions. We reformers are simply on the right side of history.

We’re not at the tipping point yet, but how will we know when we get there? Weingarten and Ravitch will go from selectively invoking the democracy argument, to opposing it entirely. Stand by. It won’t be long now.

Bob Bowdon is the director of The Cartel, an award-winning documentary film about corruption in public education. He also appears regularly on the Onion News Network.