When I was a teenager, the greatest honor my dad bestowed was the chance to help him grade multiple-choice questions. Up in his bedroom on a Sunday afternoon, he’d sit at his desk preparing lesson plans, fingers clattering on our manual Smith Corona typewriter. Meanwhile, I’d lie on the floor with an answer sheet, carefully making check marks and X’s on the papers he brought home from his social studies classes at John Bowne High School in Flushing, Queens.
Dad always worked on Sundays. Over the years, as his school’s enrollment shifted due to the arrival of many newly immigrated students from China, he worked even harder, because his principal recognized his ability to reach these academically ambitious English-language learners. When Dad died unexpectedly, we received many laboriously written consolation cards from his new students emanating sorrow and appreciation.
This is all to say that I’m fully aware of the intense dedication and hard work required of good teachers and of the pride my parents took in their union. They took particular pride in their union president, Albert Shanker, who led the United Federation of Teachers (the New York City arm of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers) until 1985. They admired him not only for championing members’ rights, but also for protecting students and families.
And it was UFT’s successful battle for higher wages that allowed our family to exercise school choice and move from a tiny Bronx apartment with mediocre schools to a real house in Queens, zoned for an excellent K-6 school.
Those were good years to be a teachers union member. I don’t think it’s so good now.
My Dad Would Be Horrified
On May 1, we celebrate May Day, also known as International Workers Day, which commemorates labor movements. Honestly, if they were here today, I don’t think my parents would celebrate.
Instead, I think they’d be horrified by the Rhode Island teachers unions’ efforts to beat back a bill that would criminalize teachers having sex with students, as reported here by my friend and colleague Erika Sanzi.
I think they’d be sickened by the California Teachers Association’s top brass lobbying for a “downright vicious” set of bills that, according to the L.A. Times, include a “ham-fisted” attempt to “squash the formation of potentially great charter schools in an effort to please the teachers union.”
I think they’d oppose leaders like Michael Mulgrew, current president of their beloved UFT, who in 2014 convinced then-Chancellor Carmen Fariña to force principals to hire bad teachers.
I think they’d be embarrassed by the $2.6 million in compensation gifted to New Jersey Education Association’s (NJEA) top leaders. And I think they’d be mortified by Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon’s antics, which include condoning blackface and defending indefensible teachers.
What has happened over the past few decades? How have teachers union leaders become so disconnected from those they represent?
This hasn’t happened in all unions. Last weekend Tom Moran of the New Jersey Star-Ledger contrasted Hetty Rosenstein, head of our state’s branch of the Communication Workers of America, with NJEA President Ed Richardson. While Rosenstein understands the need for pension reform and takes a salary of $115,000 a year, Richardson refuses to discuss pension reform, even though his members desperately need him to engage. In 2015, Richardson took home a compensation package of $1.2 million.
Union Leaders Must Embrace Accountability
It’s still possible for union leaders to ethically and smartly represent members. What keeps teachers union leaders from doing this?
First, almost everyone I know in the education world understands the importance of raising the prestige of the teaching profession and increasing salaries. After all, most teachers have graduate degrees, just like doctors and lawyers, so why is the average salary only about $60,000, even when you factor in summers off?
One reason is that good teachers are treated like widgets, interchangeable cogs in a machine. That’s because union leaders are adamantly opposed to differentiating pay based on classroom effectiveness and subject matter.
Instead, they insist on “step and lane” salary guides, where teachers get annual raises automatically, regardless of student outcomes or supply and demand. Most also get job security after three or four years.
This system, free of accountability and merit, is a primary reason for the prestige gap. How can a profession be highly regarded when less than 1% of members are judged ineffective? How can a profession be prestigious when it’s almost impossible to get fired?
Prestige and accountability are a package deal. As long as union leaders resist this reality, they’ll continue failing their members.
The second reason that teachers union leaders represent their members poorly, I think, is the excessive political power they wield. As Lord Acton said, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without accountability to their membership, they lose touch with reality.
Think back to the 2016 presidential elections when the country’s two major teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the AFT, prematurely endorsed Hillary Clinton. The feedback was, well, less than enthusiastic. Said one reporter, “Though the AFT Executive Board voted to endorse Clinton, there is little evidence it did so after adequately gauging members’ opinions… The move caused an uproar and claims the AFT endorsed too early and without rank and file support.”
In fact, more teachers favored Bernie Sanders over Clinton, and 20% of teachers ended up voting for Trump. But AFT and NEA leaders don’t even pretend to represent member preferences.
Right here in New Jersey, teachers I’ve spoken with support pension reform because they know that without major shifts the whole system will implode in 2027. But their union’s leaders refuse to budge. (Little known fact: NJEA office staff have access to a different deferred compensation system, including 401Ks, so their retirement funds are just fine.) And many of our teachers were appalled to see their leaders spitefully spending $5 million of their union dues in a failed attempt to oust Senate President Steve Sweeney, a ironworker’s union official himself, in favor of a climate change-denying, Trump-loving, immigration foe.
In my parents’ day, there was little disconnect between teachers union leaders and their members because union leaders respected their membership. I know Albert Shanker is long gone, but surely teachers deserve leaders more like him and less like those they have now.
Until today’s teachers union leaders repair these breaches of trust, teachers who value integrity and student growth—people like my parents—will regard their union leaders as guided by self-interest and power, rather than by what’s best for their members and the students they educate.