Norma Rae or Frank Costanza.
That’s essentially the polar caricatures of teachers unions that are at play in the uber-polarized debate on public education. A strong voice committed to advocating for the common good? Or a shrill voice committed to the airing of grievances?
Having worked in school districts that had mostly healthy and productive relationships with their unions, I saw the behind-the-scenes advocacy at work. And as the media spokesperson for said districts, I also dealt with plenty of Costanza-esque grievance airing.
Or at least I used to.
But it’s getting harder and harder to see the teachers unions as fighting for the common good when they’re so often fighting against what is clearly good for kids.
The all-out assault on and demonizing of charter schools is the clearest example. Millions of children have access to a good education—an education that their families chose for them—because of the existence of charter schools. That is a powerful common good.
It is, however, not a perfect one. There are bad charter schools. There are exclusionary and cherry-picking charter schools. Ditto on all of the above when it comes to traditional public schools. And in both cases, they are the vast exception. Some bad practitioners don’t make it a bad idea.
But instead of a constructive dialogue about how to fix those problems among all schools for the common good, the unions save their most overheated of grievance airing for charter schools. And they do so to the point of distorting a rare and wonderful thing like millions of foundation dollars being poured into city schools and high-poverty communities as destroying public education.
Charter schools serve the public, are free to the public and are accountable to the public’s elected government. And in many high-poverty communities across the country, they are powerful; they are the power that comes with choice and comes with the ability to pick the school that’s best for your child. It’s the same power that union members have and often use on behalf of their own kids.
But unions use public money (dues they collect via mandatory payroll deductions from teachers’ paychecks) to fight tooth and nail to keep that power of choice private—exclusive to the affluent. So, who are the real “privatizers?”
And the grievances aren’t reserved only for the charter schools in high-poverty communities. They aim them at the traditional public schools, too—at the 30 highest-needs schools in Denver, to be specific.
Those schools generally struggle with staff turnover, an all-too-common ill plaguing schools in needy communities, so the Denver Public Schools (DPS, my former employer) wants to try and fix that. They want to keep good people in those schools. And one way they want to do that is by paying them more. As DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told Chalkbeat:
Our goal is very simple and very important, which is to get and keep our best teachers in our highest-need schools to close our achievement gaps and give all kids great opportunities.
Not sure it gets more common good than that—if the good you care about is what’s good for kids, that is. But unions too often see merit-based and needs-based pay as against the common good of all teachers. And while the Denver teachers union partners with DPS on an incentive-pay program called ProComp and acknowledged that bonuses at these high-needs schools are worth considering, it still chose to file a grievance and pledged fealty to its beloved, formulaic, pay-by-numbers salary system.
“What we are most opposed to is a compensation that pits teacher against teacher,” the Denver union’s executive director Pam Shamburg told Chalkbeat. That’s how the unions frame a compensation system that’s based on your actual work, instead of completely on your resume.* But the union-beloved last-in-first-out (LIFO) staffing rules certainly pit teacher against teacher when positions need to be cut. And it’s not a fair fight, and it’s the kids who lose. LIFO is completely blind to quality. The last in the door is the first shown the door, no questions asked about the impact on kids.
Paying teachers more for helping kids more shouldn’t be seen as pitting “teacher against teacher.” It’s pitting the common good for kids against the safe, formulaic good for teachers.
Norma, wherefore art thou?
*The traditional teacher salary structure is a strict formula of years in the district + degrees earned (“steps” and “lanes” in education-ese). Under this system, you can actually determine a teacher’s exact salary totally on paper, without ever seeing that teacher teach.