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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 1 – The Problem of Union Power



Janet Archer painted watercolors.  Gordon Russell planned trips to Alaska and Cape Cod.  Others did crossword puzzles, read books, played chess, practiced ballet moves, argued with one another, and otherwise tried to fill up the time….these were public school teachers passing a typical day in one of the city’s Rubber Rooms – Temporary Reassignment Centers – where teachers were housed when they were considered so unsuited to teaching that they needed to be kept out of the classroom, away from the city’s children.[1]


Each school day [the Rubber Room teachers] went to “work.”  They arrived in the morning at exactly the same hour as other city teachers, and they left at exactly the same hour in the afternoon.  They got paid a full salary.  They received full benefits, as well as all the usual vacation days, and they had their summers off.  Just like real teachers.  Except they didn’t teach.


All of this cost the city between $35 million and $65 million a year for salary and benefits alone[2]….And the total costs were even greater, for the district hired substitutes to teach their classes, rented space for the Rubber Rooms, and forked out half a million dollars annually for security guards to keep the teachers safe (mainly from one another, as tensions ran high in these places)….Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein wanted to move bad teachers out of the system and off the payroll.  But they couldn’t. 


While most of their teachers were doing a good job in the classroom, the problem was that all teachers – even the incompetent and the dangerous – were protected by state tenure laws, by restrictive collective bargaining contracts, and by the local teachers unions, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).  Because of the union power…the city’s children were being denied tens of millions of dollars every year: money that should have been spent on them, but wasn’t.  It is virtually impossible to get rid of bad teachers in New York City, but it’s also virtually impossible in other districts too, regardless of where they are.[3]


The teachers unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society.  Their influence takes two forms.  They shape the schools from the bottom up, through collective bargaining activities so broad in scope that virtually every aspect of school organization bears the distinctive imprint of union design.  They also shape the schools from the top down, through political activities that give them unrivaled influence over the laws and regulations imposed on public education by government, and that allow them to block or weaken governmental reforms they find threatening.


The long-standing alliance between the teachers unions and the Democrats is absolutely central to this nation’s politics of education, and any effort to understand what happens in the political process and why the era of reform has proved such a deep disappointment needs to pay serious attention to it.  The failure of reform can’t be attributed to a “lack of political will” or the complexity of the school system or too little money.  It is, at its heart, a problem of power and self-interest.  Reform has failed mainly because powerful interests, the teachers unions, want it to fail – and those interests are faithfully represented by the Democrats, who cast the official votes.


The Democrats ought to be the party of education reform.  Their history and ideals are progressive: they are the party of the New Deal, of civil rights, of Medicare, of poverty programs, of universal health care.  They have always prided themselves, quite rightly, on standing up for the working class and disadvantaged….In education…it is…[the] disadvantaged kids and families who are stuck in the nation’s worst schools and desperate for reform.  But while the Democrats have been champions of the disadvantaged in virtually every other area of public policy, education is a glaring exception.


A struggle is going on within the Democrat Party.  Key constituencies – notably, groups that represent the disadvantaged – have become fed up.  Fed up with perpetually abysmal schools for disadvantaged kids.  As Newark Mayor Cory Booker explained to a huge crowd at the 2008 Democrat National Convention, “We have to understand that as Democrats we have been wrong on education, and it’s time to get it right.”[4]


My purpose in this book is to bring the unions fully into view, and to shed light on the pivotal roles they play in public education generally….With the teachers unions so clearly powerful in public education, there is no excuse for not studying them.  How can we expect to understand the public schools – and the nation’s deeply rooted education problems – if the teachers unions are routinely ignored?  Yet, for decades…education researchers have done next to nothing to make them a focus of serious, sustained inquiry.  This book is an attempt to change that.




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