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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


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


Chapter 8 – Reform Unionism



It is fair to say that many who are directly involved in school reform…recognize that the teachers unions are standing in the way of effective schools.  But recognizing the problem is one thing.  Doing something about it is quite another.  What do they think can be done?


That’s the rub.  Many of these same movers and shakers also see the unions as legitimate “stakeholders” in the system.  They believe that teachers need representation, that unions in general are a good thing, and that, at any rate, the teachers unions are permanent fixtures in the institutional makeup of American education.  If the nation’s schools are to be successfully reformed, so the conventional wisdom goes, the key to progress is not to try to do away with the unions or even to diminish their power, but rather to encourage what is sometimes called “reform unionism” – a new, more enlightened approach in which the teachers unions would get genuinely involved in the reform movement itself and voluntarily begin doing what is best for children and effective schools.  Productive collaboration would become the new order.


To skeptics, this may sound like a joke.  It isn’t.  The ideas behind reform unionism are widely embraced and influential….Reform unionism is among the most influential and seductive forces in American education.  It is also one of the most misleading….With so many believers in reform unionism out there, reformers and policymakers are jumping out of their skins with excitement – and with hope.  Now, finally, the unions seem to be getting on board, and the nation can make enormous progress….When the unions are pressured to embrace reform, [Randi] Weingarten [President of the American Federation of Teachers and former President of the United Federation of Teachers,] is the one on camera, arguing her openness to change and tantalizing a reform community desperate to see the unions become partners in progress.


The fact is, the fundamentals are the same.  The unions are still unions.  Their leaders – including Randi Weingarten – are still heavily constrained in what they can do, and they still have strong incentives to give top priority to the occupational interests of their members.  Self-interest is still in the driver’s seat, determining what they do in collective bargaining, in politics, and in their collaboration with reformers and policymakers.


If…you still wonder what the unions really want, ask yourself a simple question: why did the AFT, under Weingarten’s enlightened leadership, spend $1 million to defeat Mayor Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. – and get rid of Michelle Rhee?  This is what reform unionism looks like in reality.  This is what Randi Weingarten’s “support” for reform amounts to, when push comes to shove.


The pragmatists might say, yes, Weingarten and almost all other union leaders aren’t fully on board – but because the environment is so bad for them right now, they are willing to go along with important reforms (linking teacher evaluations to student performance, for example), and these are positive steps forward.  We should link arms with the unions, bring them into the decision process, and move forward together.


This has a nice sound to it.  Cooperation always does….But it is important to maintain perspective and see this for what it is.  The unions are not in the business of representing children….They have strategic reasons, in this current environment, for making concessions and “embracing” change….But as long as the unions remain powerful, that progress will inevitably be limited.  And the reform movement will never get where it aims to go.  It will never be able to build a school system that is organized for effective performance.  It will never be able to simply do what’s best for children.  It will be caught up in a grand compromise – and in the end, children and effective schools will be shortchanged.




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