May 10, 2007 | Education Notebook on Education
By Elizabeth Smitham
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige uncovers the "elephant in the room" in the current education debate in his new book, The War Against Hope: How Teachers' Unions Hurt Children, Hinder Teachers, and Endanger Public Education.
For decades, union-backed education reformers have called for more money, more teachers, and smaller classroom sizes to raise test scores and narrow achievement gaps. Paige insists that education reform will not be successful unless the public begins to pay more attention to the activities of teachers' unions and challenges the unions when their actions threaten our children's education.
Laying out the history of teachers' unions in the United States, Paige explains how the public education system is now under the control of a monopoly with a singular intent: to protect its members, regardless of performance or merit. Teachers' unions oppose plans that empower parents to demand accountability and choice, which they see as a threat to the jobs of underperforming teachers. For the unions, many innovative reform proposals are just unacceptable.
This is hardly a recent state of affairs. The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857 to improve education at the local level. Within just a few years, it shifted its focus to teacher pay. Today, with approximately 3.2 million members, the NEA is one of the largest unions in the United States and has immense political influence. According to Paige, this was no accident.
The NEA's executive director stated its goal at its 1978 convention: "to tap the legal, political and economic power of the U.S. Congress. We want leaders and staff with sufficient clout that they may roam the halls of Congress and collect votes and reorder the priorities of the United States of America."
The NEA's efforts have been extremely successful. A year later, President Jimmy Carter established the federal Department of Education and federal spending on education has since skyrocketed. Along with the money has come increased federal control.
Paige argues that this centralized control over education is the key to the NEA's power. Instead of having to fight the same battle in thousands of school districts, the NEA can go straight to Congress, where they lobby for one-size-fits-all laws to which all states must comply.
Due in large part to the unions' efforts, schools today suffer stifling regulations and burdens imposed from Washington. In addition, school leaders lack hiring and firing powers and the ability to reward the best teachers with merit pay. They are powerlessness to encourage teachers to use innovation and creativity in the classroom. In this environment, reform and experimentation are almost impossible.
Under current union regulations, writes Paige, our children are not the only ones suffering-our teachers are as well. Due to union rules, teachers may be rewarded based only on seniority and the number of college courses completed. Teachers with 30 years of experience in the classroom who lack a master's or doctorate degree will never max out the pay scale. As Paige puts it, "a fifteen-time 'Teacher of the Year' in physics that spends several hours after school preparing illustrative lab demonstrations cannot be paid as much as a home economics major teaching with an MBA earned at night school."
The unions work hard to maintain the status quo. Paige illustrates how politicians, especially those with ties to the Democratic Party, have learned that crossing the NEA can lead to damaging personal attacks and big-money opposition that can destroy a candidate's career. Many succumb to the pressure, by either campaigning on NEA-friendly platforms or failing to engage in the education debate.
If politicians want to act in children's best interest, concludes Paige, politicians' reluctance to challenge the teachers' unions must end.
Secretary Paige seeks to encourage parents, students, teachers, and taxpayers to demand accountability, transparency, and choices from the education establishment. "[W]e have a choice between two alternatives. We can choose to have authentic school reform, or we can choose-through omission-to have continued teachers' union dominance of school operations. We cannot have it both ways."