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Teachers unions: an endangered species [Commentary]

Since at least the 1970s, there has been little for unions to celebrate on Labor Day. The giant teachers unions — the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — have been an exception, largely retaining their size and influence. But now even teachers unions are an endangered species.

This June a California judge ruled that the tenure and seniority provisions in teachers collective bargaining agreements were unconstitutional. These contractual benefits for teachers, the judge wrote, impose "a real and appreciable impact on students' fundamental right to equality of education and… a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students." The "equal protection" denied students was comparable to other civil rights violations including racial segregation and unfair school funding.

The court decision in Vergara v. California was a bombshell. But its fallout was generally celebrated, especially by conservatives. One called it "our generation's Brown vs. Board of Education."

For a long time, the political right has demonized teachers unions as the biggest, baddest obstacle to school reform. Rod Paige, president George W. Bush's education secretary, famously compared the NEA "to a terrorist organization"; teachers unions were "rich, powerful, politically manipulative, self-aggrandizing organizations." In recent years, many Republican governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Chris Christie in New Jersey have sought to undermine the unions' role.

But the applause for the Vergara decision is coming from the left as well, even if muted. George Miller, liberal Democratic congressman from California and a longtime leader on public education, said the court ruling would "help refocus our education system on the needs of students." And Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education, expressed the hope that the decision would "build a new framework for the teaching profession."

This political reaction leaves the NEA and AFT standing almost alone in fighting the Vergara decision and copycat lawsuits in other states. But others who care about public education should also be troubled. The role of teachers unions has been misrepresented and undervalued. And that is particularly true in large urban school districts like Baltimore.

Sure, teachers unions aren't goodie-goodies. Some are too prone to resist school reforms like limits on seniority, charter schools and Common Core standards. But there is a strong other side to the equation, beginning with an understanding that tenure provisions are not the main reason why so many unsatisfactory teachers avoid dismissal.

Rather, the fault lies more in the fact that educators are their own worst enemies. They are too soft on one another. Two scholars of collective bargaining conclude: "The problem is not that the teachers unions enjoy too much power or leverage, it is that other constituencies [notably superintendents and principals] exercise too little." After an experimental contract in Chicago gave principals more flexibility, a research study showed that many principals "did not dismiss any teachers despite how easy it was… existing teacher contracts in many large urban school districts actually provide considerably more flexibility than is commonly believed and yet administrators rarely take advantage of such flexibility."

Moreover, tenure is a convenient whipping-boy for conservative ideologues who want to bust teachers unions altogether. As noted, many teachers unions need to earn better report cards. But a "new unionism" — a working partnership with school districts — is maturing in many local NEA and AFT chapters. One example is the Baltimore Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, which overall has been a progressive partner of the city school system's reform efforts.

Further, the big picture is that teachers unions contribute in essential ways to the effectiveness of school systems. Teachers need "academic freedom" to be able to speak out and challenge the education powers-that-be. Decent pay and job security are vital to teacher recruitment and retention. And most of all, the political power of teachers unions is indispensable to pressuring government at all levels to provide adequate school funding. For poor and minority children in districts like Baltimore, teachers unions are by far the staunchest lobbyists.

The lesson is that moderates and liberals need to be cautious about jumping aboard the Vergara bandwagon. Let's mend — not end — what teachers unions contribute to public education.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is

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