We are all grown-ups here.
As such, we should be able to make distinctions. To comfortably hold two thoughts that others might find contradictory.
Let’s give it a try. Thought one: Teachers, as a rule, do the Lord’s work and perform an admirable, essential public service. Thought two: The unions that represent teachers are far less praiseworthy and often serve as an impediment to better schools. Worse, in the current moment, these unions are a barrier to even the notion of reopening schools and getting kids back in classrooms.
See, that was not so difficult. It is quite possible, even reasonable and logical, to buy into both statements. For too long, the unions have pushed the opposite notion — that if one supports teachers generally and feels especially warm and fuzzy about their own child’s teacher, then it must follow that they also accept the agenda of the union, er “association” or “federation.”
That is hogwash on steroids. It is past time for more people of wisdom and discernment to hold firm that one assertion does not follow the other; that one can place high value on the role and contribution of front-line educators while disagreeing forcefully with their agency representatives.
For multiple decades, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and their local chapters, have been on the retrograde side of one policy question after another.
The list of issues to which these unions have been blindly opposed is long and depressing. It includes the expansion of parental choice; support for quality charter schools and other innovative models; merit pay; tenure reform; enhanced accountability; and making it easier — heck, even just possible — to dismiss the lowest performers in their ranks.
Add to that the unceasing, unyielding union defense of a broken pension system that defies fiscal sustainability and enriches a relatively small number of late-career teachers at the expense of their younger, financially strapped colleagues.
These unions have a well-worn pattern of touting some tepid, ancient reform which they vigorously opposed at the time and using that as rationale for why it is now foolhardy, nigh impossible, to take some further incremental step. Having been wrong on issue after issue, the unions have become cynical masters at taking credit for that which they originally decried while arguing that half-step is sufficient and we dare not go further.
There is no doubt that reopening schools amidst a pandemic, even with health conditions improving, is a heavy burden. However, one can join the side that faces the challenge with the intent of making it work, or the other side of piling on obstacles and making it an even heavier lift. For the last several months, the evidence points to teacher unions too often taking the latter approach.
Before widespread vaccine availability, there was no question that accommodations needed to be made for teachers in vulnerable age groups and with elevated risks. But even with teachers now at the front of the vaccination line, the bar to reopening schools seems an ever-moving target. Some unions contend that not only must all teachers be immunized, but also all students despite little in the way of public health indication.
In a display of glaring gall and acute lack of self-awareness, a Chicago Teachers Union officer telegraphed her objection to various reopening proposals from her Puerto Rico beach vacation.
For all of these unions’ self-professed investment in social justice, make no mistake that the children being most damaged by the year-long shutdown of schools are those from the least fortunate circumstances. One of COVID’s long-haul effects has been to magnify the gap when it comes to educational equity.
Further, far too many youngsters, regardless of social or economic circumstance, are suffering emotionally due to the endless extension of isolated learning and social connection largely limited to a Zoom screen. Many will incur long-term psychological damage.
Further, these unions insist you perish the thought that an outgrowth of this last year should be a renewed interest in having funding follow the student, regardless of the school type selected. Such heresy.
Most teachers, though certainly not all, are heroes of dedication and talent. As such, they should be paid generously and able to enjoy a decent standard of living.
But do not forget that it is their labor groups which consistently object to virtually any effort at differentiated pay whereby the finest and most able are compensated appreciably better than those whose contributions are middling or sub-par.
Name any other profession in this modern day where such uniformity reigns and merit, through whatever evaluation mechanism, is off limits. Therein lies the disconnect. Teaching is a profession; one that should be attended with higher reward and prestige. However, unlike most professions, teachers long ago decided to organize as industrial-model, unionized workers.
Like any labor organization, teacher unions serve the cause of average or lesser members. Outstanding teachers gain little from the representation. In fact, they would fare much better in a more market-driven, less industrial design.
Let us honor and celebrate teachers, especially those at the top of their game. But let us also be clear-eyed that teacher unions exist to advantage their adult members. Legendary union leader Albert Shanker provided a look behind the curtain in saying, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
Given the anxiety surrounding all things COVID, one night have more understanding for the union’s hesitancy to get their members back to school was there not such a track record of intractableness and subjugating what is best for kids to what is convenient for adults. As it is, the reserve of goodwill is long depleted.
Most of all, it is well past time to stop conflating respect for teachers with allegiance to union dictates. And to know that when the latter resort to rhetorical appeals to this or that being “for the children,” the appropriate response is one of abundant, eye-rolling skepticism.