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Are Teachers Unions Really to Blame?

Does achieving aggressive school reform require vilifying the teachers unions? No, answered Education Secretary Arne Duncan earlier this month, urging instead "tough minded collaboration."
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Does achieving aggressive school reform require vilifying the teachers unions?

No, answered Education Secretary Arne Duncan at a Denver conference earlier this month, urging instead "tough minded collaboration." Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, by contrast, opts for the vilify path, saying unions are mired in "19th Century thinking." In his now-famous Feb. 16 speech in Washington, Christie said there are only two professions left where consequences don't matter: weathermen and teachers.

After spending nearly a year following school reforms at what everyone points to as ground zero of reformers vs. unions -- Washington D.C. with Michelle Rhee at the helm of D.C. schools -- I'd like to offer a different insight that to some may seem surprising: In the end, unions didn't matter that much in the famous battle Rhee carried out in Washington. And they aren't the true villains blocking national reform.

The unions didn't prevent Rhee from building an aggressive teacher evaluation system, didn't keep her from closing schools, didn't keep her from firing weak teachers and didn't keep her from refusing to lay off teachers based on last hired, first fired. Further, the unions didn't play much of a role in denying re-election to the mayor who appointed Rhee and had no role in her departure.

I may seem like an odd person to be observing this. My book has an entire chapter devoted to clashes between Rhee and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten. Those two did cross swords and the conflict between these two titans of powerful ideas was a classic.

And while their conflict was both fascinating and predictive about where school reforms of the future are headed, in the end, those conflicts mattered little. For example, Rhee didn't need union sign-off to build her IMPACT teacher evaluation system. The same is true of many other school districts; they really don't have a good excuse for never having truly evaluated teachers.
Refusing to conduct lay offs by last-hired didn't require trampling on any teacher contracts in D.C. Only tradition. Laying off the recent hires -- even though many of the new teachers are more effective than the veterans -- is a choice made by many school chiefs eager to avoid conflict with the unions.

True, the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) worked hard to defeat former Mayor Adrian Fenty in the hope of pushing Rhee out of town. And the AFT, according to published reports, spent $1 million for the same purpose. But anyone looking at the polling knows that both unions wasted their time and money; this election swung on racial politics that had little to with AFT-sponsored ads or WTU door-knocking.

So if the unions weren't the key villain, who gets cast in that role, both in Washington and elsewhere? This is a target-rich environment: Inertia, a disbelief that schools will never change, suspicion, knee-jerk attempts to blame parents and treating schools as a repository of adult jobs -- kind of a department of public works populated by schools rather than roadways. School leaders are as much to blame as unions.

Inertia and the disbelief that schools can change are related. If you don't believe schools can change, then inertia becomes acceptable. And once inertia sets in, the schools-as-jobs mentality settles in.

Blaming parents? That gets lumped with poverty and single parenting, you name it. But the blame-game argument gets upended when you compare like populations. If some districts do a far better job than others with mirror populations, such as black males raised in poverty, then what's the excuse? That's the case in D.C.

Some may find it odd that I put "suspicion" on the list, but that's a player. I experienced suspicion first hand when, at the last minute, Weingarten's press handlers canceled a long promised interview. Why? Because, at their insistence, I submitted a list of questions I wanted to ask Weingarten. Soon after my e-mail with the nine questions arrived, the interview got yanked.

Sure, unions play roles in blocking reforms, but blaming the unions for concessions granted by school boards makes no sense. And yes, some unions in some big urban districts do their best to thwart attempts to root out ineffective teachers. But that crime is a misdemeanor compared the felony committed by school chiefs across the country that don't even have unionized workforces. What's their excuse for tolerating teachers who aren't really teaching?

The really, really awkward truth that you never read about: school district officials use unions as their excuse. Oh, we can't seriously evaluate teachers; that would upset the unions. Oh, we can't lay off teachers on any ground other than seniority that would upset the unions. They're just not willing to fight.

Should we really be blaming the unions for all those lapses? Truth is, schools districts get the unions they deserve.