For Republicans, Killing Unions Is More Important Than Improving Education

Republican presidential candidates from left, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fio
Republican presidential candidates from left, Jim Gilmore, Lindsey Graham, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, and George Pataki take the stage for a pre-debate forum at the Quicken Loans Arena, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Cleveland. Seven of the candidates have not qualified for the primetime debate. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

If you care about the future of education in the U.S. then the Republican Presidential debates have been a massive disappointment. The problem is that the candidates all believe the same thing, so there is nothing to debate. In fact, through two debates, education has only come up once. Unfortunately, even when education was mentioned it was used to attack the few candidates that support Common Core instead of any sort of substantive discussion.

Despite being generally uninformed on the topic, Campbell Brown is one of the few people asking presidential candidates to define their positions. To no one's surprise, when the six leading Republican candidates were put on the spot they all coalesced around the same tired "solutions" the Republican Party has been pushing for decades -- more charter schools, vouchers, merit pay, ending tenure and killing unions.

But perhaps the biggest reason these candidates have been so hesitant to make education reform the core of their candidacy is that they are aware that each of these ideas has been a failure when put into practice.

For example, Chris Christie recently said that teachers unions "are the single most destructive force in public education in America." The reality is, the issue here is not that teachers unions are bad for education but rather that teachers' unions are bad for Republican education reform ideas. So instead of falsely claiming data exists to support their errant positions, Republicans have resorted to attacking the unions that stand in the way of the Republican plan to turn America's children into widgets that their corporate sugar daddies can profit from. For Republicans, education represents the next great opportunity to bilk the federal government out of billions of dollars while pretending to have American's best interests in mind, much like they have done for decades with the military industrial complex that has the U.S. spending more on defense than the next ten countries combined.

If these politicians were being honest they would acknowledge that multiple studies show teachers' unions have a positive impact on educational outcomes, while another study showed that in areas where union membership was greater, children in low income families were more likely to achieve higher incomes. Since when did increasing test scores and lifting kids out of poverty become destructive?

Beyond that, if unions were the biggest obstacle to improving education, then why do so many countries that outperform the U.S. have higher rates of unionization among their teachers?

Rather than offer any specifics as to how unions are hurting results, Republicans tend to provide intentionally vague critiques like the suggestion that teachers' unions have too much influence. While it is true that teachers' unions spent upwards of $31 million on lobbying since 2010, the group that every Republican candidate would like to see expand -- for profit education -- spent more than $41 million on lobbying over that same time frame.

If influence is the excuse for attacking teachers' unions, then Republican's should be prepared to take aim at the for-profit education sector since their political influence has already eclipsed that of the Republican educational boogeyman.

Of course, if these presidential candidates truly cared about improving educational outcomes they would recognize how much damage their actions are doing. While Republicans continue to act as bullies towards the nations educators by blaming them for everything that is wrong with the American educational system, they also create a culture of disrespect with comments like "the national teachers' union (deserves a punch in the face)" that negatively impacts educational outcomes.

In fact, an OECD report on improving education points out that, "the higher a country is on the world's education league tables, the more likely that country is working constructively with its unions and treating its teachers as trusted professional." For a group that blames hip-hop lyrics for a decline in values and video games for gun violence, ignoring the destructive nature of their own pernicious hyperbole is remarkably hypocritical. After all, would anyone classify a punch in the face as constructively working with teachers or treating educators as professionals?

Even if these Republicans did find a way to reign in their toxic rhetoric, their disdain for educators is so ingrained it clouds their judgment. For instance, nearly all Republican politicians seem to agree that firing bad teachers is one of the best ways to improve educational outcomes, which would be a fine idea if there were a plethora of highly effective teachers waiting in the wings; but the reality is that not only is there a teacher shortage, but Republican legislatures across the country, through their attacks on protections, lowered wages and restricted benefits have further reduced the pool of qualified candidates.

A better approach than the slash and burn policy of Republicans would be to find ways to improve the skills of those who stick with the job, or as the Brookings Institution suggests, shift the focus from firing bad teachers to retaining good teachers since only 40% of top new teachers stay in their job more than five years.

The fact that Republicans put so much effort into rooting out ineffective teachers which account for 1.5% of educators rather than working to retain the 60 percent of good teachers that are likely to leave after a few years tells you all you need to know about the Republican education reform plan. It is clearly more important to portray the hard working men and women of the public education system as the enemy than it is to improve education because, while valuing educators and working with teachers unions has an international track record of success, the Republican educational priorities routinely receive a failing grade. If only these politicians felt as strongly about accountability when it came to their jobs as they do for teachers.