Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice
The bottom line for teachers unions
--Jeff Jacoby, May 22, 2003
The Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times has unleashed a flood of media coverage. Hundreds of stories, columns, and editorials have been printed and broadcast in the conventional media; dozens more have appeared on the Internet.
Yet nowhere in this gusher of news and comment can you find the views of The Newspaper Guild, one of the nation's largest media unions and the one that represents reporters at the Times. Neither Google nor Nexis turns up anything -- not a single article or transcript or Web post -- quoting a Guild official on the scandal's significance. No one seems to care about the union's reactions to the Blair affair, or its recommendations on how to prevent such ignominy in the future, or what it thinks the episode says about racial preferences in the newsroom.
And that is as it should be.
Because like all labor unions, the Newspaper Guild exists for one reason: to promote its members' economic interests. Those include higher pay, better benefits, easier work conditions, and less discipline -- all of which rank higher on any union's list of priorities than tightening professional standards or advancing the public good. No one asks the Guild's views on the state of US journalism for the same reason no one asks the United Auto Workers to comment on federal transportation policy: Anything they said would be tainted by their vested interest in winning more money and better terms for their members. Unions are special pleaders; no one mistakes them for impartial observers or disinterested honest brokers.
Except when it comes to teachers unions.
If the UAW proposed that domestic automobile manufacturers be paid a federal subsidy for each new employee they hired, everyone would recognize its self-serving aims -- to swell the ranks of auto workers and increase its own membership.
But when teachers unions demand hefty increases in education spending or mandatory reductions in class size, they get a respectful hearing. Union officials are routinely quoted in the media and invited to testify before legislative committees. And yet their aims are no less self-serving and their interests no less mercenary than those of any other union. So why the difference?
Part of the answer is that Americans think well of teachers, and teachers unions take advantage of that good opinion. When the public is asked to rate various professions for honesty and ethics, teachers are always near the top of the list. Union officials are typically closer to the bottom. ''Given those results,'' asks Mike Antonucci of the Education Intelligence Agency, a public-education research firm, ''which of the two words in the term `teachers union' would you emphasize?''
That explains why the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, rarely uses the word ''union'' when describing itself. Go to the NEA web site, for example, and click on ''About NEA.'' Nowhere in the long description does the word ''union'' appear.
But however much the NEA and its affiliates may try to disguise it, they are union to the core. Indeed, they are among the most successful unions in US history. The Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern observes in ''Breaking Free,'' his engrossing new book on why so many public schools are dysfunctional, that ''teacher unions now dominate the American trade union movement, accounting for almost 50 percent of all unionized government employees and more than 20 percent of all union members.''
Teachers unions ''cast a giant shadow over American politics,'' Stern writes, donating tens of millions of dollars directly to Democratic candidates and supporting them indirectly through independent media buys, union-paid campaign workers, and in-kind services. And this massive investment in political influence is supplemented by lavish advertising campaigns. I wrote on Sunday about the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which budgets more than $2.3 million a year for radio and TV commercials that advocate more public spending on education.
The unions do not spend all this money out of the goodness of their hearts. Their goals are not better schools or improved student performance. What they want is more income for themselves, and teachers unions only collect more income when public-school payrolls increase. That is why they constantly clamor for hiring more teachers.
And what they clamor for, they usually get. According to the Department of Education, the number of public school teachers in Massachusetts soared from 33,629 in 1991 to 70,236 in 2002, a 108 percent rise. During roughly the same period, public school enrollment in Massachusetts grew by only 17 percent. The explosion in teacher payrolls may not have led to better grades or more effective schools, but it certainly gave a boost to the union's bottom line.
Teachers unions, like all unions, want to make money and amass power. Those are the motives behind everything they say and do. They're not in business ''for the children.'' They're in business for themselves.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.