by Dmitri Mehlhorn

Last week, American democracy received an unexpected gift from the leader of the nation’s largest teacher’s union. The gift came on Wednesday, when National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García issued a statement about about education politics in Washington State.

In discussing her local affiliates in the Evergreen State, García said that there was “no stronger voice or advocate” for students, and that the local unions’ primary focus was “ensuring opportunity for every student, regardless of zip code.”

You read that correctly.

According to García, the teachers’ unions are the strongest advocate for students, and especially for students born into poor zip codes.

In the hallways of power everyone claims to be a selfless patriot.

Big agribusinesses block deficit reform? Not to protect their taxpayer subsidies, but rather to preserve America’s heartland, right?

Why do bankers block financial reform? Not to protect fat bonuses, but because they love American financial strength.

Why does big pharma lobby against cheap drugs?  Not for their own profit, but because they want to fund innovative drugs.

With misleading claims of selflessness creating a constant background noise, the most outrageous claims actually come as a relief. For example, when the CEOs of the 7 largest tobacco companies testified in 1994 that they did not believe that nicotine was addictive, it served as a wake-up call to America and permanently changed the national debate about cigarettes.

Every now and then, a lie is so Orwellian that it cuts through the noise and creates clarity.

Teachers’ unions serve teachers, not students

García and her counterpart Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers are among the most prominent lobbyists and spokespersons in the country. Together they lead organizations that have a collective national budget of over $2.2 billion per year. As I have documented elsewhere, roughly $700 million of that money is spent on various forms of communications and advocacy. Most of that advocacy, in turn, proclaims the selfless patriotism of the union lobbies.

The NEA and AFT regularly claim to represent all of the nation’s 3.3 million teachers, and they claim that they serve only the best interests of America’s 50 million public school students.

Like most lobbyists’ braggadocio, these claims are mostly misleading.

Unlike professional guilds like the American Bar Association or the American Medical Association, teachers’ unions followed the organizing model of blue collar assembly-line industries. When public sector unions obtained collective bargaining rights in the 1960s and 1970s this model corrupted their internal politics so that they don’t tend to represent the views of most actual teachers. Neither García nor Weingarten was directly elected. Instead, both unions select their national leaders at closed-door sessions of power-brokers from the state and municipal labor groups.

In other words, they are politicians chosen by politicians. This model is an anachronistic throwback to a century ago.

The union’s state and local power-brokers tend to represent the teachers who vote. Roughly four-fifths of teachers don’t even bother to vote in union elections. With low voter turnout the internal union electorate is dominated by weak performers who see education reforms as directly threatening their livelihood.

Labor leaders like García and Weingarten disproportionately represent the nation’s lowest-performing teachers, not the vast majority of teachers who want schools to succeed for the benefit of kids.

For similar reasons, the claim that teachers’ unions defend student interests is mostly false. Yes, some union investments help both teachers and students: for example, when the unions invest in professional development that makes teachers more effective.

My interviews with state and national legislators, however, suggest that this is not where union lobbyists spend their political capital. Rather, the unions put their muscle to defend low-performing teachers and schools: by fighting school choice and by attacking teacher accountability systems.

Washington teachers fail their students

All of this sets the stage for García’s epic mendacity last week. For those just tuning in, the Washington State facts are as follows:

  • In November 2012, Washington State voters approved a ballot initiative to open 40 charter schools across the state.
  • In March of 2015, Stanford University released a definitive study showing that urban charter schools provided “dramatically better” results in many cases, and overall better results on average, than traditional public schools. This followed increasing evidence that the mere existence of charter schools tends to improve the performance of neighboring traditional public schools. Washington State’s charter program is too new to have been studied for either type of effect, but the state’s parents wanted the choice. Heading into the 2015-2016 school year, 10 state charter schools were prepared to serve over 1300 students. Perhaps the most enthusiastic parents were those who’d been least well served by the status quo. For example, 32.6% of the state’s charter students were African American, vs. the statewide average of 13.4%.
  • On Friday, September 4, 2015, a 6-3 majority of the state’s supreme court ruled that the charter law violated the constitution, citing a 1909 precedent which in turn was grounded in the state’s early pioneering history. Washington’s state court justices are chosen by popular election, and members of the ruling majority did not recuse themselves despite receiving the maximum possible financial contributions from the unions for their electoral campaigns. Washington’s Attorney General joined most of the state’s newspaper editorial boards in calling for the state supreme court to reconsider.
  • On Tuesday, September 8, the Seattle branch of the teachers’ union declared that Seattle’s 5,000 school employees would go on strike. This followed a spring and summer of teacher strikes all over the state. The Seattle strike indefinitely delayed the start of the school year for 53,000 students out of school indefinitely. The Seattle union spokesperson explained to local NBC news affiliate that the strike would last as long as necessary for the teachers to get pay increases in exchange for longer working days:  “They are still expecting us to work a longer day without paying for it.” The district’s contract proposal asks teachers to work 30 more minutes per day, in exchange for a 10% salary increase over the next two years, plus a cost-of-living adjustment. Today, Seattle’s teachers on average earn about $60,000 per year, roughly 50% more than the average salary in Seattle (or more if you compare benefit differences). The union has demanded a 17% increase over two years.
  • Also on Tuesday, Seattle’s school board authorized its superintendent to go to court to resolve the dispute. Local teachers’ union president Jonathan Knapp criticized the school board for “grasping at legalistic straws” to keep schools open.
  • Meanwhile, with Seattle’s public schools closed, the state’s now-unfunded charter schools raised private money to stay open for their students.  As described by former traditional public school teacher and state union member Taylor Williams, “I can’t ignore the irony of the fact that Washington’s public charter schoolteachers will be at school with students on Wednesday morning, while public school teachers in Seattle may be on strike, leaving their students behind.”

This is the context that makes García’s statement last week a gift for the nation.

Fifty three thousand students in Washington State missed their first week of school, and perhaps more, because the local union is demanding a 17% pay increase rather than a 10% pay increase.

Meanwhile, charter schools for disadvantaged students found ways to stay open, despite the fact that union-funded court proceedings cut off all of their funding.

To pull it together, the unions then said that the courts should not be used to keep traditional schools open, only to close charter schools. All over the country, parents should pay attention to García’s claim that Washington State’s students, “regardless of zip code,” have “no stronger voice or advocate” than unions.

Well, that song remains the same. Out of tune with reality.


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