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Chait Hates Teachers’ Unions! To the Fainting Couch!

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Diane-Ravitch-Reign-of-Error

There must have been some future teachers in activist groups at the University of Michigan 25 years ago, because Chait is taking ill-informed and gratuitous shots at teachers’ unions, blaming them for opposing an Obama administration plan:

The policy fight in question is an Obama administration proposal to require school districts to use Title I funds to help their poorest schools more than their richest ones. (Even within a school districts, more affluent schools often spend more per child than poorer schools.) Not surprisingly, organizations like the NAACP, the Children’s Defense Fund, and the National Council of La Raza support this idea. Also unsurprisingly, Lamar Alexander, the Republican chairman of the Senate Education Committee, opposes it. What may be surprising to some is who has joined Alexander: the two giant teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, who have signed a letter supporting Alexander.

Why would the unions oppose a plan to shift resources to poor public schools? Because one of the reasons for the disparity in funding between rich and poor schools is the structure of teacher contracts, which tie compensation to length of tenure. As Kevin Carey explains, imposing federal requirements on how districts spend money can be “disruptive” to these existing contracts. What’s more, unions have grown deeply opposed to a stronger federal role in public education. The Obama administration has used federal education funding as a lever to drive evidence-based reforms in education. And those reforms have often changed policies unions would like to keep in place — especially the longstanding practice of teacher tenure, which pays teachers on the basis of years served (rather than how well they teach), makes replacing ineffective teachers nearly impossible, and requires that layoffs be conducted on a last-in-first-out basis.

And so unions have increasingly defined their agenda as a defense of “local control” against — though they’re too delicate to use the term — big government. Diane Ravitch, the pro-teacher union activist, has written Wall Street Journal editorials repeating the “local control” mantra, and urging Republicans to roll back Obama’s reforms. On her blog, you can find Ravitch cheering on Alexander’s challenge to Obama’s education secretary, John King and hosting columns with titles like “The Federal Government Is the Enemy of Public Schools.” If they were not being made on behalf of a union, nobody would mistake these ideas for anything other than conservatism.

Chait might cry about Diane Ravitch saying mean things about Obama’s terrible education policy, but he evidently never got past the title, which is about the disaster of charter schools and No Child Left Behind. In this case, the federal government is indeed the enemy of public schools.

To say the least, Chait is misconstruing the arguments of the teachers’ unions. The argument about protecting their own contracts is not what Chait makes it out to be. It’s not as if the teachers’ unions have negotiated massively better contracts in rich school districts than in poor ones. Note where Chait plays around to make it look like the argument is about money:

Because one of the reasons for the disparity in funding between rich and poor schools is the structure of teacher contracts, which tie compensation to length of tenure. As Kevin Carey explains, imposing federal requirements on how districts spend money can be “disruptive” to these existing contracts.

This is disingenuous. If you link on the Carey piece, here’s what he writes:

Marguerite Roza, a Georgetown University scholar, has found that many districts spend up to a third less per pupil in poor schools compared with others. This can happen for various reasons: because wealthy parents unduly influence budget allocations, for example. It can also happen because most teachers are paid using collectively bargained salary schedules that reward longevity. Senior teachers tend to cluster in wealthy schools, while schools where many children are poor often churn through large numbers of novice, badly paid teachers.

But fixing such funding inequities can be expensive, as well as disruptive to longstanding arrangements of which teachers get to be in which schools. That’s why the unions, districts and state leaders wrote the letter urging Mr. King to “refrain from defining terms and aspects of the new law” — the essence of regulation — “especially as it relates to the ‘supplement, not supplant’ provision.”

This has nothing to do with money. It has a lot to do with two things Chait does not address. First, it’s about working conditions. The reality is that it’s easier for teachers to work in wealthier school districts or, more relevantly given how teacher employment works, in wealthier schools within the same district. I’m not saying it’s a good thing that experienced teachers leave poor schools for this reason, but on a personal level, who doesn’t understand this? Second, it has to do with the growing connections between test scores and employment. I and others have talked about how tying test scores to employment gives teachers additional incentive to get out of poor schools. Yet Chait doesn’t mention this at all, a policy he supports and castigates teacher unions for opposing.

It’s fine if you want to oppose the teachers’ unions on the policy question here. It’s really complicated. What needs to happen in education policy is that the pie needs to be larger, with the extra money going to poor schools. But that’s not going to happen. Chait admits the other issue, and in fact the only thing that is actually going to create equality of opportunity in education: fighting poverty.

Defenders of the status quo do have arguments, sort of. For instance, Laura Moser argued recently that teacher-tenure rules may be bad, but “the fight over teacher tenure is something of a red herring if you believe, as I tend to, that the real scourge of public schools isn’t bad teaching, but poverty and (re)segregation.” It is true that eliminating poverty, and finding a way to get rich and poor families to live side-by-side would do a great deal of good for the public-education system. But, on the off chance that this doesn’t get accomplished in the near term, the choice is to use the government to help poor students as effectively as possible in an unequal society, or leave them at the mercy of a system that is failing them.

Yes, actually, alleviating poverty is far and away the most important piece of the solution to school inequality. If Chait spent more time attacking Republicans for their many pro-poverty policies, this would be a lot more useful. Instead, he goes after unions, who are doing what unions are supposed to do, which is protect their own members. Right now, their members have some leeway to choose the school where they work. Why would they give that back in exchange for nothing but more testing and more firings for working in poor schools? I’m sure some 22 year old Teach for America kid straight out of Brown with no training can just replace those teachers!

When reading people like Chait, the question that comes to mind is, “How does he think liberal change actually takes place?” He and so many other nominally left-of-center pundits routinely define themselves as taking the most possibly left position and attacking anyone to the left of that. That’s because, I think, they have dreams of setting policy from nice offices in Washington, creating the Great Society without talking to any of the people this will affect, all no doubt while wearing great suits the likes of which they saw Don Draper wear. But if you want to create liberal policy, and if you look at the history of successful liberal policy making, what has to happen is on the ground activism. That means people in the streets, it means having buy-in from affected people, it means making deals with labor unions or even encouraging unions to take leading roles. The Social Security Act didn’t happen because FDR and Frances Perkins thought it was the right thing. The same with the National Labor Relations Act. LBJ didn’t push for the Civil Rights Act because he thought it was just good policy making. All of these things take social and political pressure from below. And people like Jonathan Chait hate the thought of that because activists can be intense and sometimes say mean things and yell a lot and might oppose you when you are a good smart college newspaper writer.

It’s not as if the teacher unions oppose better schools for poor kids. They think the Obama administration’s ideas are bad for their members. They want more money for poor schools. They don’t want to get fired for teaching in conditions that are out of their control. They reject the testing regime that is failing our students, forcing first graders to spend hours doing test-taking exercises where they once had recess and art. This is a disaster. Teachers’ unions oppose it. I think the Obama administration’s approach here is bad, as it has been on public education through its entire tenure. I think there could be compromises here–providing financial incentives for good teachers to teach in poor districts, disconnecting test scores from employment, etc. But of course, that’s not going to happen because the administration believes in Rheeism. So does Chait. They are both wrong.

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