In 1994, the Republican Educators Caucus of the National Education Association endorsed only Democratic candidates for NEA office. The GOP caucus of the California Teachers Association was selling buttons promoting the Democratic nominee for governor. And in 1996, the “bipartisan” political action arm of the NEA endorsed 250 Democratic congressional candidates and only one Republican.
As is clear from these and other examples in Myron Lieberman’s new book–The Teacher Unions: How the NEA and the AFT Sabotage Reform and Hold Students, Parents, Teachers, and Taxpayers Hostage to Bureaucracy (The Free Press)–the unscrupulous use of misleading political labels has helped obscure partisan fealty in the NEA, an organization with 2.2 million members, annual revenues of almost $1 billion, and a PAC ranked among the top seven spenders in the nation.
“For almost 150 years, the ‘nonpartisan’ structure of public education has obscured the fact that politics is the process by which we establish our priorities,” writes Lieberman. “School boards were labeled nonpartisan offices,” he adds, “as if eliminating political labels eliminated the political realities.” But what these labels did very effectively was shield public education from the kind of scrutiny accorded most other issues. All that changed on August 15, 1996.
On that day, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole attacked the teacher unions “for the sake of the children, the schools, and the nation.” The NEA and AFT, not surprisingly, responded by alleging that Dole had attacked teachers, urging their members to work even harder for his defeat. But Dole’s speech marked an end to the time when the unions could pose as bipartisan organizations interested primarily in the welfare of children. As a result, says Lieberman, they will be subjected to much more, much-needed scrutiny in the future.
“We will not see teacher unions more supportive of educational reform, but they will be less able to prevent it,” says Liebermann, an NEA life member who has been involved with that organization and the AFT for over forty years as a convention delegate, one-time AFT presidential candidate, and consultant. Currently, he is senior scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University.
Lieberman once supported collective bargaining in public education, but he now argues it is inconsistent with democratic representative government. In teacher union bargaining, he points out, government officials on the school board “negotiate public policies with one special interest group in a process from which other parties are excluded.” Then, grievance and binding arbitration procedures permit interpretation and enforcement of the contract in ways the school board never intended.
Lieberman defends his change of heart and notes that the unions themselves are not immune to policy reversals. In 1947, he notes, the AFT, NEA, and American Federation of Labor all supported federal aid to education that would have provided substantial public funding for private schooling, something they now violently oppose.
“If federal aid for private schooling was a good thing in 1947, why is it a threat now to our way of life?” Lieberman asks.