Power-Shift: Teacher Unions and the Movement for School Choice: an exclusive interview with Terry M. Moe

Published July 1, 2003

It’s unfortunate that readers of the Koret Task Force’s book, Our Schools and Our Future … Are We Still at Risk?” do not come across the chapter by Terry M. Moe on the politics of school reform until almost half-way through the book.

Moe’s chapter should have been one of the first, since it’s impossible to understand why U.S. public education has proven so unresponsive to reform without first understanding the considerable political power of the teacher unions and their ability to sidetrack reform efforts.

Moe’s earlier writings have addressed other broad education reform issues with similarly insightful explanations, which in turn have had a major influence on the reform movement. The 1990 book Moe coauthored with fellow Koret Task Force member John E. Chubb, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, is considered one of the most influential works on education published during the past decade. His 1995 book, Private Vouchers, was the first to cover the growing interest among foundations in providing privately funded vouchers for low-income children.

In his most recent book, Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), Moe provides the first detailed analysis of public opinion on school vouchers. He also is the editor of A Primer on America’s Schools (Hoover Press, 2001), which provides a critical assessment of the current state of American education.

A senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of political science at Stanford University, Moe also has served as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. He is an expert on educational policy, U.S. political institutions, and organization theory, with current research projects addressing issues in all these areas.

More generally, Moe has written extensively on public bureaucracy and the Presidency, and he is a leading figure in both fields. His influential articles on bureaucracy include “The New Economics of Organization,” “The Politics of Bureaucratic Structure,” “Political Institutions: The Neglected Side of the Story,” and “The Institutional Foundations of Democratic Government: A Comparison of Presidential and Parliamentary Systems.”

Moe recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: How did you become interested in education reform?

Moe: I’m a political scientist with a background in the study of American political institutions, and especially bureaucracy. The public schools are probably the most common form of public agency in the country, and so it was a natural for me to move from the study of bureaucracy and theories of bureaucracy to the study of schools.

But I really owe it to John Chubb, who already was studying schools in the early 1980s and encouraged me to get involved. I did, and we worked on a project together that later turned into the book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

Clowes: Does U.S. public education need to be reformed?

Moe: I think it needs to be fundamentally transformed. Its problems are deeply structural. The most important problem is that the schools are run from the top down, and they’re a monopoly.

What the schools suffer from is that the incentives are all wrong–they don’t have any incentives to perform effectively. What they need is more competition and more choice–competition to breed the right incentives, and choice to give parents and students options. Choice also would drive competition, so that schools and teachers will know that if they don’t perform, they’re going to lose students and lose money. I think that’s the key to the whole thing.

But if you’re going to understand why the schools are the way they are, you have to understand the politics. The politics of education shapes everything about the schools. To understand the politics, you have to recognize that there is a structure to it. Most importantly, you have to recognize that the teacher unions have so much power they can block any reforms that threaten their interests.

Clowes: How did U.S. public education come to be dominated by the teacher unions?

Moe: The education system was created during the early decades of the 1900s by the Progressives. The Progressives were dedicated to eliminating the spoils system, driving corruption out of politics, and replacing spoils with a bureaucratic system, where bureaucracy was a very good thing. It was a way of creating an effective organization and making government sort of non-political in its delivery of services.

The education system was set up in that spirit with the basic idea that the experts–the administrators–would be in charge of running the education system.

After the Progressive reforms were adopted, the battle was between the administrators and the politicians–school board members and people in state governments and so on–over who would be in charge of the school system. Ultimately the administrators won for themselves a lot of deference and a lot of autonomy, so that by the 1950s and ’60s, the education system was pretty much run by the administrators, by the experts.

At that point, there were no teacher unions. The teachers were just employees. The administrators were running the show, and the administrators controlled the National Education Association.

But then new laws were passed at the state level encouraging and allowing public-sector unions, including teacher unions. The teacher union movement took off during the 1960s, continued during the 1970s, and by 1980 or so the vast majority of school districts of any size were unionized and had collective bargaining. So it went from the situation of almost no unions in 1960 to union control in 1980.

What happened during that period was that the teachers, through their unions, became the dominant power by far in the public school system. They took over from administrators. The real difference, though, was that the administrators never really had a lot of political power, because they didn’t control votes, whereas the teacher unions did. That’s what makes them such a formidable power in the political system.

They very quickly organized the big cities during the 1960s and ’70s, and by 1980 they were already massively powerful all around the country. In fact, since the early 1980s, they’ve barely grown at all in terms of the percentage of teachers who are unionized. They’ve got virtually the whole country in their pocket, except for the South and some border states that are right-to-work states–but even in those states, where there isn’t a lot of collective bargaining, the unions are still very powerful at the state level and in big cities.

Clowes: The 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, set off what you have called a “frenzy of reforms” to improve the performance of public schools. Why did those reforms produce so little in terms of better performance?

Moe: The fundamentals of the system never changed, even though the system now spends a ton more money. The reforms just nibbled about the edges of the system–changing graduation requirements, teacher certification standards, and so on. Now they’re tinkering with class size, when that’s not the problem.

These may have been called “reforms,” but they didn’t actually change the system in any fundamental way. All the reforms that would have done that–like pay for performance–were defeated by the unions and others with a vested interest in the status quo.

Clowes: How do the teacher unions manage to sidetrack meaningful reforms?

Moe: It’s purely a matter of power. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have a lot of money for campaign contributions and for lobbying. They also have a lot of electoral clout because they have many activists out in the trenches in every political district. These two unions have three million members altogether, all across the country. No other group can claim this kind of geographically uniform political activity. They are everywhere. So all politicians have to see the teacher unions as a formidable presence in their districts.

Also, since the unions concentrate on the Democrats, the Democrats desperately need them, and are afraid of them. On important issues, where the unions say, “No way are you going to vote for this,” then the Democrats have to back off. Basically, the unions are able to defeat legislation they don’t like by leaning on the Democrats and by getting a few Republicans to go along, too. The American political system is based on checks and balances, with lots of veto points, and so it’s easy to block new legislation.

People tend to forget that our political system of checks and balances makes it difficult to get new legislation passed. The flip side of that is that it’s very easy to block something. Even groups that are not very powerful can block, but groups that are powerful really have a tremendous advantage because their power magnifies that blocking advantage many times over. If a powerful group really wants to block something, it can. That’s what the teacher unions have been doing for the past 20 years–blocking reforms.

Clowes: How did they respond to the call for more accountability?

Moe: Accountability is very popular with the public, and so the unions have to come across as being supportive of accountability. Accountability is just a means of trying to guarantee high performance and high standards, and certainly the unions want to appear to be in favor of that.

But the fact is they don’t want anyone ever to lose a job, they don’t want pay to be dependent upon performance, and they don’t want to have any consequences associated with performance. As a result, they regard testing, and other means of measuring performance, as bad. When those measures point to poor performance, it puts pressure on the people who are performing poorly, and the unions don’t want that. So, not only do they insist on no consequences, but they are also doing everything they can to undermine testing.

What the teacher unions say is, “We’re in support of accountability.” But then they do whatever they can to resist testing and other measures of performance. They do whatever they can to make sure there are no consequences. What they’re really in favor of is “accountability” with no accountability.

It’s really about fundamental interests. The unions have basic interests that guide their behavior. They are concerned about protecting jobs, about wages, about keeping their own membership up, and about keeping their own finances up. These basic interests translate into policy positions.

That’s why school choice is the most threatening of all possible reforms for the teacher unions. School choice allows children and money to leave the system, and that means there will be fewer public teacher jobs, lower union membership, and lower dues. It’s the last thing they want, which is why it’s the #1 issue on their agendas and why they put more pressure on the Democrats with regard to this issue than any other.

Powerful interest groups can often get representatives or public officials to do things that are not in the best interests of their constituents. In this case, the Democrats will actually oppose poor people who support choice because the unions have made opposition to choice their #1 issue. Politicians are responsive to their constituencies, but they are also responsive to power, and the last thing a Democrat would want is to have the unions oppose them.

Clowes: Over the last few years, the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) has been reaching out to low-income minority families, who generally favor school choice even if their representatives don’t. What are the chances that a group like BAEO can achieve some traction on the school choice issue?

Moe: I think the chances are good. The mainline civil rights organizations are run by an older generation and I think they’re out of step with their constituency. Black parents are the strongest supporters of choice in the entire country, and their children are often trapped in terrible schools in the inner city. They want options. Their leadership in the black community is not representing them, but there’s a younger generation of leaders coming up who will represent them and who do support choice.

BAEO and these other organizations are threatening to the mainline organizations because they are representing their constituents. If the mainline organizations don’t change over time, then BAEO and these others will move in. There will be substantial pressure on groups like the NAACP and the Urban League to change, and ultimately they will change–because of the pressure, because their leaders are getting older, and because younger people will eventually move into leadership positions.

One way or another, black parents in the inner city are going to get represented, and they will get choice.

Clowes: One thing that seems to be changing is that people are becoming better-informed about school choice.

Moe: I think that’s true. It’s especially true in the black community, because there are now thousands of children around the country who have vouchers, and their parents are ecstatic. And the parents talk: They talk to their friends; they talk to their ministers; they talk to their city council members. Slowly but steadily, the word is getting out. It’s a slow process, but things are changing.

Clowes: Are they likely to change very much? If the political system is designed to be blocked easily and the teacher unions have the power to block, that doesn’t seem to provide much reason for optimism.

Moe: No, it doesn’t. Politics is driven by power, and the teacher unions are more powerful than anybody else in education politics. So, in the short run, they win–but they don’t always win. Slowly but steadily, choice and accountability are taking root. The unions have done everything they can to defeat these reforms but they haven’t defeated them everywhere. They’re slowly losing their grip. Choice in particular is going to undermine union power because it allows children and money to leave unionized schools and go elsewhere.

Also, the competition that choice creates puts pressure on the public schools to get their act together, to do things differently, and to be more efficient and effective. Those pressures make life very difficult for unions. The more children are able to go to private schools and to charter schools, the more the unions lose members and money and become weaker politically.

Clowes: One of the ways the teacher unions have responded to competition from charter schools is by embracing the concept but then adding so many rules, regulations, and restrictions that eventually the charter schools don’t offer much choice to parents or competition to the traditional public schools. Isn’t there a danger the same thing could happen with school vouchers?

Moe: No. I don’t think the teacher unions would ever support vouchers under any conditions.