The Coming Fall of the Teachers Unions

Published July 28, 2011

Review of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools, by Terry Moe, Brookings Institution Press (2011). $34.95, 513 pages, ISBN: 0815721293. 

Seldom have the raw power and unbridled selfishness of teachers unions been more on display than in recent months in state capitols around the country. Teachers led the union riot that shut down Wisconsin’s state government for more than two weeks, making legislators afraid to enter government buildings while angry mobs defaced public property and shouted threats against them.

Terry Moe, a Hoover Institution senior fellow and author of numerous books and studies on education policy, has written a highly insightful book about teacher unions. The sheer volume and quality of information in Special Interest: Teachers Unions and American Public Schools make it a major and timely contribution to the debate. As one reads about how teacher unions operate, it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate this state of affairs.

The book begins by telling the hard truth about unions: “As the most powerful group in American education, they use their power to promote [their] special interests—in collective bargaining, in politics—and this often leads them in to do things that are not good for the children or the schools.”

Progressive Roots
The unspoken question is why our society puts up with this. One answer might be the slow process by which we all acquiesced to their control.

Public school unionism originated in the Progressive belief that the nation needed to centralize, then professionalize, education delivery. The National Education Association was originally designed as an administrative tool, not a union, set up to improve teaching quality. This centralization, however, made it much easier for unions to organize, and they gradually gained the power necessary to subvert, and then control, the entire system. 

Moe demolishes many myths surrounding teachers and their unions. The most important of these is the myth that teachers are unhappy with their unions and yearn to shed their yoke. Not true. Whereas 55 percent of teachers agree “tenure and teacher organizations make it too hard to weed out mediocre and incompetent teachers,” the same group opposes removing tenure, by a 77-23 percent majority.

Moe also shows school boards, far from checking unions, are easily captured and controlled by them. Local control is an artifice, not a fact. Does collective bargaining increase the cost of education without any appreciable benefit for the student? Yes. Is there such a thing as “reform unionism,” where leaders cede some ground for the benefit of children? No. 

The only good news comes in the closing chapter, where the author highlights two powerful forces undermining union power. The first is an internal battle of shifting political alliances, primarily in the Democratic Party. The second comes in the form of radical disruption by technological advances in delivering education. The slow economy, which portends declining resources for the education bureaucracy, is a force multiplier for both phenomena.

Changing Landscape
The political discussion is informative, but the impact of digital learning, online education, and technology-driven delivery is far more fascinating. Although the changing political landscape and economics alone would not be enough to defeat the unions’ grip on education, Moe states, “Education technology is a tsunami that is only beginning to swell.” It can’t arrive soon enough.

This brings me to my only complaint about this valuable and informative book. After detailing the havoc unions have visited upon American children and taxpayers, Moe says the coming changes “will happen gradually,” “much of it coming over two (or three) decades.” Decades! Why not two or three years?

There are reasons for optimism. Moe writes, “The most potent and direct way to undermine the teachers unions’ power, for example, is to pass new laws prohibiting collective bargaining in the public schools.” He says “this is unlikely to happen.” He apparently wrote that before Wisconsin’s new governor did exactly that. Ohio and Idaho have followed suit. And Utah has just passed an aggressive digital learning bill, with money following the child to the online providers.

Moe has given us the data and facts we need to take on teacher unions in the most important political battle of our lifetimes. It’s up to us to supply the outrage.