Research & Commentary: Reform Unionism

Published August 26, 2011

As school choice and competition measures eke into the American education system, the implications are becoming clear to the nation’s three million public school teachers and the unions to which many of them belong. The pressure on many teacher unions has become so great that they have begun to bargain about reforms rather than oppose them outright.
This has caused some to see a resurgence in “reform unionism,” teacher movements toward

supporting ideas such as merit pay, ending “last in, first out” severance policies, and allowing parents more freedom to choose where their children attend school and what gets taught there. Teacher unions are content to allow or even promote this perception, as reform is currently popular with legislators and the public. Some commentators portray this as the effect of younger union members interested in innovation and entering teaching by routes other than the traditional teachers’ college and certification.

Reform proponents remain unconvinced, noting teacher unions retain power solely by increasing their membership and securing more tax dollars in the form of higher pay and benefits for their members. They also note union history shows reform-minded members and ideas always have been temporary because reforms reduce union power and impede the self-interest of teacher unions that must distort the education market by blocking innovation and risk.

The following documents offer further information on education reform, “reform unionism,” and teacher unions.

Quiet Riot: Insurgents Take On Teachers’ Unions
Time magazine describes how teacher unions have for decades stymied school choice and reform proposals such as charter schools and merit pay, yet author Andrew Rotherham predicts unions will soon change their game in response to internal pressure for reform among younger teachers. He gives three examples of teacher unions or teacher-sponsored reform groups creating a middle way between reform-minded legislators and status-quo-insistent unions.

Super Teachers Alone Can’t Save Our Schools
Extraordinary educators are rare and often burn out, and there will simply never be enough of them to change American education completely, author and journalist Stephen Brill writes in The Wall Street Journal. To save our schools, Brill states, we have to demand more from ordinary teachers and their unions. Tearing up every union contract in the country to start from scratch would require motivating and tracking three million teachers, a task impossible for idealists.

Collective Bargaining in California Charter Schools: Cooperation or Conflict?
As unions begin to target charter schools, James Moss, in his doctoral dissertation for the University of Southern California, describes the effects a unionizing workforce has on charter teachers, administrators, and students’ educations. Union agreements, even the “contracts lite” usual for newly unionizing schools, tend to tie administrators’ hands and increase costs. They also make charters much more like their traditional public school counterparts, robbing them of their unique structures and offerings. The author describes alternative ways to give teachers a hand in school governance and decisions without making long-term, hard-to-change, binding contracts that may hamper a school’s adaptability.

Moe v. Meier on Teacher Unions
The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess summarizes the debate over how unions influence education reform and whether “reform unionism” actually exists. He concludes both sides recognize the abysmal state of overregulation and mismanagement in American schools and agree the professionalism and voice of teachers are at stake. The core difference, Hess writes, centers on how teachers’ voices can and should be channeled.

Will Young People Reform Teachers Unions? Dream On.
“Reform Unionism” is a chimera, writes Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Terry Moe, because the organizational incentives for teacher unions will always point them away from reform and real accountability and toward excess and expanding their membership and power. He points to the history of teacher unions and the idea of reform unionism in general to argue that, first, the idea is not new, and second, its history proves the truth of his statements.

Union Power and the Education of Children
In this excerpt from Stanford University Press’s Collective Bargaining in Education, Hoover Institution research fellow Terry Moe explains why the power of teacher unions is, in many ways, bad for public education and ultimately disadvantages children. The problems associated with teacher union power are inherent to the nature of unions, he writes, and cannot be eliminated by suggested “third ways” such as reform unionism. True reforms, then, must weaken union power over schools.

Reform Unionism: A Wolf by Any Other Name …
Despite good intentions, efforts to partner with teacher unions in reforming schools will not work, writes Larry Sand for the California Public Policy Center. This is because as teachers join unions, they become more attuned to their personal economic benefits and resistant to the changes needed to move to the top of the teaching curve. Meaningful change will not come from teacher unions, under the reformer flag or not, he writes, but at the ballot box as citizens discover the public destruction unions create.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].