The third and final presidential debate this past week was supposed to examine each candidate’s position on foreign policy. While the conversation remained mostly on Libya, Iran’s quest to obtain a nuclear weapon, and how our nation’s diplomatic strategy would be different under Republican candidate Mitt Romney as opposed to President Barack Obama, domestic policy seemed to dominate the debate at times.
One issue in particular that was completely unrelated to foreign policy and ensuring the United States’ national security, was education. Specifically, teachers’ unions had the honor of becoming a political talking point to bolster one campaign’s quest for the White House. While defending the accusation that his policies are “wrong and reckless,” Romney, presenting the American people with specifics on how he would rebuild our economy — which included broader points about energy independence and trade with Latin America — had this to say about teachers and their unions:
“[W]e’re going to have to have training programs that work for our workers and schools that finally put the parents and the teachers and the kids first, and the teachers union’s going to have to go behind.” [Emphasis added]
Very strong words by Romney. But is this ire and criticism toward teachers’ unions fair? Are unions really hindering public education in this country, and preventing perfectly functioning schools from fully realizing Horace Mann’s dream that education would serve as the great equalizer in American society? Would getting rid of these unions — and specially, protections for teachers’ jobs — be the panacea that we’ve been waiting for to reform education?
Lately, teachers’ unions have been under siege. Romney, in his remarks on teachers’ unions, exemplifies the GOP’s dissatisfaction with unions in general. Democrats, too, of late, have not been as favorable to unions as in years past, though teachers’ unions continue to be some of their biggest political contributors. And the teachers’ unions themselves haven’t necessarily made the best public relations case with the recent strike in Chicago. Even filmmakers have gotten in the act of denigrating unions. With the 2010 release of “Waiting for Superman,” unions were painted as a villainous institution that takes great joy in protecting inept teachers. But the conversation about teachers’ unions — in addition to unions in general — and their role in public education is much more nuanced than this.
It is no secret that American public education is failing our young people. But to put complete blame on teachers’ unions is wrong. By using the unions as the scapegoat for all of public education’s woes, we, as a society, are absolving the effects that poverty has on our children and their learning. The institutional racism and segregation that we complacently accept surely affects what goes on in our schools and the fact that we currently have an antiquated education system that is struggling to operate in the new 21t century technological world most certainly has something to do with how our schools are performing. All of these examples underscore the challenges that we face when trying to compete in this global economy, and to say that unions are causing the problems in our schools is not only unfair to unions, but just plain false.
And this is not to say that teachers’ unions don’t also play their part. In no other industry can one’s performance (in this case, students’ achievement and test scores) not necessarily factor into one’s job security. This leads us to question the merit of teacher tenure, which is essentially a guaranteed job for life. But the fundamental role of teachers’ unions is to protect teachers from unfair dismissal, which is not unreasonable. And this is good, because unions have done a lot to protect all of our rights, because without them, we’d still probably have child labor and no eight-hour work day.
So what happens next? We need to stop demeaning unions and acting as if they are the absolute problem with our entire education system. They are not perfect, but we need to figure out how to work with unions, in addition to tackling poverty, investing in early childhood education, and working with communities and businesses to ensure that our young people are getting the education they deserve.