It’s fitting to look at Labor Day and “Back to School” side by side since many believe the teachers’ union is the champion of quality education. After all, that’s how the union identifies itself.
The Washington Education Association’s website reads: “We are people who care about our students, schools, public education and each other. Working together to improve education in Washington state, we are the Washington Education Association.”
In reality, the union’s function is twofold: promote their members’ welfare and collect dues. Neither involves the quality of education, and neither is supposed to.
The American Heritage Dictionary says a labor union is “an organization of wage earners formed for the purpose of serving the members’ interests with respect to wages and working conditions.” And that’s all.
This point is crucial not because it could discredit teachers, but because Washington residents must stop waiting for the union to ensure—or even pursue—the success of public education.
Too often we blame teacher unions for neglecting the good of students. But we’re wrong to expect them to have students’ best interests at heart to begin with.
The WEA fulfills its duties impeccably. The public must be reminded what those duties are and what they are not. Their stance on rewarding effective teachers offers a pretty good picture.
The WEA and teacher unions nationwide have been reluctant to adopt proposals allowing teachers to receive better pay when student achievement goes up.
Naturally, providing some kind of monetary incentive to teachers who teach well could encourage further innovation and foster effective teaching techniques. Some teachers do a great job, while others don’t. Why shouldn’t those who do well be rewarded?
Teacher unions continue to be on the wrong side of this issue. Why? Because part of the job description for unions is to equally promote their members’ welfare. Better teachers don’t pay more union dues.
Similarly, tenure can’t come into play if unions want to stay on top. When belts must be tightened and teachers let go, it’s the newest and most energetic who will go first. This ostensibly protects the most seasoned teachers, but in reality, guarantees that the highest dues-paying members stay employed.
Again, the union is fulfilling its duties well; those duties simply don’t include advancing quality education. Unions have their time and place. That place, however, is not in education reform. The longer Washington parents look to the WEA as the benevolent champion of public education, the longer our children will be stuck with a subpar status quo.
On the other hand, if we recognize the WEA for what it is—an expensive collective bargaining and lobbying organization—the sooner education quality will finally start looking up.
Diana Cieslak is the Director of the School Report Card Project and Scott Dilley is a Labor Policy Analyst at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a public policy research foundation based in Olympia, Washington.