Democrats’ Problem: Teachers and Their Unions Just Like the Rest of Us

Let’s face it: everyone is trying to make a profit. There’s nothing wrong with that—it’s normal, with people doing things because they feel they’ll make them better off. The problem starts when you insist that you’re a saint—that you’re somehow far more selfless than most other people—and you just can’t keep up the charade any longer. Welcome to the Democratic Party’s teacher union problem.

It seems that trying to keep the party’s union-heavy base happy while simultaneously appearing unbeholden to entrenched interests is going to be a tricky balancing act for the Democrats. But dealing with teachers unions—which adding the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers together have about 4.7 million members—is going to be particularly treacherous. Educators are by far the biggest unionized bloc, and almost certainly the most troublesome. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports today, Democrats are particularly rent asunder on education issues, and a new movie about a parent taking on the union to turn a bad public school into a charter school—the so-called parent trigger—is driving another wedge.

The movie, Won’t Back Down, has already been panned by AFT president Randi Weingarten. But at least her union—unlike the larger and more obstinate National Education Association—acknowledges that there are education problems, and maybe the unions’ time-honored demand of “more money and no accountability” has had something to do with them.

“We bear a lot of responsibility for this,” Weingarten recently told the New York Times. ”We were focused—as unions are—on fairness and not as much on quality.”

No doubt part of the reason that at least the AFT is accepting a little blame is that it sees that teachers unions are losing the sympathies of many members of the public. People are seemingly growing tired of seeing unionized educators enjoying good incomes and expensive perks while those paying the taxes struggle and test scores languish.

The problem with the union reinvention—at least as captured by the Weingarten quote—is that it probably strikes many people as hollow. Why? Because they know that unions are run by normal people and represent normal people, and what they want first and foremost is not what’s best for kids or “fairness,” but getting as good a deal for themselves as possible. In other words, they are starting to see through unions’ selfless-angels facade—the public relations sham of people just wanting a living wage while they give the mythical 110 percent “for the kids” —and are glimpsing normal, profit-seeking human beings who have had a fairly cushy deal over the decades.

Teachers unions, as those of us at Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom have said, are not the root problem in education, nor are they or the people they represent any more evil or good than most other people. The root educational problem is that public schools are government schools, and politics—which cannot be detached from government—rewards concentrated special interests, of which unionized teachers are among the biggest.

For the Democratic Party, the big problem is that for decades the teachers unions have insisted that they and their members as far more noble than almost anyone else. At least, more noble than anyone openly seeking a profit, which is most people. But the public is catching on: teachers and their unions are just as self-interested as most other people, and government-run schooling has enabled them to get some awfully nice, taxpayer-funded deals. So what do you do? Acknowledge the paper-mache wings have fallen off and risk the wrath of the teacher unionists, or keep up the angelic charade and hope the public stops noticing reality? Neither is a happy prospect for the Democratic Party.