Commentary

Keeping the Nation at Risk: How the Teacher Unions Block Reforms

By David F. Salisbury
This article was published in the New York Post, April 21, 2003.

Twenty years ago this month, an ad hoc commission established by then-Education Secretary Terrell H. Bell released a report entitled A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform. The report quickly became the most widely discussed educational reform blueprint in American history. One sentence in the report summarized the commission’s take on the status of American education: “If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

Although the report generated a landslide of attention and multiple reform efforts, our education system is still in crisis. We have not solved the problems identified in the report because the teacher unions have consistently blocked meaningful reforms.

Recent reports provide fresh evidence of our continuing educational emergency. The U.S. Commission on National Security lately lamented the fact that U.S. students lag behind other countries in scientific knowledge and mathematics. Most recently, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education released its findings after a review of the state of American education 20 years since A Nation at Risk. The Task Force found that the performance of U.S. public schools remains stagnant. For instance, about 80 million first graders “have walked into schools where they have scant chance of learning more than the youngsters whose plight troubled the Commission in 1983.”

Certainly, we have seen changes in our schools during the last 20 years. Teacher salaries have been raised, student-teacher ratios have been reduced, annual per-pupil spending has increased by about 40 percent (from $4,700 per student to $6,600), and total annual expenditures have grown by nearly 60 percent in constant dollars, from about $180 billion to $280 billion.

Note, however, that those changes were supported by the teacher unions. The unions welcome reforms that lead to higher salaries and smaller classes for teachers and more dues-revenue for the unions. At the same time, the teacher unions oppose reforms that would empower parents or allow private schools to compete on a level playing field for students.

During the same 20 years, reformers have fought desperately for reforms that would give parents more power, or provide any support for parents who prefer a private to a public school. However, only a few states now have a significant number of charter schools and even fewer allow parents a choice between a private and public school.

Everywhere pro-parent measures have passed, reformers have faced intense opposition by the teacher unions. With over 3 million members and dues-revenues that exceed $1 billion a year, the unions are an empire-like force. Through strong-armed political tactics and hefty financial and in-kind support to candidates who support teacher union positions, the unions are a virtually insurmountable obstacle to reforms that are essential to educational improvement.

A product of political compromise, A Nation at Risk carefully avoided the issue of teacher union power. In his letter to Secretary Bell, Commission Chairman David P. Gardner wrote: “Our purpose has been to help define the problems affecting American education and to provide solutions, not search for scapegoats.”

But there is a difference between a scapegoat and an organization that actively blocks reforms. By not criticizing union efforts to block reforms and announcing that it was not searching for “scapegoats,” the 1983 commission reinforced the status quo. The subsequent 20 years have demonstrated that this is no way to achieve educational reform.

Today, the unions are better prepared to block constructive reforms than they were in 1983. For example, teacher union membership and revenues have escalated, and the unions’ stranglehold on education policy — typified by the failure to include private school choice in the No Child Left Behind Act — is as strong as ever.

In their report released this month, the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force correctly identified the teacher unions as one of the “powerful forces of inertia” that underlies the public education establishment. These forces proved more powerful than the Excellence Commission could have foreseen in 1983.

Reformers who want to see schools improve in 2003 and beyond should not make the mistake of underestimating the opposition they will face from the teacher unions. Before significant reforms to our education system can be widely introduced, the power of the public education establishment, mainly the teacher unions, to block reforms must be curbed. Twenty years of cosmetic change in education permit no other conclusion.

Myron Lieberman is chairman of the Education Policy Institute and author of a recent Cato Policy Analysis, “Liberating Teachers: Toward Market Competition in Teacher Representation.” David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.