This is an op-ed piece I sent to the Miami Herald; it probably will not be published, but it’s always worth a try!
On Fox News, all over the Internet, in the emotional but reality-challenged film Waiting for Superman, in letters to the editor of the Miami Herald, the complaints are all pretty much the same: Teachers’ unions exist to protect bad teachers. Without teachers’ unions, our children (regardless of the child poverty rate of over 20% in the US) would all be outpacing Finland, Korea, and Singapore. (Never mind the fact that Finland, for example, has an entirely unionized teaching force.)
This is by far the most widely espoused fallacy about our unions. Our unions protect due process. Incompetent, ineffective, or negligent teacher can be fired, and that was already true before SB 736. It only means that administrators must have just cause to fire a teacher. Those who say that there is no reason administrators would ever want to fire a good teacher have almost undoubtedly never worked in a school. There are principals (just as there are managers in other fields) who would gladly fire someone for any number of reasons not related to her job performance: political beliefs, sexual orientation, race, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), willingness to speak out when she disagrees with administrators’ policies—or simply in order to open up a position for a friend or relative. Such baseless dismissals are the grounds for many lawsuits every year in the private sector. Due process, a 90-day procedure in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, simply ensures that nobody is fired without just cause. This is quite different from ensuring nobody is fired at all.
While the number of incompetent teachers is actually very low, the ones still in the classroom are there not because of union protection, but because the administration at their schools did not bother to make the case to get them out. If unions were really to blame for incompetent teachers in the classroom, we would see far higher rates of teachers being fired in non-union states—yet this is not the case. Statistics show that teachers are fired at the same rates nationwide, regardless of union participation.
Principals may choose not to fire a teacher for any number of reasons. Said teacher may be a friend, or the spouse or relative of a friend. Sometimes administrators have never been teachers themselves, and do not know how to identify good teaching. Until the economic downturn there was a teacher shortage. A principal might fear firing an underperforming teacher, only to find no replacement. As often as not, administrators simply do not want to take the time to do the observations required by due process—thus their complaints that it is “too hard” to fire a teacher. Yet if you were going to be fired from your job, would you not expect the superior firing you to at least observe your work—and preferably more than just a few minutes on one single day? Many teachers go for years without being observed by their principal. Is this “union protection” or administrative incompetence?
The other main objection to teachers’ unions is that they serve the interest of the adults rather than the children. How often is a doctor accused of not caring about his patients because he earns a lot of money? I have yet to meet the teacher who went into this field in hopes of getting rich. We love what we do, and we care greatly about the education and well-being of the children we work with every day. This does not mean we want (or deserve) to work for substandard wages. The low salary, and nowadays the lack of respect, accorded to teachers make it an unappealing career to most top-level graduates. According to the Education Policy Analysis Archives, only 4.7% of college juniors would consider teaching at the current starting salary. It defies logic to argue that high salaries are necessary to attract and retain talent in some professions, but not in education.
Our unions advocate for sound education policies that will benefit children. More often than not, the causes we lobby for are one and the same as those parents are fighting for: fair tests (in reasonable amounts), smaller class sizes, a well-rounded curriculum, and adequate and equitable funding for public schools. Such policies are good for teachers, but they are equally good for children.