Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 155: Worm in the Apple: Teachers Unions Operate Like Mafia

• Peter Brimelow: The Worm in the Apple; HarperCollins; 2003; 273pp., $24.95

Just as a government monopoly in postal service would be a bad idea even in the absence of postal worker unions, so would “public education” be a bad idea even in the absence of teacher unions. There can be no doubt, however, that the major teacher unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers (along with their state and local affiliates), have contributed greatly to the intractable problems of government schooling — that it costs far more than market-based education would, and that it is remarkably ineffective. In The Worm in the Apple, journalist Peter Brimelow explores the actions of the teacher unions and finds that they are highly destructive.

State and federal statutes have given labor unions unique powers for private organizations, such as the “right” to represent individuals who do not want their services, and to compel employers to bargain with them “in good faith.” In the private sector, however, competition serves as a brake on the ability of unions to obtain compensation in excess of that which would prevail on the free market. When it comes to government employees, however, competition is rarely present. Government operations are usually monopolies and do not have to fear the loss of customers and revenues if costs are high and quality is low. Union bosses milk that situation for all it’s worth and public education is Exhibit A.

Teacher unions have been able to negotiate outrageously generous contracts with school boards, giving high pay and benefits to the competent and incompetent alike. No preference for better teachers (“merit pay”) is allowed. Job security is more heavily armored than an M-1A1 tank. Teacher strikes are usually illegal, but they happen anyway. Union officials generally manage to negotiate an amnesty for all who violated the terms of their contracts as a part of the settlement.

To put the public even further over a barrel, teacher unions are exceedingly adept at politics. Brimelow points out that it is common for the unions to field their own candidates in school board elections. The support the unions give their candidates in the form of in-kind services like free phone banks often leads to victory. The voters, taken in with all the gooey rhetoric about the union candidate’s “deep concern for the education of our children,” don’t realize that their pockets are going to be picked.

Shameless is the best word to describe the union tactics in their ceaseless attempts to squeeze more money out of the public. Brimelow provides lots of examples. In Jefferson County, Colo., for instance, the union had its members call parents to lobby for a school tax increase, using emergency phone numbers given by the students.

Teacher unions, Brimelow notes, are also great supporters of educational fads. One of their favorites is class-size reduction. It sounds so good, appealing to people’s natural desire for the best educational environment for children. If teachers have fewer students, of course that will translate into more individual attention, so the kids will learn better! Sadly, the assumptions that having fewer students in class will mean more individual attention and that what students most need is more individual attention are almost never challenged, so unions usually win on the issue. But the consequences, Brimelow shows, are not beneficial. Costs — to pay the extra teachers and provide additional classroom space will rise, while the average quality of teachers is diluted, as more rookies and people who would not formerly have been considered, are hired.

Brimelow also shows that the teacher unions have helped along the dumbing down of American schools by pushing for weak books and programs that are easy for their not-too-bright members to use. This is one area where the book might have gone further, though, exploring the unholy alliance between teachers unions and our “education schools” where future teachers are taught lots of fuzzy, “progressive” notions such as that self-esteem is much more important than learning “mere facts.”

The book does a good job of setting forth the problem. What does Brimelow think should be done? He realizes that the Gordian Knot-cutting solution is to get government out of the education business. He wants to see “the creation of a free market in education, rather than the current socialist government system.” To get there, we will need to defang the teacher unions and toward that end, he suggests 24 sensible steps.

Brimelow has done his homework. His readable, often witty book shows that we must get the worm out of the apple.