School choice will empower teachers

Unlike Kelly Garcia, fresh out of college I knew a lot about unions.

I grew up in a union household. My mom worked on a factory assembly line and was a member of the United Auto Workers. My dad was a fireman and a member of the International Association of Firefighters.

I started teaching in the fall of 1977, and by the spring of 1978, I was president of our local teachers union and a member of our state union’s board of directors. I moved to Pinellas County, Fla. in 1984 and joined their teachers union, where I was elected vice president in 1988 and president in 1991.

As my term was winding down in 1994, I thought about what I had experienced and learned over the previous 16 years and became convinced we needed a new model of teacher unionism.

Unions are always a reflection of the larger industries in which they reside. A union of freelance software engineers functions differently than a union of Ford autoworkers, or a union of independent truckers. Since today’s public education system took form during the industrial revolution, in the mid-to-late 1800s, today’s teachers unions operate much like the blue-collar unions that were spawned in those early factories.

New organizational structures were developed during the industrial revolution to efficiently manage the increased productivity generated by new machinery, and a rapidly growing public education system soon adopted many of these new structures and management systems. By the late 1800s, public schools increasingly began to resemble factory assembly lines with centralized, command-and-control management systems to generate greater efficiency and productivity through standardization. By the early 1900s, most public school students were moving along educational assembly lines in batches with teachers adding the prescribed knowledge and skills at each grade level.

Since children are not widgets, this production system was ineffective – and at times harmful – for many students. But as bad as these early school systems were for students, they were worse for teachers.  They were controlled by politicians who were often more interested in accumulating and using power than educating students, and teachers were often the victims of their political manipulations.  Increasingly, teachers rebelled against this unchecked political power, and began to fight back by organizing unions.

Adopting a union model similar to that used by the steel and auto workers made sense for teachers, given schools were organized like factory assembly lines. Teachers embraced centralized collective bargaining to respond to centralized management, and started bargaining for one-size-fits-all rules to counter the one-size-fits-all management practices.

By 1994, I understood the strengths and weaknesses of our blue-collar unionism. While we had blocked management’s ability to abuse their power, we had not empowered teachers and addressed their core desire to be more effective with students. We had turned school districts into unmanageable bureaucracies in which teachers and students were increasingly frustrated and alienated. And, under the guise of protecting public education, we had become the primary defenders of these bureaucracies.  In essence, we had become an extension of management.

On my way out of office, I wrote a series of essays calling for a new teacher unionism. My premise was that instead of protecting teachers from outmoded and dysfunctional education systems, teacher unions should be in the business of transforming those systems. My friend, Bob Chase, was running for president of the National Education Association that summer, and he came to Florida for two days to discuss including new unionism in his platform. Bob was subsequently elected on a platform that included new unionism, but he got lots of push back once in office and soon let the idea drop.

The integration of teacher unions into school district management and the resistance to change this assimilation has engendered is the source of Kelly’s dilemma. She knows her local union is perpetuating a dysfunctional school system and she doesn’t want to pay dues to support that effort, yet working in a dysfunctional organization puts her at risk so she needs the union to protect her. Kelly is caught in a classic Catch 22: By paying for the protection she needs, she guarantees she’ll always need to pay for that protection. Is it any wonder teachers union leaders don’t want to change their business model?

The good news for Kelly is that external forces are driving public education away from a command-and-control, one-size-fits-all management system and toward a well-regulated, decentralized system built around customization. As this transition accelerates, the inappropriateness of industrial unionism will become increasingly obvious to teachers.

In the meantime, my advice to Kelly is to join her local union and run for president on a new unionism platform. She should talk about the opportunities for teachers that are coming with this shift from assembly-line standardization to customization. A public education system organized around customization will empower teachers to be innovative and entrepreneurial. They will finally get the professional opportunities common in fields such as medicine and law, and a teachers union that embraces customization will help teachers realize these opportunities.

Start this conversation with your colleagues, Kelly. If you don’t, who will?

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