In Brief: In his fortnightly column in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, AIMS acting President Charles Cirtwill reflects on a recent paper about the influence of teachers’ union on education policy. Here he makes it clear that the paper is talking about the unions, not the teachers.

by Charles Cirtwill

As many of you will know by now my Institute released a report last week looking at the disproportionate impact that teachers’ unions have had on the public debate around education policy in this country. One key point bears repeating here, the authors’ analysis focuses on teachers’ unions, not on individual teachers.

The authors found that reforms like expanded testing, increased choice, limits on the right to strike, and more sensible bargaining unit structures have been opposed by unions. All of these changes would result in more influence for parents and system managers. On the other hand, reforms like smaller classroom sizes and increased education spending, changes that result in higher pay (and higher dues) and more teachers, have been supported by unions

Despite the obvious pattern in what unions support and oppose, the authors found that the unions have been very effective in not only achieving their ends but in keeping the rest of society on side while doing so. They call on the rest of us: politicians, parents, public sector managers, students and individual teachers, to be more assertive of our rights and to push for changes that will rebalance the system to make everyone a little more equal.

Why is it that we have been so reticent to take on the unions? It could be argued that this reticence arises from the fact that (as the head of the Alberta Teachers’ Federation stated last week) the unions represent the experts. Their members are for the most part classroom teachers with years of experience and training. It could also be far more personal than that. You see the unions also represent Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, that creative, passionate teacher who all of us have had and who so significantly influenced the direction of our lives.

As the argument goes, the unions represent the teachers, the teachers must agree with what the union is saying, so to oppose the unions is to oppose the experts. Or to oppose Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith, and by so doing to betray that bond of trust and respect that they built with us. But are we right to assume that Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones, or any of the other experts, always agree with what their union is saying?

This assumption was put to the test in 2005 by the Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education. It commissioned a national survey of parents’ and teachers’ views on education. The results of that survey are worthy of noting when looking at the list of reforms opposed by teachers’ unions.

Consider school choice. That 2005 survey showed 77% of teachers are actually in favour of school choice. To ensure those results were not a fluke, the survey asked the question a second time in a different way and received almost identical results. Teachers overwhelmingly felt parents should have the option of changing schools if they were dissatisfied with the education their child was receiving.

Teachers are even willing to support choice when they know the money will follow the child out of their school. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement that “Government funding should follow the child, regardless of where he or she is enrolled” 74% of teachers agreed.

Okay, but what about merit pay? Surely the unions have their members onside when they point out this is a complex and difficult exercise that might result in dissension in the teaching ranks? No – 63% of teachers responding to the survey supported financially rewarding outstanding teachers as a means to improve teaching quality. For that matter, 38% of teachers were even willing to see at least some of their compensation tied to the academic progress of their students – what a remarkable concept.

A similar sizable minority (over 40%) are onside with not only having standardized testing but with using those tests to assess changes over time in a school’s performance. Only on the issue of class size does the union have overwhelming support of the people they represent, 91% of teachers rated reducing class size as an effective means of improving the quality of teacher’s work.

The key for those of us not in the union is to remember that, while the union has the exclusive right to represent teachers at the bargaining table, it does not mean that the union is the personification of those experts all of us hold in such high regard.

The union is the union, the teachers are our friends and neighbours. Let’s keep that distinction clear in our minds.

Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies,, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax.

The complete Society for the Advancement of Excellence in Education study, click here.