By Charles Cirtwill, Rod Clifton and John Long
On September 8, the National Post published an editorial (“The truth about teachers’ unions”) arguing that teachers’ unions have their own interests, which are not always congruent with the public interest. Indeed, their interests often conflict with the interests of students, parents, individual teachers and other citizens. However, as underscored in a recently released report by my organization, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, blame should not be limited to the unions.
Indeed, the problem isn’t so much with the unions as it is with the rest of us. We have significantly abrogated our parental and civic responsibilities, discouraging too many of us from trying to change entrenched policies and practices that play into the unions’ hands. The interests that teachers’ unions serve and the roles that they play are valid. The rest of us have a similar obligation to balance the unions’ interests by effectively representing the public interest.
Whether inherent bias, incompetence, or systemic barriers are to blame, the truth, plain and simple, is that the educational system does not fairly balance the competing interests of students, parents, citizens, and individual teachers on one side, and those of teachers’ unions on the other. That unions are so often able to bar the door to reforms does not excuse educational officials who have the statutory obligation to manage the system to serve the needs of children. If anything, it opens them to broader censure. Our representatives have, in fact, often lost sight of their responsibilities.
Teachers’ unions have bargained hard and they have secured many benefits for their members over the years. In each session, they have sat across the bargaining table from managers who represent the interests of the public — specifically, the interests of children, parents, and taxpayers. Every advantage that the unions have won, every limitation on the authority of principals, and every cost they have imposed, has been achieved with the consent of school boards and provincial governments. If administrators and policy makers say that their hands are tied, they themselves have supplied the rope.
Consider the phrase “the union won’t let us do that.” Often this phrase is heard in discussions about reforming school systems. In fact, it often brings discussion to a halt in the educational boardrooms and political forums of the nation. There may have been times when “the union wouldn’t let us” was an accurate excuse for failed educational reforms. But there are other instances in which the phrase is invoked as a means for educational officials to avoid making controversial decisions or undertaking a task that they themselves oppose or one that simply involves a lot of hard work.
Before we call our elected officials and their hired administrators to account, though, we need to look at ourselves in a mirror. When school boards and provincial governments accept bad educational policies because the unions demand them, we, the public, are complicit in the surrender. We are the ones who elected these governments and school boards over the years, and we are the ones who too often have chosen to acquiesce in the public discourse through silence and inaction.
Politicians, school boards, administrators, parents, students, and even individual teachers need to step up and fight for policies that balance the public interest with the interests of teachers’ unions.
As a start, we suggest expanding accountability with more and better standardized tests; supporting the funding of alternative schools so that parents have more choices; compensating teachers and principals, partially at least, on the basis of their performance; separating the supervisors from the supervised in teachers’ unions; and abandoning strikes and lock-outs in a monopolistic public school system. Simply put, we need to take back the governance and operation of our schools so that no one can honestly say “the union wouldn’t let us.”
— Charles Cirtwill is the acting President of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a non-partisan public policy think tank based in Halifax. [email protected].
Rod Clifton is a professor of education at the University of Manitoba and co-author of the recently released report Getting the Fox out of the Schoolhouse, available online at www.aims.ca/acedoc.
John Long is a professor of education at the University of Manitoba and is a co-author of the report.