If only one message gets through from the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ latest white paper on teachers’ unions, let it be this: The unions have their own interests. Those interests are not always congruent with those of students or parents or society, and often they actively conflict. Their agendas in some respects favour some teachers over others, and sometimes they may not even have much of anything to do with what’s good for teachers. Yet it’s commonly accepted that their most earnest members and elected leaders are the only stakeholders who can be totally objective about policies and funding for our schools; this, indeed, is a view they buy into themselves.

Notice, for instance, how Alberta Teachers’ Association president and former Liberal MLA Frank Bruseker responded this week to the researchers’ observation that teacher unions are acting in plain financial self-interest when they argue for things like statutorily or contractually enforced class-size limits, which have meagre to absent evidentiary support in the social-science literature. “Certainly, we try to influence government, but to be blunt, we’re the experts,” he said. (At least he realized he was being blunt.) “We have people with PhDs and masters’ degrees and years and years of experience and we’re in the classrooms. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to the people on the front lines about what we need to do in education policy?” The answer, of course, is that they should be heard, and with respect. But they should be treated as parties with personal and financial motives, not as the world’s only “experts” in what is best for children.

The dizzyingly high horse upon which Mr. Bruseker and other teacher-union true believers perch is the reason that efforts like the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) paper are necessary, even though it will inevitably be dismissed as part of some mysterious right-wing conspiracy to produce a less well-educated society. The authors of the paper confine themselves to simple, evidence-based statements about the role of unions in education policy that should be largely uncontroversial. They point out that the provincial teacher unions have no competitors and that public-school students are in the position of hostages in their collective bargaining. The right of teachers to go out on strike — which exists everywhere in Canada but Manitoba and P.E.I. — cannot reasonably be defended on the premise that it is good for children when teachers close down the schools.

Seniority provisions in union contracts mean that when school boards have to downsize they usually have no freedom to retain newer teachers who have special expertise relevant to particular grade or subject assignments. And while unions criticize standardized testing because it is influenced (rather marginally, as it happens) by the socioeconomic status of the students, they never suggest how disparities in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged students could be addressed properly without some such yardstick. The root of the critique, as AIMS notes in what may be its most noteworthy new insight, seems to be that such disparities are inherent, have no real possibility of being overcome by good teachers (unions simply don’t believe in the existence of mediocre ones), and are better off being ignored. The unions also have an unbroken track record of opposing any kind of parental choice, not only between public and private or public and charter schools, but even between public schools in different neighbourhoods within the same system.

There was a time when teachers were treated very shabbily by Canadian school boards. Their unions have worked to keep alive the historic memory of the days of physically collapsing one-room schoolhouses, unpaid salary arrears, and women teachers getting fired because they got married. As a result, any criticism of the union framework is taken as a wish to return to a crueller age — even though workers in nonunion professions have, with few exceptions, enjoyed as much progress over the past 80 years or so when it comes to working conditions and fairness on the job. If papers like AIMS’ could be digested in strict good faith, we would already have made an important first step toward a world of better education policy.

© National Post 2007

To read more about the AIMS’ paper, Getting the fox out of the schoolhouse, click here.

To read the complete paper, click here.