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Opinion

Teachers unions: Not just Chicago's problem

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Today, we see Chicago teachers on strike, waving placards, chanting and making news, while keeping 350,000 schoolchildren out of the classroom, their educations on hold while the teachers unions hold out for more from the city of Chicago.

How can one private organization, the Chicago Teachers Union, disrupt the lives of so many children and their families in one of America's largest cities? Far less dramatically, but far more importantly, the teachers unions and their bosses are wrecking K-12 education for all America's public school students every day all across America.

The two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, and their state and local affiliates, collect more than $2 billion in dues every year -- yes, that's $2 billion with a "B." Annually. This vast dues-collection machine gives the teachers unions immense power -- over elections, politicians, educators and, most unfortunately, America's children.

Teachers unions use their wealth to elect pro-union politicians and protect their dues empire. These unions place political operatives in every congressional district, to choose political candidates and sway elections -- from the local school board to the White House. Through political patronage, the teachers unions control educational policy nationwide. And with well-honed public relations and lobbying efforts, they can usually challenge and defeat any educational reform that might harm their revenue stream. What taxpayer organization or school reform group has even 1 percent of the teachers unions' clout?

Many of the policies that the teachers unions promote keep some of America's worst instructors at their Smart Boards while driving some of the country's best teachers right out of their classrooms. For example, almost all public school teachers are paid according to their academic degrees and their years at the job, rather than on achievement, performance and demand for their specialties. Physics teachers earn the same as English teachers, if both have taught the same number of years and have as many degrees, even if their degrees are in subject areas unrelated to what they teach.

This is unfair to teachers with in-demand specialties like science and engineering. It creates teacher shortages in those areas.

This system also fails great teachers, who are not rewarded for their superior achievement and dedication. It treats teachers like interchangeable, indistinguishable spark plugs in the gas-guzzling education machine, which causes many of the most qualified instructors to pursue careers in other fields.

Countries with the most successful K-12 systems weed out the worst teachers. But unions' resistance makes this nearly impossible in America. When New Jersey reduced the teacher headcount a few years ago, among the first to go was a young teacher who had only recently been named Teacher of the Year. She was fired because the union's rigid last-in, first-out rules require that newer teachers get sacked first, even if they have demonstrated superior performance. And once teachers secure tenure, after just a few years on the job, they cannot be fired without following very expensive, convoluted and time-consuming procedures, even if they have committed grievous offenses. As journalist Campbell Brown recently pointed out, in New York City at least, it is difficult even to fire child molesters. Firing a teacher for mere poor performance is pretty much out of the question.

Teachers unions also assail school choice programs, charter schools and even homeschooling, all of which curb the need for unionized teachers. With teachers unions often killing these alternatives in the political arena, many students become trapped in schools that leave them uneducated and ill-prepared for the 21st century.

Most residents of right-to-work states probably think teachers unions are alien to their jurisdictions. But in 16 of the 23 right-to-work states, teachers can be forced into union collective bargaining, even if they can't be forced to pay union dues or fees as a condition of their employment. And teachers unions heavily influence school board elections and educational policy in every U.S. school district.

Mallory Factor is the author of "Shadowbosses: Government Unions Control America and Rob Taxpayers Blind." He is the John C. West professor of international politics and American government at the Citadel.

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