Opinion

Quote quibbles aside, teachers unions don't look out for kids

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Opinion,Op-Eds

Late last month, presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney delivered an education speech in which he lambasted the policy agenda of teachers union officials. To help make his point, Romney cited a famous remark attributed to the late Al Shanker, former longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers.

In 1985, an editorial in the Meridian (Miss.) Star quoted Shanker: "When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that's when I'll start representing the interests of schoolchildren."

Media "fact checkers" are now picking nits with Romney regarding the exact words Shanker used to acknowledge that the teachers union brass doesn't protect the interests of schoolchildren.

The Star's editorial did not furnish specific information about where or when the AFT union chief said this. Yet ever since the editorial was published, including many times before Shanker passed away 15 years ago, the quote has served as a pungent summary of what he thought about the role of union bosses wielding monopoly power to negotiate with school officials over teachers' pay, benefits and work rules.

Evidently, it was not until May 2011 that there was any public challenge to the validity of Shanker's notorious quote about schoolchildren and union dues. At that time, two researchers for a "think tank" that is named after Shanker, bankrolled in part by the AFT union hierarchy (using teachers' and other employees' forced union dues and fees), and located in the AFT's D.C. headquarters protested former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein's use of the quote in a magazine article. They insisted, 36 years after the fact, that the Mississippi newspaper's sourcing was not "journalistically rigorous."

About this, they may have a point. But there is no doubt that Romney and other critics of teachers union officials are correct about the thrust of the matter: Shanker did go on the public record acknowledging that the agenda of teachers union bosses like himself is bound to conflict with the best interest of schoolchildren.

Appearing on "ABC News Closeup" on May 27, 1976, Shanker said: "I don't see a voice for students in the bargaining process; I think it's one of the facts of life. ... It's very much like a strike, let's say, or negotiations in the private sector. The consumer, basically, is left out."

Effectively, Shanker believed that the interests of schoolchildren are "left out" of the process in which union officials act as teachers' monopoly-bargaining agents, and that it's pointless to worry about that, because it's a "fact of life."

People who are genuinely interested in education reform need to be clear-eyed about Shanker and his legacy of monopolistic unionism. The fact is that teachers union officials, armed with monopoly-bargaining privileges, often fail to represent the interests of many talented and hardworking teachers as well as the interests of schoolchildren. Together with his mentor in teachers union power building, Dave Selden, Shanker concocted in 1960 a particularly harmful version of the "single salary schedule" for public educators that now prevails across most of America.

Under the Shanker-Selden "single salary" system, as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan correctly pointed out a couple of years ago, "School systems pay teachers billions of dollars each year for earning credentials that do very little to improve the quality of teaching. At the same time, many schools give nothing at all to the teachers who go the extra mile to make a difference in students' lives."

Media "fact checkers" should worry more about Shanker's awful legacy for American education -- and about what can be done today to end the abuses he helped spawn.

Stan Greer is newsletter editor at the National Right to Work Committee.

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