Public Not Yet Decided As To Whether Teachers Unions Are Good For Schools Or Not

By 03/07/2011

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As the debate over collective bargaining continues to rage in Wisconsin and Indiana, it is good to keep in mind that it takes place in a context where the public has yet to decide exactly what it thinks about the role of unions in American education.

According to the 2010 Education Next poll released last fall, 33 percent of the public thought that unions had a generally negative effect on schools in their community, while 28 percent thought they had a generally positive effect.  39 percent said they did not think they had either a positive or negative impact.* Those results remained essentially unchanged from the 2009 poll taken one year previously.

Nor do teachers themselves have a uniformly positive view of the unions that claim to represent them.  No less than 25 percent of all teachers think unions have a generally negative effect on schools in their community, while  only 51 percent think they had a positive impact.  23 percent said they had no impact one way or the other.

In other words, the public has yet to make up its mind.  And judging by the survey results it looks as if about a quarter of the teachers might favor Governor Walker’s proposals to ask unions to collect their own dues rather than have the government take the money directly from the teacher’s paycheck.

– Paul E. Peterson

*The exact wording of the question is as follows:

Some people say that teacher unions are a stumbling block to school reform. Others say that unions fight for better schools and better teachers. What do you think? Do you think teacher unions have a generally positive effect on the schools in your community, or do you think they have a generally negative effect?

Completely positive effect
Somewhat positive effect
Neither positive nor negative effect
Somewhat negative effect
Completely negative effect

Comment on this article
  • Brandon Dutcher says:

    Oklahomans (unsurprisingly) feel a little more strongly about it:

  • ZSL says:

    I would argue that, outside of the education community and a select group of political insiders and followers of political football, most people have no idea what influence teachers’ unions actually have in schools.

  • ZSL – You are absolutely correct, but the fact that the public is both evenly divided and quite undecided means that those seeking to shape public opinion have an opportunity to get the facts out–but they need to make every effort to do so.

  • Julie says:

    I believe it is absolutely true that most people really have no idea what a teacher’s association does.

    Over the past few years we have seen the advancement of a “reform” agenda that is pretty monochrome. The billionaires and their grunts, plus a few economists, have told us they know how to fix education. They promote ideas that are not research proven and that are largely bereft of stakeholder input and buy-in.

    When teachers’ groups stand up to these quasi-reform ideas, they are uniformly vilified by the media and the public is told “teachers’ associations block reform.”

    Many folks echo what they hear in the media, as they have little direct experience themselves.

    If you were a card carrying member of a teachers’ association (I am CTA and NEA), you would know that an enormous amount of attention is placed on pedagogical issues and concerns. Our state and national organizations publish magazines full of articles on teaching, managing behavior, closing the achievement gap… The California Teachers’ Association holds a Good Teaching Conference every year.

    The associations are supported financially by their members and they are tasked with representing them in a democratic process. This process brings well-educated and mature folks together around the table to discuss important issues in their district.

    When times are tough economically, my teachers’ association rolls up its sleeves and discusses how and where to make budgetary cuts with the administration. It is important to bring differing viewpoints to the table. We have willingly foregone raises for about the past 5 years, we have taken modest cuts during the past 2 years. We acknowledge that next year is likely to be worse. We do not dig in our heels and say, “No,” as some in the media like to characterize us.

    We also analyze the budget to look at what monies are actually there and how they are spent.

    We insist that budgetary cuts be equitable and do the least damage to students and teachers. We will not stand for, and expressly forbid, for example, administrators giving themselves raises in times of economic woe while teachers and student programs suffer cuts.

    That is the kind of nonsense that goes on in the private sector as we have watched CEOs of corporations take obscenely large compensation packages during the very year they are bankrupting their companies, or while they are delivering pay cuts to the workers, and shipping jobs to India.

    Perhaps they forget that a strong middle class populates our country with consumers who will purchase their goods and services, which inturn keeps them in business.

    Most of the American people deplore the idea of the CEO of a company taking $20 million while eliminating 7,000 jobs, or taking a government bailout the next year.

    When we have a democratic process where union representatives and administration, often with some community input as well, sit around the table and work out a budget, we avoid these ugly abuses of power Americans have been observing during the past decade in particular.

    Breaking a union is never about saving money, the unions almost always are willing to make reasonable concessions. Breaking unions is about the consolidation of political and economic power in the hands of a few, it is about destroying a democratic process because it is messy. But, anything worth having usually involves some effort.

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