I'm A Democrat From A Union Family, And I Can't Support The Teachers Unions

Parents in school hallwayTeacher Conferences

After thirteen years as a parent in the NYC public school system, given a front row seat to the dysfunction of urban public schools, I have broken ranks with many of my Democratic parent brethren about education policy.I am convinced that parents have lost their way because of their unwavering support of teacher’s unions. Did you know in NYC that only 65 per cent of kids graduate?  Oh, you’re black? Make that 60 per cent. Hispanic? 58 per cent.

There is plenty of blame to go around among all constituencies but the one thing that we should all agree on is that this is an absolute emergency. Ethically and pragmatically, everyone in this country should have a basic level of education and we are not delivering.  Why aren’t the unions acting like this is an emergency?

As a daughter of a lifelong union member, it pains me to say this, but I think it’s because the unions are a big part of the problem.  Let me be clear, I support higher pay for teachers, continued great benefits for teachers, more resources for teachers etc. 

This is not a Scott Walker-type position about fiscal policy.  But I do think we have to dramatically change the principals of hiring, firing, workdays, accountability, training, teaching methods etc, if we want to seriously change the public school system, especially for the poor.   Alarmingly, as we see in the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike, unions don’t seem in any rush for radical changes; there seems to be no panic about how THEY are failing in their mission.

As Democrats, we’re supposed to watch out for the little guy.  In this scenario, trust me, the little guy is NOT the teacher’s union. It’s the poorest kid in the roughest neighbourhood in the school that graduates almost no one.   Many times, teachers’ goals and students’ goals’ align -but not always. And these are the areas that parents aren’t supposed to talk about. We’re supposed to fall in line with the union talking points.  Is the Chicago Teachers Union drawing a line in the sand about things that would actually improve things  immediately for students in Chicago Public Schools (60 per cent grad rate)? No, it’s about not wanting accountability for effectively educating the most vulnerable kids.

It IS harder to educate kids in poverty. Duh.  But rhetoric from unions is often along the lines of “Oh well. We’re trying as hard as we can. After all, they’re poor.”  After decades, that’s just not OK anymore.  There are new schools trying radical new approaches and it’s working.  And…the unions oppose these. Charter, neighbourhood, small, large, magnet, specialised, who cares?  As parents, why should we care?  I understand why these schools with new procedures for teachers may not be great for the union but as parents, we should welcome them. We should fight for them.

Here’s what I’ve seen in the best-case scenario: As a white, educated, savvy, aggressive (some might use another word), “~4 percenter” in a good neighbourhood, in a few of the best public schools.

Many, many teachers who taught my sons have been truly amazing under very stressful conditions. Some were competent. There were some bad teachers.  And there were a few teachers whom everyone knew you had to do ANYTHING to avoid.  Year after year, we would huddle, console, and conspire with the parents who were stuck. It’s the worst kept secret, yet parents are powerless. Even in the best schools, we still knew we had clunkers to contend with.  This is a direct result of the stranglehold unions have over hiring and firing and tenure.  We could go to a private school, or stick it out and get tutors. What do you think the options are for the poorest families?  

The more alarming problems stem from the utter lack of urgency in fixing issues or trying new approaches among everyone in the schools. Find a systemic problem, try to change it, and you’ll most likely get a shrug of the shoulders, if not hostility. 

After complaining that I had called and emailed a teacher multiple times to discuss my son’s class performance with no reply, a school admin chastised me. “That teacher doesn’t use email. If you want a response you should print out your email and come here and put it into her mailbox.” There was a principal who used to ask the PTA to remind him of his daily appointments because he didn’t “like” to keep a calendar. School parents wait 4-5 hours in lines at teacher conferences to talk to a teacher for 2 minutes. There is literally an alarm that goes off and you get the hook.

Could this be done in a better manner so parents don’t waste 5 hours for what equates to 10 minutes max of discussion on their child? Of course there is!  But some of the solutions aren’t pleasing to the teachers union. So I leave my job early to go stand around for 5 hours with tens of thousands of other parents.  Imagine what it’s like for parents who work two jobs, or work nights.  And everyone shrugs and moves on.  Oh, I’ve got dozens more stories.

Most people in power have no clue about how the public school system functions.  Politicians don’t send their kids to public schools. Most influential journalists don’t either. As my kids are nearing the end of their schools careers, I am happy with the education they have received. But you can not imagine the work and stress and money and time, and bureaucratic arse-kicking that had to happen.  Parents should not have to go through this and some frankly aren’t capable of the machinations required. That’s why parents have to start acting more like customers and demanding changes from everyone, most especially the unions who control so much of the daily routine in the schools.  Most parents rightfully feel bad at the prospect of going against anything that teachers want.  But I’ve found the best and motivated teachers are the ones who want radical reform the most.   Parents like me and teachers like them have to speak out about the problems that some of the current practices supported by unions make for our kids.  We have way more power than the poorest parents in the city and as a Democrat, we need to start putting their needs first.

Full disclosure:   My ex-husband was an education reporter at the NYDaily News and now runs a group called Democrats for Education Reform.  If anything that should strengthen my position that I happen to agree with an ex-husband about anything.

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