Our Undemocratic Teachers’ Unions

Note: This commentary was first published at National Review Online.

Is American democracy under assault? That’s a question often asked when businesses exert political influence, unelected bureaucrats misuse power, or reporters engage in slanted storytelling. It’s time to add public-school unions to the list: These undemocratic interest groups dominate America’s urban education system to the detriment of students across the nation.

In many of the nation’s largest school systems, academic success is secondary to the interests of teachers’ unions, whose political clout exceeds that of the nation’s largest corporations.

Take Philadelphia, where academic failure, student violence, and financial mismanagement are the norm. While politicians have come and gone, one actor has fought tooth and nail to maintain the status quo: the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

This teachers’ union claims to champion democratic values, but it hasn’t scheduled a single vote by its teachers in 50 years. Of the nearly 8,500 educators in the Philadelphia public schools, there is only one — a librarian — who was working for the school system by 1965, when the PFT last held a certification election.

Fifty years without an election! In 1965, the Surgeon General had only recently announced the harmful effects of cigarettes. About two-thirds of the Americans alive today had not yet been born. Is it any surprise that the PFT has squelched innovation and protected its own power at the city’s expense — and at the expense of its students?

It’s the same story in New York City’s public schools, where the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is renowned for blocking classroom reform. This union’s most recent certification election was in 1961 — the year the Berlin Wall was erected.

The consequences of union monopolies have been devastating for families without the means to afford private alternatives or the good fortune to literally win the lottery for a seat in a public charter school.

In Philadelphia, academic performance lags well behind the average for large cities. In 2013, four of five students were not proficient in reading or math, and district schools reported nearly 2,500 violent incidents. The situation is so dire that one-third of Philadelphia’s students have fled to public charter schools, while tens of thousands more children sit on waiting lists.

Yet PFT President Jerry Jordan, hoping to cling to his fiefdom, urged a moratorium on new charters — blaming them for the district’s financial woes, despite the fact that charters receive less money per student than district schools. According to Jordan, “The argument for more school choice has no merit.”

Philadelphia schools are also plagued by rigid seniority rules, leaving many of the city’s most effective teachers unfairly at risk of layoffs. But PFT leaders took legal action to protect “last in, first out” mandates and oppose merit pay for the highest-performing teachers.

Again, it’s the same story in New York City, where — although the school system spends more than $20,000 per pupiltest scores are unacceptable and violence is inescapable. The UFT lobbies against reasonable tenure reform and fights to block charter expansion, despite the 70,000 students currently languishing on charter-school waiting lists.

A New York State teachers’ union president even accused Governor Cuomo of “declaring war on public schools” when the governor backed enhanced teacher evaluation and scholarship tax-credit programs.

To the extent there is a “war” on public schools, the unions are surely winning –thanks to their monumental political spending. In 2014 alone, the UFT spent $4.7 million on lobbying and political campaigns, while Pennsylvania’s teachers’ unions spent more than $3 million in PAC funds, primarily to prop up candidates who would stymie reform in the classroom.

Perhaps if teachers in these states were given a choice whether to join a union, or given the right to vote on certifying their union at least once in their careers — democratic rights taken for granted in nearly every other sector — union executives would be more responsive to the best interests of teachers and their students.

Until that day comes, public schools across America will remain political pawns instead of engines for growth and opportunity.

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James Paul is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank.