As a middle school teacher, I've grown rather used to hearing people point the finger at my profession or my industry and call for its teardown. What I've found is that the most vehement of the calls for reforms are not driven by statistics or evidence-based conclusions, but by the fact that unions still have a strong presence in the industry.
The sexy alternative touted by school reform critics these days is the charter school, schools that would be free from the shackles of the old bureacracy (and the unions), taking new risks and challenges (and public education funding). I just received a job inquiry from a charter school, actually. The pay is lower, the benefits and protections scantier, and by all objective measures, this job is a terrible one. This is by design.
The prior alternative du jour (or decade) was the school voucher. If you recall, the idea was that everybody could get a check from the government to pay for their children to attend the private school of their choice. For some reason, that idea never quite got traction, but its intended consequences were similar: the defunding of public schools and the subsequent withering of the teacher unions attached to them.
To the credit of this article's author, David Banks, his educational consortium, Eagle Academy, apparently is union-friendly. A NY Times feature earlier this year quoted him saying, "A lot of the Wall Street, hedge fund guys are not pro-union guys...It’s not the world they come from. They see charters as places of innovation, and that’s the narrative the business community wants to support. I’ve had people say to me, straight up, ‘We’re not just funding a school, we’re funding a philosophy, and that philosophy is anti-union.’ ”
Nevertheless, he's also contributing to the continuing narrative that "Our schools are fundamentally broken. Let's replace them with something new and magically better!" The hand-wave going on with this is the magician's misdirection that de-emphasizes the further chipping away at worker protections in favor of the well-monied, the individuals and the corporations that would stand to increase their profit margins at the expense of thousands of tiny cuts directed at those less powerful than them.
This may veer into an argument about the benefits and costs of unions, and the inevitable story about that corrupt wielding of power there that ended up costing taxpayers here. And I'm certainly not going to advocate corruption or injustice of any kind. I teach children. My job is to empower the uneducated and the powerless.
So if we're going to decry corruption and unfairness, good. Let's do this by talking about how wages for Americans have stayed stagnant since the early 1970s. Let's talk about how the accumulation of wealth for the rich during that same period has rolled up into a giant Katamari-style ball that dwarfs the avarice of imaginary misers like Scrooge McDuck or Smaug. Let's talk about the increasing legal powers and protections being granted to corporations through recent Supreme Court rulings at the expense of millions of individual women and disenfranchised minorities.
What happens when the advocates of school reform get their way, a world without unions? You get Walmart jobs that pay such low wages that its employees have to rely on food stamps and health care funded at great taxpayer expense. You get a workforce that has a fundamental negotiating imbalance with corporations to the point that its denizens become far less worried about doing a good job and far more worried about how many jobs they can juggle in order to pay rent.
What do you NOT get? A better education system.