The Last Word on Unions and Reform


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In the great Flypaper debate over whether unions are an obstacle to reform, Robert Costrell has what can only be considered the last word on the subject. Little Ramona started the argument by asserting that Massachusetts has strong unions and yet it accomplished some reforms, therefore unions are not an obstacle to reform, QED. (I paraphrase, but not by much.)

Costrell offers a very striking post on his real-world experience in Massachusetts. Excerpt:

It is indisputable that the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was the largest obstacle to implementing key elements of the reforms, most notably the MCAS exit exams, which were the main driver of Massachusetts’ success. Diane seems to minimize “the current effort to show that teachers’ unions were no help to education reform in Massachusetts,” as if this were some sort of recent revisionist history. But the “current” effort simply reiterates the well-documented history that was established at the time.  The fight against MCAS featured lawsuits, boycotts, demonstrations, and, most famously, the MTA’s $600,000 fear-mongering ad campaign (the ads showed a ticking clock with nervous students, despite the fact that the exams were untimed).

Here’s the game changer:

My own contribution to this history was solicited by Diane for her last annual Brookings conference….At the time, Diane thought my piece was “great.” So I was surprised to read that the lesson Diane now draws from Massachusetts is that “unions do not block academic improvement.” Well, it was certainly not for lack of trying.

Back in the early 1990s, we videogamers used to call that a “finishing move.”

In other news, sock puppet and Sith apprentice Leo Casey continues to offer his insights. Question for Leo: How deep do you intend to let the hole get before you stop digging?

15 Responses to The Last Word on Unions and Reform

  1. Patrick says:

    It seems Leo missed Jay’s point – the method used to reach a conclusion is the difference between good science and bad…not what conclusion was reached.

    Looks like Leo is cherrypicking his logic.

  2. Patrick says:

    I just read Leo and Sol’s comments and I have to say this debate reminds me of a series of comments and articles in a local newspaper this weekend.

    We just got a 20% tax hike here in Nevada (including a doubling of the state payroll tax) and several pundits noted other states have higher taxes while having larger economies and lower unemployment rates than in Nevada. Some concluded that raising taxes doesn’t hurt the economy and employment rates while others concluded that we could improve the economy and reduce unemployment if we raised taxes.

    In this particular instance Nevada may have higher unemployment than all other states with higher taxes but does increasing taxes lower unemployment, does increasing taxes have no effect on the economy? Not necessarily, we don’t have enough information to prove the point.

    Citing Massachusetts as an example of a great education system as proof that unions don’t stand in the way of meaningful reform can be as equally ludicrous as claiming that high taxes can improve economic performance and reduce unemployment. Especially if your case study has just one case.

    It may very well may be that education has improved in spite of the unions efforts just as other states have lower unemployment rates despite higher taxes.

    That said, I can’t figure out why Sol Stern would criticize you for saying “prove it.”

  3. The problem, of course, is the generalizations. “Unions” don’t impede or enhance public education. “Unions” is merely the presence of democratically-founded collective bargaining to ensure quality work environments. Are some unions an obstacle to any change? Of course. Are some calls for change simply political and out-of-touch from the actual classroom experience? Of course, again.

    Massachusetts has successful public education (as do two -thirds of districts and communities in the country), and they have unions. There is union, tenured staff at both the best and worst schools. There are also very strong teachers unions in many European school systems, which are often so envied by public education critics.

    Thus, this generalized discussion is quite arbitrary, and there is no “last word” for anyone who wants to have intelligent discussion and continue progress toward success and efficiency in the system. There is no need to discuss the “unions” impediment to success in successful systems. So, instead, Costrell would be far more useful in picking out “a specific union” of which he has evidence of “specific obstacles” to success, and then had can make “specific recommendations,” and participate in intelligent, unbiased research and argument.

  4. allen says:

    Not so occasionally I find myself feeling dangerously smart after reading one of the exchanges that are all too common in the debate surrounding public education. One of the most intellect-enhancing sub-debates is the argument surrounding the role of unions and how much or whether they impede the improvement of public education.

    Unions are simple creatures of circumstance and no amount of argument is going to change their basic nature and a lot of argument can be wasted getting a union to accept changes that don’t conflict with its reason for existence. In the Bible the lion lies down with the lamb but absent divine intervention in either the public education system or the behavior of fierce carnivores, that’s not the way the smart money bets. Unions have motivations that are as simple and comprehensible as the lion’s and a failure to appreciate those motivations is what results in something, or someone, being turned into lunch.

    To expect a union to act in any manner which is clearly in opposition to the interests of its membership is just dumb. Those unions tend to find themselves with new leadership who won’t make that sort of mistake succeeding to leadership on that promise.

    But expecting a union that act in a manner which doesn’t further the interests of the organization, as distinct from the membership, is also, in general, pretty dumb. If a union can increase its membership there has to be some good reason for the union not to do so.

    Which brings us back to the MTA and its response to the MCAS.

    Since the outrageous failure rate of proto-teachers creates a hostile credibility environment the MTA is strongly motivated to A) demand ed schools do a better job educating new teachers or B) attack the test for every reason but the one that matters, Massachesetts is hiring a bunch of ignorant teachers.

    Now I’m not a member of MTA so I opt for “A” but from the point of view of the officials who run MTA “B” is really a much better option.

    That’s the crucial consideration: looking at the situation from the point of view of the MTA’s officialdom. The MTA isn’t responsible to the public for the education Massachusetts’ kids get, that’s the administration’s look-out. The MTA isn’t responsible to the parents for the quality of education their kids get. That’s the parents worry. The MTA is only concerned with the opinions of Massachusetts teachers and not only is that as it should be, it can’t be any other way.

    So you guys go back and forth about whether and to what extent the MTA is responsible for the impeding of educational progress in Massachusetts. They won’t care all that much. They’ll fight back; that’s just the smart thing to do. But they won’t exert much political muscle as long as they have the means of ensuring Massachusetts’ teachers are secure in their well-paying, well-benefitted jobs. Then the union leadership is secure in their even better-paying, better-benefitted jobs.

  5. Allen,

    Excellent points. I couldn’t agree more, nor could I imagine a way to say it better.

  6. Patrick says:

    I agree and I disagree.

    Milton Friedman pointed out in his debates with others on education that if the teacher unions didn’t oppose education reform ideas they wouldn’t be doing a good service for their members. But that doesn’t mean he can’t say that the union is acting against policies which would benefit students.

    I think it is legitimate for this debate to exist since the policy discussions are often centered around such reason and logic (if any at all) or just plane anecdotal evidence. To win the reform, people have to start realizing that the unions self interest (which is why they exist) runs counter to providing a high quality education (at least at this time).

    This has nothing to do with convincing the union what it is doing is wrong…its about convincing all the people in the middle.

    • allen says:

      With all due respect to Dr. Freidman and assuming your paraphrase is accurate, he’s wrong.

      What the union does is act to benefit its membership. The effect of those actions on the quality of the public education system is, quite properly, irrelevant to the union to the extent political considerations allow. That means that a union can act to improve the quality of the public education system but that any such action cannot occur if it conflicts with the purpose for which the union exists – getting the best possible deal for its membership.

      Obviously there’s some wiggle-room there. Al Shanker, by virtue of getting a good deal for his membership and the realities of union politics, could hold opinions which weren’t all that well received among much of organized labor, opinions which placed a greater importance on education quality then those held by many of his peers. You’ll find locals that are willing to explore merit pay. Some locals are more amenable to easing lousy teachers out of their jobs then others.

      So what?

      The Mississippi river flows downstream but there are eddies that run counter to the main current. Does anyone think that those eddies presage a reversal of the flow of the Mississippi? The river flows in the direction it does for a reason and unions act in the way they do for a reason. While politics dictates attempting to find some compromise one should never forget for a second in which direction the current flows and why. The direction of the current for unions makes them inherently suspicious of any changes to the public education system that don’t clearly and unequivocally benefit union membership. Politics may dictate striking a pose that suggests otherwise but union actions inevitably put the lie to those poses.

      Jay, of course changes to the law effect union power and within the context of the current public education system pursuit of political remedies to the excessive privileges unions managed to acquire during periods of greater strength are worthwhile. Longer term though this is just another arms race in which one party gains temporary advantage but neither party has a clear path to a permanent victory. For each step forward in Utah there’ll be a step back in Massachusetts, etc.

      What all the above means is that getting the unions to embrace policies that’ll result in an excellent education for all kids is really pretty easy. All you have to do is come up with a policy that, along with ensuring an excellent education for all American kids, trebles the number of unionized teachers and doubles their compensation. Or maybe doubles the number of unionized teachers and trebles their compensation. Some of the details, like the part about an excellent education for all American kids, is yet to be worked out.

      If all you’re interested in is education though then you’ve got to do a lot more then oppose union efforts to make the public education system a conduit between the public purse and teacher/union bank accounts. You’ve got to have a politically-credible goal and that brings us back to Dr. Freidman and his wonderful idea, the charter school.

      • Patrick says:

        Dr. Friedman is not wrong on this issue, perhaps I was not clear.

        1) Union exists to protect its members.
        2) If it did not do this it would not be fulfilling its purpose.
        3) If Education Reform X helps students but hurts the union, the union members would be poorly served if the union did not oppose the reform.

        Here is where we begin to disagree:

        4) The union can still be criticized for stopping a reform that hurts the children. The reason, we are debating to win the opinions of those in the middle (parents and taxpayers, those not in the union but who are nevertheless affected by their actions).
        5) Often the union opposes the reforms not just because it hurts them but because they’ve rationalized it hurts the children too. How many union campaigns have you seen opposing reforms where they ONLY said “This is bad for our teachers”? I have yet to hear a debate or campaign that didn’t have “it’s for the children” written or said somewhere in their argument.

        All that said it is not irrelevant to criticize them for doing something they would not rationally do. If you still believe it is irrelevant to criticize the union on these grounds please join me in a campaign to get the union to stop using the children in their debates and force them to be honest that their opposition to reform is to benefit only themselves.

        As for things unions will support, this too is difficult to ascertain. Nevada state law requires heavy oversight of charter schools. Charter schools are required to accept the bargain agreements between the local school district and the union and are required to pay teachers according to that set pay scale, pension, and tenure requirements. Charter schools are also required to have state certified teachers on their board. You would think with all these restrictions the unions would support charters. Nevertheless the union vehemently opposed charter schools to the point where every district outright banned new charter schools between 2007 and 08. The ban was lifted in Clark County in late 2008, I believe.

      • allen says:

        1) yes
        2) yes
        3) yes
        4) yes
        5) yes

        Our area of disagreement isn’t really an area of disagreement but a difference in emphasis.

        Opposing unions on considerations of job security, merit pay and all the myriad issues that make up the education debate might be properly described as tactical engagements. You win some, you lose some and hope overall you win more then you lose because absent a overarching view of the situation, the strategic view, that’s the best you can hope for.

        I wouldn’t advise someone to *not* initiate such a tactical engagement even if someone asked my opinion. Just because a particular confluence of forces results in worthwhile improvements in one area doesn’t mean one shouldn’t duke it out in an area where those considerations don’t apply. You fight because you see the need and have the desire. And God bless you for your determination and compassion.

        But if the war’s to be won, change the public education system into an inherently more responsive and responsible institution, you’re not going to do it one tactical engagement at a time. To effect change in the institution it’ll be necessary to change the underlying assumptions upon which the institution of public education is built. The unions are creatures of those assumptions not the other way around although the distinction’s immaterial to a union supporter. But if the assumptions underlying public education change then the unions will also have to change or they may simply cease to exist.

  7. And I would add to Patrick’s excellent point that public policy can affect union strength. So if we were to conclude that unions were generally an impediment to reform’s helpful to students, we could advocate for legal changes that would limit union power to undermine reform.

    For example, we could more strictly prohibit the automatic deduction of money from union members’ paychecks that is then used for political purposes. Utah did something like this. We could also change the legal context for collective bargaining. Right to work states have done this.

    If we conclude that teacher unions are generally harmful to the public’s interests in education, we don’t simply have to accept the status quo power that unions have. We can make policy changes that reduce union power.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Michael, I feel it’s necessary to point out that I was the one who described Costrell’s contribution as the “last word,” so direct your criticism of that characterization to me, not him.

    Costrell was only contributing because Little Ramona was saying factually inaccurate things about the reform battle in Massachusetts in the 1990s, and implying that those who disagreed with her were trying to rewrite history. Since Costrell lived that history, his eyewitness testimony was well worth contributing. I don’t think Costrell says anything about “unions” in general – he just wanted to correct the record about what happened in Massachusetts (and what Little Ramona had said to him about it in the past, as contrasted with what she’s saying about it now).

    Similarly, when I called Costrell’s contribution the “last word” I really only meant the last word in the Great Flypaper Debate over whether you can rebut the claim that unions are an impediment to reform by pointing to the example of Massachusetts. That debate was premised on the assumption that unions were not (or were not a very important) obstacle to reform in Massachusetts. If an unimpeachable witness whose word is trusted by all participants stands up and says that the factual premise on which the debate is based is 100% wrong, well then, that’s kind of the last word in that debate, isn’t it? I guess I didn’t fully articulate that in the opening line of my post.

    So in addition to the many excellent reasons adduced above for having this kind of debate, let me add three more.

    1) Factual accuracy. When Little Ramona says things about historical events that aren’t true, correcting the record seems to me to be a valid activity for the sake of truth alone.

    2) The epideictic function. Little Ramona’s false statements, if accepted, would interfere with the correct allocation of praise and blame. For example, Costrell did amazing work and suffered greatly in fighting the unions in Massachusetts. I think honoring his hard work and sacrifice is reason enough in itself to speak up when Little Ramona implicitly denies the value of his sacrifice – even aside from the issue of guiding our future deliberations, which others have already discussed above.

    3) Credibility. It will help us in our future discussions if we stop now to establish who can be relied upon to stick to the facts and who has a tendency to make things up, move the goalposts, engage in circular reasoning, hit straw men, etc.

  9. Patrick says:

    Also, is Mass really that much of a miracle? I know their gains on NAEP have been really good, but I believe Florida’s gains have been just as strong. Mass is 72% white while Florida is 48% white. Mass has 28% of its students FRL eligible while it is about 45% in Florida. Floridians have a per capita income level that is $10,000 less than someone in Mass. Florida also has a larger student to teacher ratio – 16 to 1 compared to 13 to 1. Even when adjusting for cost of living differences Mass still spends about $2k-3k more per pupil than Florida.

    If you ask me, having more minorities, less wealth, bigger class sizes, and several thousand less in expenditures per student with about the same achievement gains over the last decade and makes Florida a giant in comparison to Mass. As far as I know, Florida’s unions opposed every reform made in the last decade and still works to repeal them.

    Am I missing anything?

  10. I doubt, and challenge the notion, Jay, that we could “conclude that teacher unions are generally harmful to the public’s interests in education.” From whose non-biased, impartial point of view would that “conclusion” be drawn? Voucher advocates? Any political motivation there?

    The facts are that unions aren’t an impediment to serving the majority of communities in this nation. Thus, taking away my right to collective bargaining in a district that is very happy with its union, tenured staff and the results they produce has no connection to the political activity of a union in a district that is lower-performing and inhibited in its reform efforts.

    It seems surprising, and rather undemocratic, that you propose considering taking away an effective teacher’s rights to collectively bargain and secure due process simply because some other schools have weak administrators and school boards. Shouldn’t these issues be decided on a local, not state or federal basis?

    A school in DPS made news today for its progress in reform because of true leadership in administration, which is the key to any reform – not stronger or weaker or no collective bargaining and due process.

    As I’ve noted before, true change comes with good administration, and the union blame game is simply excusing poor school administrators from their primary responsibilities, and it weakens legitimate workplace rights for many people who have shown no cause to have their rights challenged. The country should not limit any protester’s right to peacefully assemble, just because one somewhere else through a rock through a window.

    Pick a troubled school and a union that is clearly waging war against proven effective reform efforts, and then seek to change that specific environment. That would be preferable to gross generalizations about unions and “reform.”

  11. […] found the debate hosted at Flypaper — with contributions added by Andy Rotherham and Greg Forster, including comment sections — to be mostly intelligent and enlightening. (In case you were […]

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