My first boss in journalism was Charlie Peters of the Washington Monthly, whose way of mentoring his young staff writers was to assign us articles that took us well out of our comfort zones. Given that my parents were both public school teachers, it was inevitable that when the teachers’ union in Washington, D.C., called for a strike in the fall of 1978, Peters told me to write about it.
Working on that article turned me into a critic of teachers’ unions, as Peters knew it would. Sadly, nothing that has happened in the ensuing 42 years — including, most recently, the unions’ insistence that schools be shut down during the pandemic — has caused me to change my mind.
In the 1970s, when I first started writing about teachers’ unions, the main issues they fought with school districts about were work rules. After a series of strikes in the early 1960s, teachers won the right to collective bargaining, which allowed them to negotiate for higher pay; for limits on the number of hours they worked; for due process rights for teachers; and more. They also gained a great deal of political power by aligning themselves with the Democratic Party.
Without question, teachers deserved to make more money — they still do — but the work rules turned out to be terribly damaging to public education. Those “due process rights” made it impossible to fire bad teachers. Seniority rules put length of service over merit and talent — and often drove good young teachers out of the profession. Limiting the number of hours a teacher had to be in the building meant that students who needed extra help never got it.