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Rotten Apples
Sara Russo • How teachers’ unions impoverish kids
December 1999

The last few decades of primary and secondary school education in America contain several disturbing trends. Between 1963 and 1996, average SAT scores fell nearly 75 points. Furthermore, between 1972 and 1994, the absolute number of students scoring above 750 on the verbal section of the SAT declined by nearly 50%, indicating that lower average scores are not merely a result of more students taking the test. These numbers coincide with the rising power and swelling membership of teachers’ unions, which, contrary to their pious proclamations, have played an integral role in our failing education system.
If one examines the logic behind unionization in general, it quickly becomes apparent why teachers’ unions have failed to improve education for students. 

When workers in any field unionize, their aim is to secure benefits for themselves. When coal miners go on strike, no one believes that their first priority is to increase the quantity of coal they will be able to extract from the ground. It is clear to everyone that the consumer, the producer and the laborer have different interests. Teachers’ unions are no different; they are primarily self-interested. Shorter hours for teachers means fewer hours spent in the classroom; higher wages means fewer teachers can be hired. When the teachers’ unions claim that they are children’s advocates in the classroom, they are essentially arguing, falsely, that the needs of children and the aims of teachers do not diverge. Far from being the focus of union activity, the quality of the product, in this case education, often stands in the way of union goals.

Consider the current dispute over school vouchers. Recently-released data from the nation’s first publicly funded school voucher program in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, show that participants in their third and fourth years of the program scored three to five percentage points higher in reading and five to 12 percentage points higher in math than did their counterparts who remained in public schools. While these numbers might not sound impressive, the professors conducting the study estimate that if such success were attained by minority students at the national level, it could narrow the gap separating white and minority test scores by one-third to over one-half.

Despite the seeming success of vouchers, the National Education Federation and the American Federation of Teachers both continue to oppose them. But the opinion of the teachers’ unions bears little relationship with that of the parents whose children are forced to attend public schools. A 1992 poll of black Milwaukee residents showed that 83% supported a voucher program that would enable parents to select their child’s school. In the case of school vouchers, where the interests of parents and teachers’ unions clearly diverge, it is difficult to claim that the unions are fighting for the children.

The current difficulty schools have in firing wayward or inadequate teachers is just one more consequence of union activity. A 1992 investigation by the Detroit Free Press estimated that it takes a school district an average of seven years and $100,000 to fire a single public school teacher. Imagine a Detroit parent who makes a complaint when her child is in kindergarten. She will be lucky to see any change by the time her child enrolls for the sixth grade. In New York, where the average cost of firing a teacher is estimated at $200,000, one special education teacher continued to receive his salary while in prison for selling cocaine. Furthermore, tenure measures forced through by unions often insure that teachers will be dismissed on a “last hired, first fired” basis, so that a teacher’s performance in the classroom has little if any impact on their retention.
Teachers’ unions harm our society as a whole, but they have a disproportionate impact on the poor, who are literally forced by the government to attend public schools. Poor students and their parents have few if any choices about the education they receive. They cannot determine their curriculum, they have no ability to seek remedy when their teachers are incompetent, and because of the unions’ continuing opposition to vouchers, they are unable to recover their tax dollars and look elsewhere for an education. Teachers’ unions’ efforts to standardize, centralize and control are a direct affront to the autonomy of poor parents.

The teachers’ unions have used governmental power to gain a monopoly on educating the poor in America. Though they have fought for increased spending on education for the last several decades, the quality of education in this nation has not improved, but rather declined. Education is often cited as the key to class mobility. If the teachers’ inions retain their current stranglehold on mandatory public education in America, the poor will be held back indefinitely.

—Sara Russo is a senior in Trumbull College 


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