In recent years, the news has been filled with stories of budget cuts, standardized testing and the downfall of the American education system. On Oct. 5, Lawrence welcomed Professor of Political Science at Boston College Dr. Michael Hartney as he gave a lecture entitled, “Down, But Not Out! The Resilience of Teachers Unions in American Politics and What It Means for Our Schools.” The discussion included a history of teachers’ unions, as well as information about how they have impacted the modern political scene. The lecture was sponsored by the government department as part of a series about public policy and activism.
Teachers’ unions have had a major impact on politics over the last 40 years, according to Hartney. One union in particular, the National Education Association (NEA), has helped candidates in races ranging from local school board to elections for President of the United States.
“Ever since [the 1976 election] we’ve thought of the Democratic Party as being sort of in the corner of the teachers’ unions,” Hartney said. “In recent years, it hasn’t exactly looked like this.” Hartney cited the protests in Chicago in Sep. 2012 where teachers faced off against Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In contrast, within the last several years popularity of union influence has gone up in all sectors of the economy, but especially in education. This is reflected in the changing of policies in several states that had anti-union policies such as “right to work” laws that allow workers to not belong to a union or pay union dues.
In addition, Hartney explained that despite many allegations to the contrary, teachers’ unions have followed the course their members want. “Despite the fact that sometimes folks on the political right like to paint union leadership as very much out of sync with membership,” he explained, “the best survey evidence on this in point of fact suggests that teachers are very happy with collective bargaining and at the margins they might have disagreements, but their happy with their unions.” Furthermore, much of the political power of teachers and other public servants comes from their ability to control how policies are implemented in the day to day workings of government.
“In terms of enhancing,” Heartney explained, “politicians have lots of reasons not to invest adequately in education, right? For one reason, the time on the payoff is low for their electoral gains, so you can imagine that if we had gotten some unionization it might have been a good thing because sometimes unions can force investments to be a little higher, but they can also force them to be higher than they should, too. I think examples where maybe they detract is if they get more political power than parents and families.”
In addition to talking about unions, Hartney also discussed the future of the United States education system as a whole. Among other concerns, he addressed the issue of technology in classrooms and an audience inquiry about difficulties using the existing education system to train students for the modern world. “We are trying to have twenty-first century schools that educate all children for college and careers,” he explained, adding that the current system needs to be overhauled, especially in terms of teacher recruitment, in order to bring our schools up to date with the modern world.
Hartney also recommended fixes to other educational issues like inequality. According to him, the ideal solution to the problem of educational inequality in the United States would be to remove geography from the equation. “As long as individual Americans want to live in their own clustered areas where you have the wealthy here and the poor there, and you create school systems that are entirely geographically based on who can buy into what neighborhood, I don’t think there’s much prospect for fixing things. I would favor a system particularly if you’re concerned about educational equity.”
Overall, Hartney’s discussion about Teachers’ Unions provided compelling insight to the strides the US needs to make towards bettering their education system.