Former Teachers’ Union Leader Says Engaging Unions Could Accelerate Educational Choice

Social movements such as women’s suffrage, Black civil rights, and parental choice in education involve the redistribution of social, political, and economic power. Because few groups in control of that power at the time are enlightened enough to share it voluntarily, these power struggles are usually contentious—but they don’t have to be. 

Although school choice opponents have used name-calling, character assassination, and misinformation as key strategies in maintaining their power, thankfully they have refrained from the physical violence that often accompanies disruptive social change. The bad news is their strategies still undermine our civic discourse and make it more difficult to provide every child with an equal opportunity to succeed. Our children and our democracy deserve better.

Despite the opposition’s tact, school choice supporters should try engaging opponents, particularly teachers’ union leaders and members. I know that is easier said than done, but, in the long run, the willingness to search for common ground could accelerate the transition to greater school choice. I say this as someone who’s had a front-row seat on both sides of this debate.

I became a teachers’ union organizer in 1978, and, for the next 16 years, held a variety of local, state, and national leadership positions in both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA). Today, I am president of a nonprofit organization that helps administer our nation’s largest private school choice program.

I’m convinced a post-industrial teacher unionism can and should play a vital role, but that will require union leaders having the vision and courage to have some difficult conversations with each other and their members.

Although neither side is without sin, I have been most disappointed by the discourse coming from the teachers’ unions and their anti-choice allies. When I talk with local, state, and national union leaders, I am stunned at how uninformed they are and how many falsehoods they have embraced as truths.

I recently had dinner with one of our country’s top teachers’ union leaders who told me there has never been research showing students benefit from school choice programs. And last month, I was on a panel with a top Miami-Dade union leader who erroneously said Florida’s tax credit students are not tested.

This level of ignorance is a reflection of how insular, polarized, and tribal our politics have become. People are increasingly retreating into self-contained echo chambers where they hear only the messages that reflect the positions of their political tribe. Without access to contrary views from sources they know and trust, people have no basis upon which to question the one-sided communications they are receiving. And few organizations are as insular and tribal as teachers’ unions.

Such insularity causes many union leaders to develop a mindset that says their positions are good and all contrary positions, and those who hold them, are evil—hence all the rhetoric coming from teachers’ union leaders.

There are also financial incentives at play. Teachers’ unions sell advocacy services to school district employees. Therefore, it’s in the unions’ economic interest to maximize the teachers who work in district-owned schools and minimize the teachers working in non-district schools. Opposing all non-district-controlled choice programs, such as charters, vouchers, and tax-credit scholarships, serves the unions’ business needs.

The primary service unions sell to teachers is protection, which is why hyping the threats from school choice is good for the unions’ bottom line: The more threatened teachers feel the greater likelihood they’ll be willing to pay the unions for protection.

Those systemic incentives to demagogue school choice programs will be difficult to overcome, but step one has to be increasing the dialogue between teachers’ union leaders and school choice advocates. Without dialogue there can be no trust. Without trust there can be no empathy, and without empathy there can be no understanding and the finding of common ground.

In discussing the challenge of bringing warring factions together in the Middle East and in Congress, President Obama recently used the phrase “no victors, no vanquished.” The idea is that compromise is essential to resolving most disputes, and good compromises involve win-win solutions. A solution in which one sides loses and the other wins is usually not a sustainable compromise.

Having sat on both sides of the table, I know there is much common ground between the proponents and opponents of full school choice. But that common ground can be found only if trusted and honest facilitators convene both sides and help them first understand each other, and then talk through their differences in ways that allow both sides to achieve their objectives.

This willingness to participate in open, honest dialogue will be much harder for teachers’ union leaders than for school choice leaders. Union leaders have so misled themselves and their members about the motivations of parents and school choice advocates that walking back from much of their rhetoric will be politically difficult. Nonetheless, if they want to survive, they’ll need to find their way to the school choice negotiating table.

The technical, political, economic, and psychological forces driving the school choice movement are only going to accelerate moving forward. This transformation in public education is inevitable. What’s unclear is what role teachers’ unions will play in the future. I’m convinced a post-industrial teacher unionism can and should play a vital role, but that will require union leaders having the vision and courage to have some difficult conversations with each other and their members.

School choice advocates can help by continually inviting teachers’ unions and their members to sit down and talk, and by reassuring them that in this search for common ground the victors will be children and the vanquished will be poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, and despair.