Beckner: Professional Educators Defy Unions, Embrace Reforms

Education and labor reforms have been the subject of much of this year’s domestic headlines. Teacher protests, picket lines and fiery rhetoric between teacher unions and reformers have been playing out in Wisconsin, Ohio and beyond.

While the war of words continues to rage on, individual teacher voices are often lost as the union interests of self-preservation and forced dues trump the needs and changing views of our most noble profession.

After this year’s eventful legislative sessions, a survey released in mid-August indicates that Americans overwhelmingly support teachers but not teacher unions.

Among the survey results, a solid majority (71 percent) of respondents said they have trust and confidence in America’s teachers. However, when asked about the teacher unions, 47 percent say they believe the unions have hurt education, compared with only 26 percent believing the unions have helped education.

While the findings are nothing new to the growing number of teachers disenchanted with their unions, it appears that the public has begun to draw a clear distinction between teachers, as individual professionals, and the actions of the teacher unions.

This distinction is further sharpened by a survey released last week by the Association of American Educators, the largest national nonunion professional educator organization.

The AAE randomly polled its members from all 50 states to better understand the changing sentiments of teachers relating to education and labor reform. The findings show that more and more teachers are embracing reforms — contrary to union-held stances relating to alternative certification programs such as Teach for America, school choice, virtual education and collective bargaining.

For instance, despite desperate union-led attempts to preserve its monopoly on teacher preparation programs and teacher certification, AAE members recognize that in order to attract our nation’s best and brightest to the teaching profession, we must consider policies that allow degreed professionals an easier path to the classroom.

As an example, while union officials have nationally denounced programs such as Teach for America for “union busting,” 85 percent of AAE members support Teach for America and its mission to place recent top-tier college graduates into high-need classrooms after an intense training program.

With regard to school choice, 61 percent of those surveyed agree with an Arizona law providing tax credit scholarships to special education students in traditional public schools, allowing them to attend the public or private school of their choice. While the union-backed establishment sees school choice as detrimental to the teaching profession, AAE member teachers support varied policies that empower parents to choose the learning environment best-suited for their child.

While defenders of the status quo see virtual education options as a threat, professional teachers are embracing new technologies as the wave of the future. An overwhelming 75 percent of AAE members support a Utah law guaranteeing high school students access to any course via a state online database, allowing students to customize their learning experience.

In the wake of 48 states considering labor reform legislation in 2011, the value and cost of collective bargaining and a one-size-fits-all system has been heavily debated. Seventy-eight percent of survey respondents assert that collective bargaining has little to no effect on their ability to teach effectively, and just 28 percent believe collective bargaining equates to a better-compensated workforce.

A majority of member teachers (63 percent) would prefer to negotiate their own contracts to account for their unique circumstances, further calling into question the union’s one-size-fits-all system. A nearly unanimous 98 percent of AAE members believe that teachers should be free to choose whom they wish to associate with, further advancing AAE’s position that no educator should be required to pay union dues as a condition of employment, despite laws to the contrary in 21 states. Moreover, 84 percent of those teachers surveyed believe that teacher unions are hurting the teaching profession.

This powerful data demonstrates that teacher unions are out of touch with the opinions of many classroom teachers. It is this disconnect that has caused thousands of teachers to leave the unions for nonunion, professional associations that offer many of the benefits they need without the union baggage.

In considering new common-sense reforms as we move forward, policymakers and other stakeholders need to know that hundreds of thousands of classroom teachers are indeed agreeable to policies that put students ahead of labor union interests.

Gary Beckner is executive director of the Association of American Educators.

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