First year teachers have a lot of decisions to make. They need to decide how to set up their classrooms, what rules to make, how strict to be. This year about 4,000 of these first year teachers are being trained at institutes across the country by Teach For America. And in those trainings they will, in theory at least, provide information to help the first year teachers make an informed decision about many of these choices.
This year, there is a new decision that many of those TFA recruits will have to face: Whether or not to opt-in to the union. Since the Supreme Court Janus decision was handed down a few weeks ago, not only are teachers not required to pay union dues but they must actively opt-in or they will, by default, not be contributing to the union.
Teach For America has been in conflict with teachers unions on a lot of fronts. Since many TFA teachers are at non-unionized charter schools, TFA, the organization, is seen by some as ‘union busters’ so TFA is not, in general, liked by the union. But when you separate TFA, the organization, from TFA, the actual teachers, many TFA teachers are union members and even some union leaders who value what the union does for the teaching profession and, indirectly, for the students of the teachers it represents. So the union is somewhat anti-TFA. In the other direction, TFA is, on average, anti-union. Over the years TFA has propped up various anti-union alumni like Michelle Rhee, Marc Sternberg (of the Walton Foundation), Cami Anderson (former superintendent of Newark schools), and Peter Cook (describes himself as “A former teacher union member who is deeply disappointed in the teachers unions behavior”) as well as anti-union friends of Teach For America like Joel Klein (former chancellor of New York City), Chris Stewart (describes himself as “Black parent, activist, and system critic”), and even former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.
Wendy Kopp, founder of TFA, in her book ‘A Chance To Make History’ (2011), has a chapter entitled ‘Silver Bullets and Silver Scapegoats’ with a subsection with the very slippery title ‘Teachers’ Unions Aren’t the Primary Problem, Either’ Wendy lays out all the anti-union arguments, but does try to balance them with pro-union arguments. The section still emphasizes the problems with the union and oversimplifies the arguments.
Here is an excerpt from page 138:
Some unions resist collecting and tracking student achievement results in a way that could reveal which teachers are consistently leading students to academic progress and which teachers are not. In some cases unions have resisted the idea that teacher performance should play a role in layoff decisions, forcing children and families to lose some of their most effective teachers (who happen to have the least seniority). Of course, the union’s perspective is that these policies have their roots in historical experience that showed school district administrations weren’t capable of operating in humane and thoughtful ways — a perspective that is grounded in some truth– though it is difficult to see how these positions have the best interest of kids and educational quality in mind.
Wendy celebrates that the union in DC agreed to Michelle Rhee’s IMPACT evaluation and that one of the Colorado unions supported Michael Johnston’s SB-191 bill that made standardized test ‘growth’ numbers 50% of teacher evaluation. This was back in 2010 when these seemed, to reformers, like something that might work. Eight years later IMPACT has reduced that percent to 35% and a key creator of it, TFA alum Jason Kamras has left D.C. to become superintendent of Richmond where he said he will not try to implement IMPACT there. In Colorado, student achievement has not moved at all due to SB-191 and that policy is considered a huge failure which was one of the things that sunk Michael Johnston’s gubernatorial bid.
Still, Wendy’s book does at least try to give the pros and cons of the union. So it would not be unreasonable to expect that while TFA trains 4,000 new teachers this summer, they would spend at least a bit of time discussing the issue and maybe offering advice to the new teachers on what they might think about as they decide whether or not to opt-in to the union.
So I contacted TFA to ask them how they are handling this issue and they told me that they have decided to not bring it up at all. They explained that TFA does not have just one opinion they are a group with diverse views so they are going to stay out of this one. Basically, the ‘fine people on both sides’ excuse.
I suggested that maybe they would be willing to publish a ‘point/counterpoint’ on their blog where I could argue one side and get one of the anti-union people to argue the other, but they said that wasn’t something they were interested in doing. So I reached out to an anti-union TFA alum and asked if he was willing to write an argument for why new TFA teachers should not opt-in and he declined.
When the Janus decision came out, there were several types of responses to it. On the reform critic side, there was universal outrage. But on the reform side, I saw three different responses:
First, there were reformers who openly celebrated the decision. This even includes a teacher who is overjoyed about this. There aren’t weren’t very many of these.
Then there were reformers who actually acted conflicted by the decision. This included one of the most anti-union reformers of them all, Peter Cunningham. This post actually started with “I embraced education reform to strengthen schools, not to weaken unions, so I am not especially happy about the Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME.” In the hugely anti-union The74 website, Chris Cerf wrote another such conflicted piece. And the anti-union Educators For Excellence also did this.
Finally, the largest group of all, the anti-union reformers who chose to be silent on the issue. This includes Michelle Rhee, who didn’t even tweet a peep about this. We also didn’t hear much from the TFA alumni and friends from 50CAN who constantly troll me on Twitter.
It would be odd for TFA to publish something jubilant about Janus, so I’m not surprised about that. But I would think they would offer something like the conflicted reformers. Instead, though, they chose to go the cowardly Michelle Rhee route — they could not even bring themselves to show a little remorse about the decision they helped create by propping up their anti-union allies at every opportunity and silencing their pro-union alums.
So, if there are any TFA trainees out there reading this, or if you know any of them, here’s what I would tell them about whether or not to opt-in to the union:
In the long run, the weaker the union is, the less attractive teaching will be for potential new teachers. This will ultimately hurt students since there will not be as many qualified teachers.
Even though you are not thinking beyond two years right now, maybe you will, like me, decide to become a career teacher. The union is vital for things like pension benefits and retirement.
It’s the right thing to do since you ‘owe’ them already. Yes, you can save $1000 a year by not joining the union, but before you do that remember that if it were not for union activity in the past, your salary would likely be much more than $1000 less. In that sense, you ‘owe’ that money to the union for services they did way before.
The Janus case was brought up by rich conservative backers and decided by a conservative majority Supreme Court. The union member whose name is on the case, Mark Janus, quit his union job soon after this decision to work for the think-tank that funded the case. This case was about weakening the working class while benefitting the rich. By falling for the ‘it’s for the kids’ lie, you are getting tricked into supporting something that does not accomplish this at all.
The majority of the other teachers at your school will be opting-in to the union. If you don’t do it, you are not acting as part of the team. This could alienate you and other teachers may not go out of their way to help you when you have questions. In that way, not joining the union will indirectly hurt your students since you will not have as much access to help from experienced teachers.
A popular argument against unions is that they offer legal protection to teachers accused of various things. As a new teacher without tenure you are actually very vulnerable to not just false accusations but also to accusations that you crossed the line, for example, when you yelled at a student or something like that. You might face a dilemma like a student who has no way to get home after school. A lot of new teachers would think that it is a good idea to drive that student home (I’d advise against it, but I could see this as a dilemma that a new teacher might face). What if on the way home you get into a small accident? I’m not sure how every union is going to deal with those who don’t opt-in, but having the opportunity for legal representation is good insurance in case you do get accused of something.
Donald Trump is happy about the Janus case, and anything that makes Trump happy must be something that is bad for the country.
If commenters want to add to this list, please feel free to do so.