Teachers' union playing NIMBY role
The fight over Michelle Rhee's merit pay proposal has much in common with recent fights over parking reform or development on Wisconsin Avenue. We have a creative, 21st century vision for making things better, and most newer stakeholders support it. On the other hand, many people feel the old system is working well for them and resist any change. Institutions which claim to represent everyone are promoting the anti-change viewpoint to the frustration of their newer members.
Playing the analogous role to the Federation of Citizens' Associations and the Committee of 100 in education is the Washington Teachers' Union. Ryan Avent writes that many of his teacher friends ("young, talented, very good at what they do, and sick of dealing with the union") feel their union leaders aren't representing their interests.
Defenders of the status quo even take the same derogatory tone toward newer members in both areas. Marc Fisher interviews David Brocks, a 34-year DCPS veteran who keeps sneering that Rhee "just got to town" as if that makes her unqualified to fix a broken system.
The difference, of course, is that everyone agrees the school system is seriously broken. But teachers' unions have shown a disappointing resistance to changes even when they are in the clear public interest, like the NYC teachers' union defending illegal parking permits for some teachers even though most teachers don't drive to work and can't benefit.
I generally only write about unions to criticize their excesses, but I believe there is an important role for such organizations. In many fields, employers (being few) have great power over the labor market, while employees (being many) have none, and it leads to widespread abuse. But fighting tooth and nail against any intrusion of job performance into pay or promotions, for special parking privileges that harm communities, and against almost any change only reinforces public perception that unions are dinosaurs.
Teachers' unions claim that merit systems leave teachers too vulnerable to political decisions from potentially vindictive vice principals. That's probably true, though most people in most jobs are vulnerable to political decisions from potentially vindictive vice presidents. Instead of opposing everything, teachers' unions need to work with reformers to find a way to mitigate the intrusion of office politics into schools while still ensuring talented and dedicated teachers can rise to the top.
Update: DCist has more about the generational divide in the contract debate.
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