Educators or Obstructionists?

June 21, 1993

One can only hope that the summer recess provides a cooling-off period for the labor strife infecting area school systems.

In Baltimore County, the teachers union held its first general membership meeting in 17 years, so enraged is it by the changes being made by the new superintendent, Stuart D. Berger.

In Baltimore City, the union is fighting an expansion of the innovative Tesseract program.

In Anne Arundel County, two school board members who don't support 3 percent raises for teachers received threatening calls, one of which was traced to a telephone in a middle school. The teachers union is threatening a work-to-rule action this fall.

And in Montgomery County, teachers have authorized their union to prepare for a strike when school re-opens -- though such action would be illegal -- to protest the lack of cost-of-living raises.

Bodily threats and other public disturbances are unconscionable and should be dealt with firmly; no doubt most teachers are as upset as the rest of us by such hooliganism. The fact is teachers are in a tough spot. They must negotiate in an absurd process in which they haggle for a contract with school boards that control no money, only to see those settlements rejected by the politicians who control the funds. Few other professionals would want to subject themselves to such a spectacle.

That said, teachers have done a poor job separating their professional selves from their union selves. Organized unions in other fields, particularly the private sector, generally focus their concerns in terms of working conditions or compensation; they don't pretend to be arguing on behalf of the sausage, the I-beam or the newspaper they're making. But teachers' unions often muddle that distinction. Their concerns are wages, job security and working conditions, but they drag management strategy, classroom innovations and picketing schoolchildren into the fray.

The public hears the word "teacher," thinks of kids and classrooms, and may be duped into believing the worst about initiatives such as the ones being tried by superintendents Walter G. Amprey in Baltimore City and Dr. Berger. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Teachers shouldn't block the necessary revitalization of education. If teachers insist on being obstructionists, people must remember that the teachers' individual interests and the public's interests are not one and the same.

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