An NEA-AFT merger no balm for poor schools

July 08, 1998|By Linda Chavez

AMERICAN parents can rest a little easier this week, now that plans for a mega-merger between the nation's two teachers unions have fallen through. Delegates to the national convention of the 2.4-million-member National Education Association voted last weekend to reject a proposal to merge with the 900,000-member American Federation of Teachers. The merger would have given the new union virtually unprecedented power over education policy in every state, which would have spelled disaster for an already-troubled public education system.

Resisting accountability

Both the NEA and the AFT have resisted efforts to make teachers more accountable and give parents more choice in the schools their children attend. Both unions have fought especially hard against school voucher programs and tuition tax credits for parents who want to send their children to private or parochial schools. And they are able to put tremendous political muscle behind their resistance. In the past two decades, the two unions have contributed more than $25 million to candidates for federal office, 95 percent of it to Democrats. In the 1996 election cycle alone, the NEA spent more than $5 million for federal elections.

In addition, both unions give heavily to state and local races, which are not governed by the same strict spending limits imposed on federal elections. More than mere dollars, the unions contribute well-trained "volunteers" to political campaigns, supplementing the candidates' resources with some of the best political operatives in the business. Union staff members operate candidate phone banks, register voters, drive them to the polls on Election Day and offer campaigns strategic help as well. Although by federal law, these efforts are supposed to be directed only at union members, I know from firsthand experience that the teachers unions target the general public as well.

Propaganda editor

From 1977 to 1983, I was the editor of AFT's magazine and newspaper. Whenever we published an election-issue

newspaper for our members, rating the candidates' record on union issues, we'd do an extra run of as many as 100,000 papers. This election propaganda would then conveniently find its way to candidate headquarters, where it could be distributed to the general public. I'd be surprised if the practice doesn't continue to this day.

Politics has become the raison d'etre for teachers unions. Although there was lots of talk at the NEA convention about "professionalism," the NEA's first priority is electing politicians who will do NEA's bidding in Congress, in state legislatures and on school boards. And this year, that means stopping efforts to expand voucher plans, which enable poor parents to pick the schools their children attend.

Union officials warn that vouchers will destroy public education by creaming the best students from public schools, leaving the most difficult students behind. But that's nonsense. Catholic schools already educate large numbers of inner-city students whose parents sacrifice so that their children can succeed. Average tuition at Catholic elementary schools runs about $1,600 a year and high school tuition, $3,600. The public schools spend far more per pupil -- $5,700 nationally -- yet produce worse results, especially for poor children.

In one recent study of 13 inner-city New York City schools, for example, Catholic schools graduated 95 percent of their students, compared with only about 50 percent graduation rates for city public schools. Some 85 percent of Catholic students took the SAT exams for college admission, while only 33 percent pTC of public school seniors took the tests. Yet the overwhelming majority of the Catholic school students (75 percent to 90 percent, depending on the school) were black or Hispanic, as were the public school students.

A merger won't solve the teachers unions' biggest problem, the decline in performance of public school students and parents' growing dissatisfaction with their children's education. Perhaps a little competition from Catholic and other private schools might jolt the unions into concentrating more on improving the quality of public education and less on electing politicians who make excuses for the failure of public education.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/08/98

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