A Philosopher's Blog

Education & Unions

Posted in Law, Philosophy, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on January 30, 2012
Post-secondary educational organizations

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While there are many excellent schools, there are also serious problems plaguing the American education system. People are, of course, eager to point fingers and these fingers are often pointed at teachers’ unions. Being a professor at a state school, it should hardly be a surprise that I am a member of the UFF, NEA and AFT. Because of this, my writing on this subject should be read with a critical eye so as to catch any bias in my claims or any trickery in my argumentation.

One stock argument against unions is based on the claim that the teachers’ unions are aimed at the good of the union members and this good is not always consistent with what is good for the students. There are, of course, harsher versions which involve claims that unions serve primarily to protect incompetent teachers and to do other wicked and damaging things.

This line of argument can have merit. After all, unions do (in theory) aim at benefiting their membership and the members of the teachers’ unions are teachers rather than students. There are also legitimate concerns that unions have enabled incompetent teachers to retain their jobs and that the lobbying power of teachers’ unions has been used in ways that might not lead to the best use of public money. That is, it could be argued that teachers’ unions function like pretty much all such organizations ranging from labor unions to corporations to political parties. This does not justify or excuse such behavior, but it does indicate that teachers’ unions are hardly unique in their sins. It also suggests that if organizations that serve the interest of their members but can be a detriment to the public good should be gotten rid of, then we should not just be rid of teachers’ unions but also corporations and political parties as well.

Of course, it would be absurd to rid society of all organisations that might act contrary to the public good-after all, this would undo much of society itself. Rather it would seem more sensible to address the alleged harms done by an organization so as to determine whether the organization should be changed (or perhaps destroyed). After all, to be rid of teachers’ unions because it is alleged that they have some role in the woes of education would seem to be on par with being rid of financial corporations because they happened to wreck the world economy (any only the most radical are suggesting that).

Turning back to teachers’ unions, there would seem to be two main avenues of legitimate criticism. One would be that  teachers’ unions are somehow intrinsically damaging to the education system. That is, it is simply the nature of these unions that they will, of necessity, cause trouble. Interestingly enough, some critics of capitalism make similar claims about corporations and other business: they must, by their very nature, be exploitative and harmful.

The idea that organizations such as unions and corporations are inherently harmful is certainly an interesting idea and one that would be well worth investigating in more detail. However, it seems unlikely that teachers organizing into unions must, of necessity, create harm to the education system. To support this, I offer two arguments.

First, there is the example of Finland. It has a unionized education system that is, in fact, excellent. As such, if unions were of necessity a bane to education, then Finland should be doing badly rather than well. Of course, it could be argued that Finland is an unusual exception. This takes me to my second argument.

Second, if  unions are a significant cause of educational woes (as some critics claim) in the United States and elsewhere, then one would expect to see correlation between the presence of unions and such woes. To use the obvious analogy, if a toxin causes disease, one would expect to see more cases of the disease in areas where to toxin concentration is higher. Interestingly enough, educational quality in the United States does not seem to correlate with the presence or absence of unions, but rather with other factors. In the case of K-12 public education, the quality and problems seem to match quite closely the poverty or wealth of the school and the community.  That is, “poor” schools tend to have far more problems than “rich” schools. As such, it would seem that it is not primarily a matter of unions (after all, rich and poor schools alike are unionized) but rather other factors.

It might be replied that unions are still a problem but that the money enables the schools to counter the damage done by unions (just as a wealthy community might be able to counter a toxin by having more money to spend on treatment and prevention). This is a point worth considering, but what would be needed would be evidence that the unions are doing the damage rather than the other factors that seem to correlate with educational woes.

In regards to the claim that unions are inherently harmful because the serve the interests of teachers, one rather obvious reply is that students have no union and the organizations that are most likely to act in ways that are in the interest of students are teachers’ unions. After all, these unions generally aim at things like better schools, better funding for educational programs and so on. That is, the interests of teachers overlap the interests of students and teachers’ unions tend to provide students with the only organized voice in the realm of politics. As such, teachers’ unions do not seem to be intrinsically bad. There is also the obvious concern of how eliminating these unions would actually improve education-that is, what group would step in to see to it that the interests of the students and teachers were being taken into account.

Another avenue of criticism is to raise specific problems that particular actions by unions or union members cause. For example, if a union acts to prevent incompetent teachers from being fired at a specific school, then this act could be legitimately criticized and such problems should be addressed.

In general, it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions. Given the fervor with which these unions are being attacked, it might be suspected that some folks stand to make a profit by getting rid of these unions. But perhaps that is merely cynicism on my part. After all, I am sure that the people funding the attacks on unions and the politicians who will attack them are merely driven by a love of the public good and are doing it for the children.

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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on January 30, 2012 at 9:02 am

    It’s a dark conspiracy.

  2. dhammett said, on January 30, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    ” it would be rather odd if unions did not cause some problems. If they did not, they would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning unions.”

    “. . . it would be rather odd if (x) did not cause some problems. If (x)did not, (x) would be truly unique. However, it seems more sensible to address these problems rather than simply condemning (x).”

    x= the legal system or the police or the church or car salesmen or students or cats or dogs or banks or corporations or . . .

    One could even include inanimate objects, like automobiles, planes, trains, space stations or . . .

    Yet, not surprisingly, there are many people who bitch about any or all of the above without making any attempt to accurately identify or even having a clue as to how to solve the “problem”.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on January 30, 2012 at 6:15 pm

      It is easy to spot the mote in the eyes of others.

    • anon said, on January 31, 2012 at 2:29 pm

      Obviously the solution is to get rid of (x), problem solved *wipes hands*.

      • dhammett said, on January 31, 2012 at 2:40 pm

        And no negative consequences. . .

        I always liked liked Thoreau’s approach.
        “Simplify, simplify.”
        But only, of course, when it met my immediate personal wants and needs. :) I’m so happeee!

  3. T. J. Babson said, on February 1, 2012 at 12:11 am

    Speaking of education, this all you need to know:

    Biden’s 2006 tax returns showed the he gave just $380 to charity out of an adjusted income of $248,459, or roughly .15%.

    In 2010 and 2011 alone, the Romneys gave $7 million in charity, or roughly 16% of their income. Their charity, the Tyler Charitable Foundation, gave out more than $7.1 million from 1999 to 2007.

    http://bigjournalism.com/cjohnson/2012/01/31/new-york-times-plays-games-with-obamas-tax-rate/#more-266620

    • Douglas Moore said, on February 1, 2012 at 9:45 am

      Pretty common when comparing liberal charity to conservative.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 1, 2012 at 2:10 pm

      I do think I need to know more. :)

      So, Biden is a cheapskate when it comes to charity and Romney is generous. While the cynical might point out the tax benefits of such giving, surely that is not his motivation.

  4. T. J. Babson said, on February 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm

    Did the Union protect this guy until the end? Enquiring minds want to know…

    LOS ANGELES – A southern California teacher is behind bars for allegedly tying up elementary school children, placing live cockroaches on their faces and possibly feeding them his semen from a blue spoon.

    Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested Monday and charged with lewd acts on more than 20 children aged 7 to 10 years old, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said.

    A teacher with three decades of experience at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles, Berndt was busted after a film processor discovered 40 prints of the dastardly acts and turned them over to authorities.

    The photos, along with more sickening pics recovered from Berndt’s home, show the defenseless students bound and blindfolded with giant Madagascar cockroaches crawling on them in a classroom, authorities said.

    Several girls were photographed with a blue plastic spoon filled with an unknown clear white liquid up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance, cops said.

    Investigators later recovered a blue plastic spoon and an empty container from the trash in Berndt’s classroom. Both tested positive for Berndt’s semen, authorities said.

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/elementary-school-teacher-tied-blindfolded-kids-put-cockroaches-police-article-1.1014620#ixzz1lBC3dEe5

    • dhammett said, on February 1, 2012 at 10:51 pm

      “The McMartin preschool trial was a day care sexual abuse case of the 1980s. Members of the McMartin family, who operated a preschool in California, were charged with numerous acts of sexual abuse of children in their care. Accusations were made in 1983. Arrests and the pretrial investigation ran from 1984 to 1987, and the trial ran from 1987 to 1990. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped in 1990. When the trial ended in 1990 it had been the longest and most expensive criminal trial in American history.[1] The case was part of day care sex abuse hysteria, a moral panic over satanic ritual abuse in the 1980s and early 1990s.” Wikipedia

      Evidence in the Berndt case seems a bit more substantial. “Sex crimes investigators also found adult pornography in Berndt’s house that “mirrored” the bondage-type photos of the children, cops said.”
      More on this from the AP story from which the Daily News story appears to be “borrowed” :
      “Others [photos] depicted girls with what appears to be a spoon up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest a clear white liquid. Children were fed Berndt’s semen from a spoon or on cookies, Marquez said [Lt. Carlos Marques of the LA County sheriff's department]. Kid’s reported being fed something distasteful”.
      It would appear from the article that authorities, including the police and the school administration were informed by a film processor of pictures of Berndt’s he had processed, the teacher was fired, and the investigation proceeded. Some time passed as authorities took what would have been a misdemeanor case and developed evidence to make it into a felony level case.

      My inquiring mind wants to know: Do you ‘think’ the Union should protect this guy until the end? I don’t. Can you see major differences between the McMartin preschool case and this one? How might the McMartin case had a better outcome for the McMartins if they had been represented by a union (which I’m guessing they were not, since it seems the school was a private enterprise)?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 2, 2012 at 11:17 am

      I assume that he got a trial and was defended by his lawyer to the end. After all, people are entitled to due process-even wicked, guilty people.

      Unions are like the justice system: the intent is not to protect the wicked from justice but to ensure that justice is done. This, of course, entails that sometimes the wicked will be protected by due process. Such is the price of having rule of law.

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