According to recent reports, the National Education Association (or NEA) has become the largest labor union in the United States, with over 3 million members and a budget of over $300 million. This union represents public school teachers and school staff. A similar organization, the American Federation of Teachers, contains almost one and a half million members and a budget of almost $200 million. With the large numbers that these groups maintain, they are able to exert a strong influence to change not only broad national educational policies, but school policies in specific schools across the nation, as well.
Educational experts say that not only do both organizations focus on advocating for their members, but make it their group’s mission to improve public schools, promote justice and democracy, as well as protecting human rights. It has been said that because of the vast amount of power these groups possess, teachers have been allowed to make adjustments to the national educational agenda with little criticism, regardless of whether the agenda is or is not beneficial to the students or education systems. Because of union contracts, often times, teachers that are performing at less than ideal standards have been allowed to keep their jobs.
Teachers from state to state enjoy the benefits of tenure as a form of job stability, a kind of career safety net that protects them from random layoffs. A study done in Illinois showed results stating that the expenses to fire a tenured teacher, which can only be done in cases where proof of incompetence or misconduct can be provided in court, costs almost $220,000 per teacher. Experts have said that while teachers are in favor of tenure there was a percentage of teachers, reaching almost 40%, that believed the restrictions against firing a tenured teacher makes it far too difficult to terminate the employment of an incompetent teacher, thus providing less than the best education for students. However, the other percentage of teachers said this practice helps protect their jobs and eliminates the risk of being replaced by younger, less qualified and lower paid teachers. Another issue at debate among the teachers’ unions is the idea of merit pay where the pay for the teacher is based on performance. Supporters of this idea argue that it is an incentive for better teaching habits while those opposed say it would merely increase competition between teachers and lead to less mentoring of newer teachers.
Reports have shown that there are many who are of the opinion that these organizations are at fault for the education standards in public schools of the United States in grades K through 12. However, there is another view that these organizations are essential for the protection of teachers. While both sides certainly present valid points, it is difficult to say whether teacher unions are hurting or helping the public school system.