Educational feudalism

Joe Enge

Teachers often bemoan the fact that they are neither seen nor treated as true professionals. It is true that teachers are not held in nearly as high a regard in American culture as they are in many others. Having taught in Estonia, I’ve experienced the difference in treatment that teachers receive there as compared to here in the United States. In fact, students don’t refer to their teachers by name in Estonia, instead using the term “teacher” as a respectful way to address educators.

It is worth considering the degree to which American teachers themselves have undermined their professional reputations through unionism. There is an inherent conflict between unionism and professionalism that operates to the detriment of teaching. Demonstrating this is the current struggle between the Clark County Education Association (CCEA), affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association and the National Education Association, and a new, upstart Teamsters local.

The CCEA is facing unrest because of its failure to represent the interests of its members and over charges of selling them out. Former CCEA member Ron Taylor is leading the revolt, providing evidence to fellow teachers and the media that the CCEA has, indeed, been selling out its members. Taylor even charges that the union asked the administration to investigate him for going public. How nice – a “teachers” union that claims to defend teachers but actually works with the administration to keep teachers in line.

This is nothing new, by any means. A strange, modern version of serfdom has evolved in American education, with the teachers’ unions playing a key role in keeping the serfs from revolting. There are four interest groups involved in this drama: the teachers, the unions, the administration and, as a proxy for the public, the school board. The interests of both the teachers and the school board/public are neglected in a system where the union pretends to represent teachers, and the administration pretends to represent the school board and public. Since contract negotiations are closed to all except the union and the administration, the other stakeholders – including the general taxpaying public – cannot see what transpires.

Taylor’s efforts in revealing the true, ugly face of the CCEA are admirable and gutsy. His solution, however, is only to replace one union with another – in this case, the Teamsters. On Thursday, June 28, the official announcement was made: “Teamsters Local 14 announces they will begin an organizing campaign for teachers and support staff of the Clark County School District. This commitment by Teamsters Local 14 will surely change education in Clark County and certainly Nevada.”

The window for unsatisfied members of the CCEA to leave is short. NSEA affiliates usually have a two-week window (July 1-15) in which to drop the union, but the rumor is that CCEA has an even shorter window of July 1-11. It’s no accident that the short drop period falls around the July 4 holiday and right in the middle of summer vacation, when many teachers are out of town. The frustration of some over the CCEA’s antics is made clear by an “in your face” demonstration scheduled to take place right in front of CCEA headquarters during the drop period. One teacher even suggested bringing a big truck to park in front of the building to show that the Teamsters are here.

The CCEA fully deserves this raid. Whether it can be taken down in so short a time is another matter.

But the deeper question teachers in Clark County and throughout Nevada should be asking is whether it is in their professional interest to be in a union at all. Replacing one union with another is not the answer, as the feudal education structure will remain. Dropping union membership altogether, however, will raise the stature of the profession. A sizable number of American teachers over the years have reached this conclusion, forming the Association of American Educators (AAE) and rejecting the union label.

The AAE describes itself as “the largest national, non-union, professional teacher association, offering educators an alternative to partisan politics and non-educational agendas of the teacher labor unions.” It also offers teachers excellent liability coverage at a great saving.

As we watch the CCEA and Teamsters battle it out, teachers should keep in mind that there is another path for teachers, a path provided by the AAE that addresses the central conflict between unionism and professionalism.

In the end, educators have to ask themselves whether they prefer being called “teacher” or “Teamster.”

Joe Enge is education policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.