President Barack Obama and the Democrats have portrayed themselves as supporters of public education, but their policies have turned public schools into strongholds for powerful private groups of teachers unions, critics say.
“The union is not some branch of public government—they’re just a private corporation,” said James Sayler, a 20-year public school teacher and founder of Colorado Educators for Bush in 2000 and 2004.
“Should a school district give away public authority to a private organization?” Sayler asked. “The unions, with the blessing and cooperation of the Democratic Party, have privatized education.”
Gary Wolfram, author of A Capitalist Manifesto: Understanding the Market Economy and Defending Liberty, explained the power of teachers unions in public schools.
“The system is designed for you as a teachers union to elect the people you are going to bargain with, at a local level,” Wolfram said. “You have an incentive to elect state representatives who provide high spending so you can keep salaries high.”
“They are a lobbying firm,” he said. “The Michigan Education Association is one of the larger political action committees.”
“It’s not like a market where you buy things and pay for them out of your own money,” he said. “The government taxes you, and then puts money into that school. … Whether that school does a good job or a bad job—whether the students prefer that school or not—it gets paid on a per capita basis.”
The Detroit Federation of Teachers confirmed Wolfram’s argument on Wednesday by filing a suit against the local school district for layoffs based on teacher performance.
Government union members have outnumbered those in the private industry since 2009. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2011, “Public-sector workers had a union membership rate (37.0 percent) more than five times higher than that of private-sector workers (6.9 percent).”
“Private sector unions have been driven out by competition,” Wolfram said. But public sector unions have political power, making it “difficult to support reform.”
“Government unions are the chief force fighting for larger taxes and bigger government,” said Vincent Vernuccio, director of Labor Policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed public sector unions, critics observe.
“The very nature and purposes of government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer in mutual discussions with government employee organizations,” Roosevelt wrote. “The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress.”
Any negotiation with a public employee union would constitute a loss of the people’s authority, the founder of the New Deal said.
Roosevelt considered public union strikes “unthinkable and intolerable,” because they cause “the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it.”
Sayler suggested Republicans adopt a new tactic when it comes to teachers unions.
“We in the Republican Party believe in government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Sayler said. “The Republican Party got so involved in charter and voucher schools, they just forgot to fight for the public schools.”
“We’re going to give them back to the people,” he said.
According to Sayler, the principal’s “number one job” should be “to set up an independent Parent Teachers’ Organization (PTO).” As opposed to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), which answers to the National Education Association union, Sayler supports “a separate organization under total control of the principal.”
Former Secretary of Education Rod Paige said Sayler’s ideas are intriguing.
"It's a new idea and it's a powerful idea,” Paige said. It will "give us an entirely different perspective on the relationship unions have with these school districts."
Principals must also gain authority directly from the school board without the interference of the unions, said Sayler.
“[With unions] everybody’s afraid because there’s no legitimate authority set up,” he said.