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Teacher Unions, Democracy and Markets

In the classic ur-text of the school privatization and anti-teacher union movement, Politics, Markets and American Schools, John Chubb and Terry Moe provide a forthright statement of their perspective on public education. The problem with American public schools, Chubb [a founding partner of the for profit management company Edison Learning, once Edison Schools] and Moe [a stalwart of the ultra-conservative Herbert Hoover Institute] explain, is democratic control of schooling. Markets, they contend, will change all that:

The real cause [of the problems in public schools — LC] is the public education system as a whole. Its institutions of democratic control are inherently destructive of school autonomy and inherently conducive to bureaucracy… Were the same people picked up and placed in a different system, they would behave differently. Were they placed in a market system, in particular, they would find that decisions about the structure of education were no longer the province of public authority… Emancipated from the hierarchical imperatives of the democratic “organization,” and with property rights — and therefore governing rights — guaranteed, they would be free to adopt structures well suited to the goals they want schools to pursue…

Partisans of the privatization and market transformation of public education view teacher unions as an obstacle to their agenda precisely because we are representative democratic institutions, with leadership chosen by and accountable through secret ballot elections of the membership. We are one of the institutions  — indeed, the main such culprit in their eyes — which need to be swept aside so that management with “property rights” in schools can act without regard for “democratic control.”

It is interesting, therefore, to see two of those partisans — Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, blogging at the National Review Online,  and Greg Forster of the Milton Friedman Foundational Educational Choice, blogging with Jay Greene — trying to find some way to cast discredit on the UFT’s recently completed elections. They offer a misinformed attack, aptly characterized as trolling by Sherman Dorn, on the participation of the different constituency groups in the union’s elections. It seems that their fealty to the market extends not just to a lack of commitment to democratic institutions, but to a surfeit of basic knowledge on how representative democratic institutions work.

First, the UFT represents all of the non-supervisory pedagogues in New York City public schools: classroom teachers are the largest group, of course, but the union also represents classroom para-professionals, guidance counselors, social workers, school secretaries, laboratory specialists, attendance teachers, school psychologists, and school nurses and therapists, to name the largest constituencies. All of these constituencies have been part of the UFT for decades, participating in election after election without the slightest controversy. The notion that somehow the vote and the voice of a union member in one constituency group counts more than a vote of another union constituency group is simply not seriously entertained within the UFT. That’s how our democratic culture works, and that’s how representative democratic institutions generally work, as strange an idea as it is to Hess and Forster.

Second, UFT retirees are a special constituency within our union. They participate in our deliberative bodies like the Delegate Assembly, are active in our political campaigns and work, and vote in our elections. They have a direct stake in the UFT’s position and advocacy on issues such as pension and health care. But retirees are a special constituency in that there are a number of issues which impact active service members, but not them. By tradition, retiree members of the Delegate Assembly do not vote on contracts, as a way of respecting that difference of interest.

Many years ago [not recently as Hess and Forster claim], the UFT’s Delegate Assembly discussed how we should balance the need for retiree participation in the democratic elections of the union with the fact that they have become such an increasingly large portion of the union’s growing membership. We set a limit on the weight of retiree votes in an election: to the extent that more than 18,000 retirees vote, their vote is pro-rated down to 18,000. That is what was done in this election. [Hess’ and Forster’s garbled account that retiree votes automatically count for 72% of a regular vote reflects their failure to research the actual by-laws and practice.]

We understand that the objective of Hess and Forster is to encourage division among union members, setting constituency group against constituency group, the better to weaken the union. But they are sadly mistaken if they think their transparent arguments to that end will take in UFT members. We’re a helluva lot smarter than that, and solidarity and democracy are our life-blood.



  • 1 quapper
    · Apr 16, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Interesting piece.

    Teachers should realize that purveyors of privatization will use any method available to discredit unionization, even if that means distortion and using outright falsehoods.

    The battle over education, ultimately, is not about standards, curriculum, and instruction. It’s about control, power, and money.

    Given that, expect no less than hardball tactics from the opponents of public (democratic) education.

    In war truth is the first causality.

  • 2 Matthew Ladner
    · Apr 17, 2010 at 1:10 pm

    Democracy is in your lifeblood eh?

    Does the AFT support having all school district elections on the uniform November election date? Voter turnout and thus democratic participation would vastly increase if we did so.

  • 3 Leo Casey
    · Apr 18, 2010 at 9:01 pm


    How nice of you to visit from Jay Greene and the United Cherry Pickers.

    We don’t have school district elections here in NYC; we have a system of mayoral control which you and your friends so strongly support. If you can arrange for us to go to an elected board, we would be happy to have the elections on election day in November.

  • 4 Matthew Ladner
    · Apr 19, 2010 at 12:30 pm


    So do I understand that when and if a school board is elected in NYC that you are going on record to say that the most democratic practice possible would be to hold all elections on the standard November election date? Delightful.

    Now, how about all the other districts and states in which the AFT works? If democracy is your “life-blood” you ought to denounce the sort of rigged, low-turnout democracy that led to mayoral control in NYC (and DC, and who knows where next?)

  • 5 bronxactivist
    · Apr 19, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Just give control of everything to private companies? Just like the banks, inusrance companies, Wall street, telecommunications, media have tried to wipe away democracy in order to serve private interest. The list is long as to areas where privatization has led to massive abuses. Education is the next target so the special interest can control the flow of information and education.

  • 6 Leo Casey
    · Apr 19, 2010 at 5:29 pm


    I noted that we would be happy to have a democratically elected school board, with the vote taken on election day. And to be clear, we did not have such a board before mayoral control: you are just wrong on that count. The members of the old board were chosen by the mayor and the five borough presidents. The main difference under mayoral control is that now he has a majority of appointees where before he had a minority.

    But it seems that you do not want to be so forthright about mayoral control, and you want to hide your evasion by asking me to speak for other teacher union locals in other cities. Thank you, but we will speak for ourselves, and no one else. How about you speak for yourself as well: do you or do you not support mayoral control?

  • 7 Matthew Ladner
    · Apr 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm


    I have no dog in the mayoral control hunt. Whether or not I would support a move to mayoral control would depend upon the circumstances involved. Mayors are elected officials, even in NYC, so it seems obvious that there is a clear opportunity for the voters to express their displeasure at the ballot box if they wish.

    You however are avoiding the broader question by obsessing over your parochial NYC concerns. Speaking only for yourself, shouldn’t someone who claims to have democracy flowing in the life blood of their organization be willing to state that maximizing voter turnout in school district elections is a good idea?

    If you want to wrap yourself in the flag of democracy, shouldn’t you practice it? Instead, what I see is an organization supporting hundreds of school board candidates and bond elections every year in embarrasingly low turnout elections held on irregular election dates blowing hot air about “democracy.”

  • 8 Leo Casey
    · Apr 22, 2010 at 6:33 am

    Like the rest of the boys at Jay Greene and the United Cherry Pickers, Matthew Ladner’s idea of an intellectual exchange has never progressed beyond the stage of male adolescence. He has now lowered himself to rushing the above comment into print on their blog before it was approved here, all to suggest that his comments were so fearsome we wouldn’t publish them. Sigh. Some of us actually do other things in our days besides checking the blogs every hour.

    I am sure that this exchange is as tiresome for any reader who has followed it as it is tiresome for me. My participation ends here.