The other union ruining schools


By Joy Pullmann | The Heartland Institute

David Horowitz has a new campaign in which he points out rotten schools thrive in Democrat-controlled inner cities and predominantly hurt poor, minority children. His new one-minute ad dramatically makes that point, calling the situation an “atrocity” and pointing a finger at teachers unions as the cause.

“One out of three children in America’s inner cities fails to graduate,” the clip’s narrator says. “Half of those who do are functionally illiterate.”

The problem, she says, is adults who oppose reform: Democrats and unions.

Teachers unions do block reforms that would benefit kids. Policies they favor degrade education, such as firing and hiring teachers according only to how long they’ve been in a particular school rather than their quality or area of expertise.

As President Franklin Roosevelt noted, government employee labor unions also are a scam against taxpayers because they let unions elect the officials they’ll bargain with, effectively directing tax money to political activism and ensuring no taxpayer or child advocate sits at the bargaining table.

FAILING EDUCATION: The problem with failing schools is adults who oppose reform: Democrats and unions.

Unions are certainly among those responsible for the 702 percent increase in school staff since 1950, while student enrollment increased only 96 percent. Public schools have gotten approximately 300 percent more expensive but hardly a whit better since the 1970s, as the Cato Institute’s Andrew Coulson has documented. That’s a disgrace.

Although it’s fair to blame the unions for many ills besetting the nation’s schools, unions are by no means the only big problem affecting education.

I’ve talked to many teachers whose jobs were threatened when they exercised free speech, and often the local union was their only protection. Unions occasionally meet real needs in a school teaching market monopolized in each locality by a single player — the government.

Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute also discusses some freedoms school leaders don’t realize they have, partly because of union-blaming.

“The problem is not just the very real statutory, regulatory, and contractual barriers, but also the ‘culture of can’t,’ a culture in which even surmountable impediments or ankle-high obstacles are treated as absolute prohibitions,” he said.

Horowitz’s ad risks oversimplifying the problems with public education and overpromising success. Probably the biggest reason for the inner-city atrocity this ad targets is not teachers unions or the “culture of can’t” but the lack of another kind of union: marriages.

Family structure is the single largest predictor of economic mobility, a new Harvard University study found. It’s also a predictor of education success. Children raised by both biological parents have higher graduation rates, math and reading test scores, college-going and completion rates, fewer behavior problems and other family-generated riches.

Combine this with the dismal statistics that 7-in-10 African-American children and 1-in-2 Hispanic children are born to unmarried mothers. That fact alone clouds their life prospects.

It’s easier — and fairer — to beat up on a big, bad labor union boss than a struggling single mom. But we can and should beat up on deadbeat dads, as Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute has suggested, and without involving government.

We could start with positive public education campaigns, touting the benefits of stable, married parents for all children. It is a scandal the way the media ignores this huge and growing social, educational and economic problem. Pretending it is the teachers unions who deserve blame, without mentioning the failures of parents’ unions, will only perpetuate kids’ failure and suffering.

Joy Pullmann is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow for The Heartland Institute. Contact her at

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