The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers represent a harmful monopoly that works against the interests of teachers and their students, according to "Liberating Teachers: Toward Market Competition in Teacher Representation," published by the libertarian Cato Institute. The two unions don't compete, says the report, but rather they have divided territories, and could possibly merge.
Introducing market competition into teacher representation would "lower teacher dues, give better service, and offer increased choice (including school vouchers and charter schools) and more input in the key decisions affecting their employment," said Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute at Cato Institute, and author of the report.
"The best solution is reform via state legislation that would open up competition to non-membership organizations, entrepreneurs, negotiators, lawyers and collective bargaining companies," Lieberman said.
He recommends that state labor laws "reduce the number of votes required to trigger an election to determine the bargaining agent; explicitly allow individuals, nonprofit and for-profit organizations to compete for the right to represent teachers; and enable all members in the bargaining unit to vote on the key decisions affecting their terms and conditions of employment."
Currently, "teachers desiring a different exclusive representative, or none at all, face enormous legal and practical obstacles," Lieberman said. Meanwhile, for those teachers who opt out of a union, 19 states mandate them to pay a "service fee" to the union that often equals 75 percent of the cost of union dues.
"The NEA adopts a number of policy positions, mostly on the far left, outside the realm of education that(many) members disagree with," Lieberman said. "Like lobbying for pro-choice, downsizing the military, the gay/lesbian agenda, and getting the government to provide more preschool education, while opposing any limits on taxes."
"These union policies don't represent the political views of many teachers, who want lower taxes, less government, and decreased regulation," said David Salisbury, director of Cato's Center for Educational Freedom. "By getting a lot of support from special issue groups, the unions broaden their support base."
"The unions also support education-related policies that are bad for the teachers," Salisbury said. These include salary schedules based on tenure rather than merit, and not allowing a free market environment.
"Currently, state legislatures would have to allow school choice, but the teacher unions are the most powerful lobbying force in the country at the state and federal levels and have major influence in state races," Salisbury said. "The unions employ 6,000 people who have over $100,000 in salaries and benefits -- it's a huge bureaucracy," he said.
Though three states (called "right to work" states") don't require union membership and allow independent teacher organizations, they don't have collective bargaining power. They just do things like offer teacher liability insurance, Salisbury said.
Representatives from other think tanks agreed that the only ones benefiting from the teacher union monopoly are the unions themselves and special interest groups allied with them.
"I think we have a real problem with the teachers unions, partly because they are the only unions that select people they will bargain with," said Terry Moe, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. "Not that many people vote in school board elections, they're held on off-years, with usually a 15 percent turnout. Meanwhile, the unions are very organized and basically put these school board members in power. The board is then beholden to the unions."
"The unions' interests -- greater pay and job security for teachers -- are in direct conflict with the school kids' interests," Moe said. "The union laws protect bad teachers, prevent testing teachers in their subject areas and requiring student testing for advancement, and don't incentivize teachers to work in problem schools or volunteer in extracurricular school activities."
"Younger teachers are not interested in unions. We're seeing more independent-minded people who are not interested in joining organizations that do political work," said Krista Kafer, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Also, I can't think of a single industry sector where competition hasn't benefited people. England has 10 teachers unions and it is even with the United States regarding education."
"There are substantial ramifications for children from a teacher union monopoly," agreed Peter Cowley, director of School Performance Studies at the Fraser Institute in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Our unions' rules are not based on research or experimentation, they are based on whim. Also, teachers are forced to amend their curriculum to follow the union political line. In Alberta it's worse; their school principals are members of the teachers union, so the principals can't sway from union codes either."
"The NEA and AFT can block alternative associations, like the Association of Education in Private Practice, from participating in many districts," added George Pieler, an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Policy Innovation.
"Teachers have zero alternatives within the union monopoly," said Lisa Snell, director of education at the libertarian Reason Foundation. "If teachers don't agree with the union's political views or want to join competition, it's not worth their time right now. The cost is too high to seek out an alternative."
But experts from liberal think tanks don't buy Cato's argument. Some say the think tank's ultimate agenda is to instate school vouchers, and to bring teachers unions down any way they can in order to do so.
"What's driving this Cato report is that unions are opposed to private school vouchers, and so Cato is trying to figure out ways to weaken unions," said Richard Kahlenberg, senior fellow at the liberal Century Foundation. "We need to focus on public school reform, not diverting money to private schools. We've got so many problems in education -- crumbling school buildings, crises in urban schools are on the rise, re-segregation of schools -- the problem of competition among teachers unions doesn't rank high on the list. I don't agree that getting more competition will address these problems."
"We argue there should be more of a market-based system and there are problems within the current union system, but the changes that Cato suggests -- like flexibility and incentivization -- could be implemented in the current union system by innovations fought be state and district affiliates," said Andy Rotherham, director of education policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, which is affiliated with the Democratic Leadership Council.
"Teachers' representation on salary and benefits would be weakened if they were spread over many representatives," said Jane Hannaway, director of the Urban Institute's Education Policy Center. "What I can see is specialized unions -- like one for math teachers -- developing and having market power on their own. They would be able to negotiate a better deal with the school districts because they are scarce and in demand."