I want to talk about a subject that doesn’t get the attention that it deserves due mostly to political reasons. Because I am not employed by any public agency, I can speak freely about this subject as a taxpaying registered voter as is my First Amendment right and the unions that represent teachers and other public education agency personnel have no legal authority to shut me up. I’m going to be candid on this subject because it is the source of an awful lot of problems that public education agency officials are prevented to a large extent from successfully addressing.
First, I want to make it clear that I am not taking a pro- or anti-union stance per se. I’m just telling you what I’ve seen and the problems I’ve witness arising from the current state of affairs. What we all collectively decide to do about it is something we need to discuss and figure out. As much as I’m sharing my observations, thoughts, and ideas here, by no means do I think I have all the answers. But, problems left undiscussed remain unresolved.
Unions are formed for a reason. People feel like they are being exploited or being taken advantage of by their employers and believe that collectively, they are more empowered to bargain for better working conditions, better pay and benefits, etc. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with people protecting themselves from exploitation and sometimes it takes the power of numbers before someone doing wrong gets the point. If this weren’t the case, KPS4Parents wouldn’t be trying to rally all of you together to effect positive change and achieve appropriate educational outcomes for children with special needs.
Within the public education system, there is a body of rich history that has led to teachers’ unions and unions representing other public school personnel, and it is rooted in the Industrial Revolution. In a nutshell, during the Industrial Revolution, large families moved from farms to the cities to work in the factories. At first, this included the children. The children had worked on the family farm and it didn’t occur to their parents who were seeking better lives for them all that any less effort would need to be put forth once they relocated to the cities. The idea that all of them could be earning wages seemed incredibly fortuitous.
However, everyone was quick to discover that six-year-olds really shouldn’t be handling heavy equipment. The factories were largely first-generation technologies, devoid of appropriate safety standards. Until people got maimed and killed by the equipment, the gravity of the situation hadn’t really sunk in and during an age where people had done most of the work in the absence of machines, the preservation of all human life was not nearly as valued by many people as it is today. In short, the most common, uneducated of us were considered fairly expendable by the elite. It was a very turbulent time.
Not being entirely backwards, however – it wasn’t exactly the Dark Ages – politically active child advocates expressed horror and outrage over the injuries and deaths experienced by children in the factories loudly enough to get child labor laws passed. Prior to this time, child labor laws were pretty much non-existent. Children were prohibited from working in the factories and all the child advocates sighed a huge sigh of relief. Forget the fact that there was no childcare available to their families and their parents still had to go work in the factories every day.
Shortly after the child labor laws were passed, juvenile delinquency in the inner cities rapidly increased. Unsupervised youth roamed the streets and did as they pleased in the absence of any oversight or guidance. Their parents had no idea what to do about it. Half the reason for taking their children to work with them had been to keep them occupied and out of trouble while the parents worked, as well as to teach them discipline and the value of hard work, just as had been done on the farms. One problem was solved by child labor laws, but now a new problem developed.
Looking to the prevalent business model of the day, which was designed around the assembly line process of mass production, child advocates developed a new solution: compulsory education. But, with that many children being compelled to attend school, there had to be a systematic way of organizing everything or the whole endeavor would have been a disaster, which is where looking towards the assembly line process comes in.
Children were organized into “grades” – an industrial term that previously had been used to refer to types or qualities of raw materials, such as Grade A lumber or Grade 1 crushed stone. In public education, the arbitrary application of a child’s age was used to categorize them into grades, regardless of previous educational experiences or lack thereof. They had to start somewhere. Children were passed from grade to grade based on the acquisition of knowledge and the arbitrary application of their age.
Teachers had to be hired en masse and there weren’t enough qualified candidates to fill all the positions needed to instruct that many children. Teacher quality and effectiveness was an issue from the very beginning. Plus, mandatory schooling was just as much about getting juvenile delinquents off the streets as anything else, so behavior modification was an expected outcome as well.
Being modeled after the manufacturing process, public education developed a quality control measure of issuing grades for academic accomplishment. As was expected in mass production, there was the expectation that a certain percentage of the “products” of public education would fail QC. There would be rejects. This where the whole “teaching down the middle” thing first began. That’s a whole conversation in and of itself, and I’m not going to belabor that point here.
The point is that as the public education system got off the ground, there was little to no understanding of children as individual learners. Everyone was treated like identical products on an assembly line for all practical purposes and when outcomes were not to the administrator’s expectations, the criticism often fell on the teachers, many of whom were inadequately trained. This is when many more women entered the field of education, as well, leaving dangerous and dirty factory jobs for the relative safety of the classroom.
Caring for children had been considered “women’s work” for centuries. They gravitated towards school teacher positions as men gravitated towards the factory jobs. In many instances, the teaching positions paid less than the factory jobs, but the women were not getting their long skirts caught in gears or having their long hair fall into weaving machines by accident in the public schools.
At the time, women were less assertive of their rights and, quite honestly, they really didn’t have that many. They were easily exploited by almost entirely male administrators and school boards. They were being blamed for poor student outcomes when the truth of the matter was that the system was flawed all the way around, as “modern” as it was at the time. It wasn’t all their fault. Not enough research had been conducted regarding behavior, learning and memory, and childhood development to better inform the process. Even if more teachers had been trained, the training was grossly inadequate in many regards.
Following the lead of their factory worker counterparts, public school teachers unionized to combat the mistreatment they were experiencing at the hands of school boards and public agency administrators who knew even less about child development and learning than they did. At the time, it was the right thing to do under the circumstances. But, because the system was flawed from the get-go, it naturally spun out of control and over the span of 100 years, it has become what it is today – a broken, ineffective system with poor quality control measures and people employed within the system who seek to avoid any kind of accountability.
The unions originally formed to protect the earliest teachers from exploitation and abuse have become behemoth organizations that exist for their own political and financial benefit, using school district personnel as pawns to strong-arm the government-operated public schools into ridiculous concessions. Even when the unions themselves are not advocating for outcomes that are detrimental to children, teachers and other school personnel who volunteer as union representatives have been known to grossly abuse their positions within their unions to exact revenge against co-workers for petty grievances, harass students and parents with zero accountability, and undermine the special education process, which brings us full circle back to the point of today’s posting and podcast.
I’m not going to assert that all unionized public education employees engage in bad faith behavior. That would be an entirely untrue assertion. I know teachers who greatly resent being forced to join the union if they want to teach, only to see money deducted from their paychecks for union dues they have absolutely no desire to pay and lobbying efforts and political stances being publicly taken by their unions with which they wholeheartedly disagree.
I’ve also directly dealt with teachers who refused to make regular education accommodations for students struggling in their classrooms because their unions told them they didn’t have to provided any accommodations unless compelled to by a legally binding document such as an IEP or 504 plan. Where special education is only supposed to be provided after regular education accommodations have failed, this becomes a problem. I’ve dealt with teachers who refused to implement special education accommodations and attempted to involve their unions when both the parents and the district’s administration came down on them, only capitulating (and with a huge chip on their shoulder even then) once a compliance complaint had been filed against the district in response to their non-compliance.
On more than one occasion, I’ve filed complaints and requested due process just to give school district administrators legal leverage over unionized employees who had dug in their heels and refused to conduct themselves in a compliant manner to the educational detriment of special needs children. The compliance complaints and due process filings trump the union grievances. As a taxpayer, this should make you sick to your stomach. In an effort to comply with the law and properly educate children with special needs, administrators encourage litigation by parents against their public agencies so that they can make their unionized staff perform their legally mandated duties.
Children with special needs have no friends in partisan politics. Conservatives generally don’t think it’s the place of any public agency to assume the responsibility of educating children with handicapping conditions, particularly given the cost per child to do so. Either they don’t consider the far greater costs that arise later on down the road when these children become adults with disabilities who can’t support themselves or they realize the consequences but don’t think the government should be responsible for the problems caused to society by millions of adults with disabilities and no resources, either.
Liberals are too busy protecting the unionized employees to pay too much attention to the consequences of entitling people with paychecks without expecting them to perform in return. While this is gross over-generalization, you get the point. Both sides are right and both sides are wrong on a multitude of considerations. It’s not a black-and-white issue. It’s very messy and gray.
The point is that we, as a society, have determined the need for public education and we, as a society, have insisted that children with special needs receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education. The system as it stands is failing to deliver and to an unhealthy extent, there is tremendous opposition to trying to fix it coming from unionized personnel. There is an utter abandonment of the regulatory requirements going on every minute of every school day due to a combination of ignorance, incompetence, apathy, egocentrism, power-mongering, and out-and-out malice.
These undesirable human qualities crop up amongst all the stakeholders, which includes parents, school district personnel, union representatives, compliance officials, the judicial system, legislators, taxpayers, and voters. No one group is entirely to blame. So, while we as a society have determined it necessary to educate children, including those with special needs, we as a society have failed to a large extent in meeting the needs we’ve determined we need to meet. And, one of the most central components in all of this is the role played by unions and union members in public education.
While every group needs to get a grip and start working collaboratively with all the others to improve student outcomes, the focus of today’s posting and podcast is the pitting of student needs against the rights of unionized employees. I am asking you to think long and hard about this because until this critical piece is successfully addressed, all the other pieces are compromised. So long as unions continue to perceive their function as elevating their members desires above the obligations of the public agencies that employee them, the public agencies are grossly impaired in their ability to effectively serve the public, which is the whole reason these agencies exist in the first place.
Click here to download the podcast version of this blog article.