A few months ago I characterized Johnathon Alter's statement that unions "believe that protecting incompetents is more important than educating children" as "sheer and utter nonsense." But he's far from the only one saying things like this.
Just yesterday the NY Times published an article in which Michelle Rhee said that "Tenure is the holy grail of teacher unions, but has no educational value for kids; it only benefits adults."
Simon Campbell, the founder of stopteacherstrikes.org (the name explains the purpose of the site), argues that "A child's right to a strike-free education supersedes a teacher's right to strike."
Beyond the world of education, The Economist's blog on American politics recently wrote that "With American carmakers nearing extinction the argument that unions are bad for business carries more heft than usual."
They're not exactly the same, but arguing that unions are bad for students and bad for profits are roughly similar. In both cases, the person making the argument believes that the union's main goal is not the same as the main goal of the organization/business. In some broad sense, there's a grain of truth to this.
A business example: The UAW's main goal is for their members to be paid and treated well -- GM's main goal (for example) is to make money. It's possible that GM could make more money by hiring a lot of workers for dirt-cheap wages and treating them like crap. But that doesn't mean they don't have common goals. Both groups have a strong interest in the company being profitable (an unprofitable business can't keep workers employed, yet along give them raises) and both groups hopefully have some sort of concern for society and humanity at large. In this sense, even if GM could make a lot of money through unethical means I would hope that they would think twice about their responsibility to do otherwise. And employing a bunch of people who have stable jobs and earn enough to make a decent living is good for the country.
For schools, I'd hope that the main goal of a school would be to educate its students as well as possible. One could argue that the main goal of a teachers' union is to ensure that its members are treated fairly and paid well, and they would have a point; that's probably their main goal. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they do that at the expense of students. Ultimately, teachers care about their students . . . and a union of teachers, when you boil it down, is really just a large group of teachers.
In the short run, I can see the argument that teachers going on strike or fighting for tenure isn't necessarily in the best interest of students. But when you look at the big picture, I don't think there are any grounds for declaring that unions believe adults are more important than students or protect adults at the expense of students. And I say that for a number of reasons:
1.) Unions aren't perfect, but they're not evil as some seem to believe. There is no sinister plot by the unions to take over the world. They don't hire monsters to hide under your child's bed at night. Their black helicopters aren't coming to get you. And any rhetoric to the contrary shouldn't be taken seriously.
2.) Much of what is in the best interest of teachers is also in the best interest of students. A more stable and professional teaching force, smaller classes, and a more orderly environment are a few of the things for which unions fight. All are in the best interest of both teachers and students.
3.) While a single bad teacher remaining in their position or a single district going on strike may not immediately benefit the students of those teachers, that doesn't mean that the broad rules surrounding such events doesn't benefit students. The fact that principals can't dismiss teachers at whim both protects some teachers who shouldn't be protected and prevents a class full of second graders from losing their wonderful teacher in the middle of the year because that teacher disagree with the principal about something. Similarly, the right to strike sometimes hurts students in the short-run but, in the long run, it could lead to a union that has more leverage to fight for the types of things I discussed in #2.
4.) Unions aim to make teachers happy, and I find it hard to believe that unhappy teachers benefit anybody. In fact, according to a recent internal study in Austin, happier teachers may lead to more successful schools.
I get the feeling that part of the reason that people don't take these things into account is because of the positions that unions are forced to take. When Michelle Rhee wants to ax a large number of teachers, the union has is forced into a corner and has no other option but to fight the plan (or at least parts of it). And fighting against a plan designed to get rid of poor teachers makes the union look bad. But I don't think any union, or any union member, would argue that we should protect bad teachers. My guess is that if Rhee had asked the union to propose a plan that they would have some sort of provision that allowed for the dismissal of the worst teachers. But the ways in which teachers are vilified by so many in the education policy arena doesn't allow unions to take the offensive in ridding their bodies of their worst members because they're too busy defending those that aren't the worst.
Anyway, here are some concluding thoughts: Are unions perfect? No. Should they perhaps be a little more flexible? Yes. Could they do a better job of working with reform-minded superintendents? Cetainly. But, are they the scourge of the Earth sent from hell to ensure that children don't learn? No, they're not, and don't believe anybody who says so.