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A Debate Over Union Rights in a Post-Chicago Nation

Though the Chicago Teachers Union approved a new contract in September, the aftermath of their eight-day strike has led to debate over the role of teacher unions in education reform; specifically, whether unions should be allowed expansive collective bargaining and striking rights under state law, or if these rights impede reform.

“This is an issue where reform is split,” says Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonprofit education policy think tank in Washington, D.C. that released the report “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions: A State-by-State Comparison” in October. “Now that Chicago allowed unions to strike, do they have an inordinate amount of power that will be able to block reform?”

The Chicago strike was ignited in part over test scores in teacher evaluations and hiring laid-off union members to fill positions. In October, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute brought together two perspectives on teacher labor issues in a debate called “After Chicago: The Future of Teacher Unions.” Terry Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative policy analysis group, argued against teacher unions.

He stated that, for the past 30 years, unions overall have allowed incompetent teachers to remain in classrooms, ineffective teacher evaluation systems, salaries that are unrelated to performance, and seniority to prevail over effectiveness during layoffs. “No one in their right mind would organize the schools in this way if all they were thinking about was what’s best for children,” Moe says. “Unions shape the school from the bottom up with collective bargaining, and load contracts up with countless rules about seniority and teacher evaluations and other things. None of them are adopted to make the schools more organized. They have to do with job protection.”

Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a political action committee, argued that unions can positively influence reform, so long as they act within their rights. While Chicago was “a strike that didn’t need to happen,” he says, collective bargaining is not necessarily detrimental. “I think there is a way you can challenge unions and respect the collective bargaining process,” Williams explains. “Even a union would tell you, collective bargaining works best when there is a spirited debate on both sides.”

Both men agree that education is quickly changing, especially considering the rise of technology, and reform is needed to improve the system. Administrators should consider that many reformers want them to have more authority over teacher hiring and firing than they do, says Petrilli. “We need to shift the balance of power to what’s best for kids, rather than what’s best for employees of the system,” he adds.

Watch the debate at