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6 Reasons Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids

Our schools need teachers unions as much today as they ever have.

Photo Credit: Matt Gibson /


Once upon a time, labor unions enjoyed a fair amount of political legitimacy among both the public and political elites. While it is true that unions were always a source of concern for capitalist elites and union-busting was always with us, the public generally considered unions mainstream. They had a political voice because regular working- and middle-class people often voted based on their endorsements.

Yet over the last three decades, the power of unions has decreased steadily -- especially as a result of the hostility to business regulation that characterized Reagan-era politics of the 1980s, and the anti-communist Cold War propaganda of the time that made the general public more suspicious than ever of labor activism.

But if unions as a whole have taken a reputational hit over the last 30 years, teachers unions in particular have found themselves especially demonized. From being falsely accused of defending sexual predators in schools, to being held ultimately responsible for the “failure” of America’s school system ( a fallacy), teachers unions have borne the brunt of anti-union sentiment to the point that less than a quarter of the public now believes that teachers unions have a positive effect on schools, with 41% of those recently polled finding the effect to be neither positive nor negative.

Yet by a number of important measures, there is no doubt that teachers unions continue to play a vital role in the health and well-being of our schools, the teachers who work in them and the children they serve. Though the country’s two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), have taken well-deserved criticisms from the left for caving on charter schools -- and for uncritically supporting Democratic candidates who push for corporate education reform just as Republicans do -- when it comes to helping build our children’s success, the fact is we need teachers unions today as much as we ever have.

Here are six reasons teachers unions continue to be good for America’s kids:

1. Teachers unions are the only major educational players still focused on advancing school equity by leveling the playing field. For the most part, both Democratic and Republican politicians have dispensed with the rhetoric about achieving true equality in education. Rarely do politicians propose policy measures motivated by concerns about equity -- like school integration based on socioeconomic status or equitable school funding. These kinds of policies would help put schools on equal footing, but today’s politicians ignore them in favor of various, ineffectual corporate reforms like school choice and teacher accountability, as well as programs like Teach for America, whose popularity in these corners remains unconnected to actual success.

Increasingly, it seems evident that the adoption of these corporate reforms will not merely fail to address the core inequality issues that plague our education system, but they may actually make them worse. Writing for Truthout, Paul Thomas, associate professor of education at Furman University, explains that a recent New York study suggests that “components of [this] ‘no excuses’ education reform are likely to increase the current problems with social and educational equity, instead of addressing them.” The preface of this study also indicates that, at least in New York City schools, corporate-style reform has led to the growth of “apartheid-like” conditions.

The growth of those conditions, in New York City and beyond, has led teachers unions to stand as perhaps the last, strong advocates for equity in education. The AFT-affiliated Chicago Teachers Union (CTU),  for example, has been particularly vocal in its pushback against market-based reforms in Chicago Public Schools (CPS). As its Web site explains,