6 Reasons Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids
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“Students and their families recognize the apartheid-like system managed by [Chicago Public Schools]. It denies resources to the neediest schools, uses discipline policies with a disproportionate harm on students of color, and enacts policies that increase the concentrations of students in high poverty and racially segregated schools.”
CTU has also pushed hard for specific reforms that address inequality, including increasing the number of “school counselors, nurses, social workers, and psychologists… [who] serve Chicago’s population of low-income students,” as well as bolstering programs that serve bilingual students and students with special needs.
Alongside the advocacy of local union operations like the CTU, the two largest teachers unions, AFT and NEA, also stand as bold proponents of equity in education. Though they have become increasingly friendly to charter schools in recent years, both organizations oppose most corporate reform measures that lead to greater inequality, including under-regulated school choice, which tends to create racially and economically segregated public schools. And in an era in which many in the public arena claim that inequitable funding is not the reason for school “failure,” both organizations continue to lead the charge in pressing for more equity in school funding.
For example, a decades-long commitment to equity by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE-NEA) in collaboration with Civil Rights activists famously led to the establishment of a high-achieving, relatively equitable school system in Wake County, North Carolina. Though the system has been under attack by conservative school choice advocates for the past two years, the NCAE-NEA has a taken a leadership role in organizing opposition throughout the state alongside the NC-NAACP. Their efforts were rewarded last year, when a new school board majority endorsed by the NCAE took office and then, in June 2012, promised to restore the so-called “diversity” school assignment plan, which desegregates schools on the basis of economic inequality to ensure well-funded, high quality schools throughout the large school system.
2. Teachers unions fight to protect teachers’ First Amendment rights, allowing them to advocate for children and schools without facing retaliation. Teachers unions have long fought to prevent political repercussions against members who speak out or disagree with their superiors. The AFT was at the forefront of fighting some school districts’ requirements that teachers take an anti-communist loyalty oath in the 1930’s, and again in the 1950’s. The NEA also protested these oaths in the 1950s.
The unions’ early commitment to academic and political freedom helped provide teachers in union-dense areas with freedoms to speak out that they might not have otherwise had. This was, and remains, a very important protection for teachers trying to advocate for their classrooms and individual students. Teacher Alicia Maud Wein of New York State United Teachers told AlterNet that speech protections have been indispensible for her as she advocates on behalf of her students:
"Without job protections, the balance is tipped so heavily in favor of administration (who must prioritize issues like the budget, school reforms, and legislation) that teachers are silenced. I know in my 15-year career I have had to respond in writing, at meetings or by speaking publicly on all of the above issues as a matter of course when advocating for my students and what's best for their learning. Frequently, I have been in the position of airing those concerns to transient or inexperienced administrative staff with whom I had not yet developed a working relationship. I would have been far too wary to do so if I thought it could mean a dismissal from my job without due process, and those students would not have benefited from my experience and support… Teachers living in fear of losing their jobs are not in a position to speak up for their kids, fight for appropriate curricular decisions, special education accommodations, funding, disciplinary actions, etc."