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6 Reasons Teachers Unions Are Good for Kids

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

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NEA sponsors a variety of both state-specific and nation-wide professional development programs. National programs range from support staff assistance to learning how to be a mentor to training in collective action and bargaining. AFT promotes a holistic, ongoing process of professional development. Its Web site states, “Professional development…should enable teachers to offer students the learning opportunities that will prepare [students] to meet world-class standards in given content areas and to successfully assume adult responsibilities for citizenship and work.” Its  Educational Research and Development Program (ER&D) was launched in 1981 to bring educators and researchers together to trade information about how to become a better teacher through using research.

5. Teachers unions protect student and teacher safety in schools. Both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) require good sanitation practices and cleanliness in American public schools. But sometimes schools fail to meet minimal standards, and in those cases it is often left to the unions to step up and advocate on behalf of teacher and student safety.

Norm Scott, a retired teacher and former building representative with the United Federation of Teachers of New York City told AlterNet that the union “has insisted that each school have a safety plan, and the union has to sign off on the plan. At my former school, the union found that the boiler room had asbestos, and the union jumped in [to fix the problem]. We couldn’t necessarily trust that our employer would do it independently. The union is called in for most any heath issue.” For example, he says it has asked for an investigation into high incidents of cancer among teachers in some New York schools.

Often the unions’ safety advocacy takes the form of support for greener schools and better indoor air quality. NEA hosts training for custodial staff that teaches practices that can help improve school air quality. “The goal of this training,” according to NEA’s Web site, “is to assist NEA state and local affiliates create local association IAQ [Indoor Air Quality] action plans and to provide custodial staff with the tools, tips and resources that will help them improve and maintain a quality indoor environment.” This makes schools safer for both students and teachers. AFT, meanwhile, published its own guide to greener, more sustainable schools in 2008, citing research showing “that better environmental quality yields more productive human beings and greater academic achievement for all students.” Both organizations also support local and state campaigns for healthier, greener schools.

6. Teachers unions oppose school vouchers. Both NEA and AFT have always advocated against school vouchers -- that is, tax entitlements diverted from public funds that assist parents with private school tuition, including religious instruction. Vouchers divert money from public school systems already strapped for resources, and both unions have campaigned tirelessly against voucher programs cropping up throughout the United States.

According to AFT, “vouchers don’t improve outcomes for kids who receive them or drive improvements in nearby neighborhood schools.” Not only this, the organization points out, but voucher programs rely on false advertising to promote their mission: “Although much of the pro-voucher rhetoric uses the word ‘choice,’ in practice it is the private schools that choose the kids, not the other way around. In areas where voucher programs exist, private school operators decide whether they want taxpayers to subsidize their schools. They also decide how many, if any, voucher students they will admit.”

NEA, meanwhile, notes that it “oppose[s] alternatives that divert attention, energy, and resources from efforts to reduce class size, enhance teacher quality, and provide every student with books, computers, and safe and orderly schools” -- and vouchers are certainly one such “alternative.”

Affiliates of both organizations have been important organizers against a far-reaching voucher program introduced this year in Louisiana. NEA affiliates in the state threatened to sue individual schools last month, alleging that vouchers are “an unconstitutional payment of public funds.” AFT affiliates, meanwhile, requested a “hearing at which critiques, comments and suggestions for improvements can be made in regard to accountability standards for private and religious schools that will accept vouchers this fall.” The organization says accountability measures for these schools in Louisiana are more or less nonexistent, noting that there are very few checks in place to ensure that children receive a high quality private school education.