Towns To Unions: Drop Dead!

The taxpayers in the split-level town of Wappingers Falls, N.Y., were fed up. Money had been hard to come by since IBM pulled 12,000 jobs out of the Hudson Valley. And a looming $100 million budget that included $10 million in union teacher raises meant citizens would be saddled with a 20 percent tax increase. Voters revolted, rejecting the budget three times in a row on the ground that teachers, who average about $48,000 a year, were getting too much. The state finally forced the town to pay up. So homeowners pay their taxes--and resent mightily having to run car washes to pay for sports programs and clubs. "Raises were fine when everybody was working," said Charlene Hover, whose husband was forced into early retirement by IBM. "But now? Too bad."

Teachers' unions--the dominant voice for decades in American education--may still be wealthy and powerful, but they are no longer impervious to assault. "It used to be whatever unions said, went," said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a conservative Washington think tank. "But not anymore." Local boards are not only fighting--in some cases they're winning. This month in Hartford, Conn., and Wilkinsburg, Pa., local teachers' unions lost hard-fought campaigns to stop private firms from operating city schools. Washington, D.C.'s, city council recently removed teacher evaluations from the union's purview, giving them back to school administrators. Throughout New York state, a grass-roots campaign is gaining momentum to abolish tenure. "Board members now tend to believe teachers are not overpaid, they are overpampered," says Louis Grumet, president of New York state's School Board Association.

Several Republican governors--all elected without teacher-union support--are leading many of the battles. Gov. George Pataki of New York recently told school-board members he wants longer school days, a longer year and the abolition of teacher tenure. Gov. John Engler of Michigan signed legislation that hamstrings union efforts to negotiate reform issues such as school choice. Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar approved a law last spring that froze Chicago teachers' salaries and prohibited their union from striking for 18 months.

For all that, the unions remain powerful. The National Education Association has an unmatched 2.2 million members and a $185 million budget. Its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, represents 885,000 teachers and runs on a $78 million annual budget. Together, they gave more than $3.5 million to Democratic candidates in the last congressional campaign. The NEA alone outspent the National Rifle Association, making it the fifth biggest PAC contributor in the nation. "Teachers still have tremendous influence and power," says Leo Troy, a labor expert at New Jersey's Rutgers University. Troy predicts the two unions will merge before the millennium, creating the largest single labor union in the world.

Meanwhile, the unions are trying to tame their public-relations problems. The national NEA spends $1.5 million a year on its ad campaign. But this year state chapters in at least five states developed their own. New Jersey's union charged teachers $50 each for two years to fund its $10 million ad blitz extolling the achievements of the state's public schools. It's a strong message, but not enough to erase the memory of the Verona, N.J., local, which recently abandoned a maneuver to leverage its contract negotiations by refusing to write recommendations for seniors applying to college.

Union leaders pledge fealty to all sorts of reform ideas. This year's NEA regional leadership conferences featured a video-tape of president Keith Geiger tossing a straitjacket--a symbol of bureaucratic thinking--into a garbage can, saying, "Reform will never become system wide until we throw out the straitjackets." Geiger cites the NEA's Seattle chapter, which eliminated 80 administrators, he says, saving the district $5 million. AFT president Albert Shanker points to Toledo, Ohio, where his union helped develop an evaluation system that encourages ineffective teachers to leave. Both leaders argue that they want to save the public schools, for the good of the nation and their members. "The idea that we're an obstacle to reform is a canard," says Shanker.

But there are times when education reform is only as innovative as the union contract allows. At Wilson High School in Washington, D.C., principal Wilma Bonner redesigned the school's schedule five years ago, extending class time to 90 minutes. Students liked the added time for discussion, most teachers liked the added time to teach and the principal liked the lack of congestion in the hallway. But two Wilson teachers complained that the Bonner schedule sliced a few minutes from their contractually mandated free planning periods, and the school was forced to follow the rule book. This fall more than 1,000 students signed a petition demanding the old system back. "Kids like my son revolted," says Delabian Rice-Thurston, a parent leader, who tried negotiating with the union. "He was just furious." Before her son, David, could launch a student sit-in, the school reached a compromise--some extended periods, some cut in half. Seniors called the new plan "stupid." "It doesn't matter what students say," says Washington teachers' union president Barbara Bullock. "We still have rights."