Star Parker: Unions, public schools, and minority children

March 22, 2010 04:11

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” -Steve Jobs, Apple CEO

Star Parker Washington Examiner Columnist
March 22, 2010

Speaking a couple years ago about technology and education, Apple CEO and founder Steve Jobs said that technology wouldn’t matter as long as you can’t fire teachers.

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” he said.

Jobs likened schools to running a small business, which he said could never succeed if you can’t hire and fire.

Reasonable? I think so. Would anyone question that there is no single thing more critical to a nation’s future than educating its children?

Yet, consider that 88 percent of our children get K-12 education in public schools and that 70 percent of the teachers in these schools have union-protected jobs.

Gallup has been polling public opinion about unions since the 1930s. Last year, for the first time, less than half (48 percent) of those surveyed approved of unions. Fifty one percent said unions “mostly hurt” the U.S. economy, and 39 percent said they “mostly help.”

The percentage of the nation’s private sector work force that belongs to a union has dropped precipitously. In the 1950s, more than 30 percent belonged to unions. Today it’s a little over 7 percent.

But in our public schools, the direction is completely opposite. In 1960, about 35 percent of public school teachers belonged to unions, and today it’s twice that at 70 percent.

Is it not counterintuitive that most Americans feel unions hurt us, that we allow increasingly fewer goods and services produced in our private sector to be controlled by unions, but we turn increasingly more of our most precious commodity — our children and their education — over to a union-controlled work force?

In an article in the latest edition of the Cato Journal, Andrew Coulson notes that, on average, compensation of public school teachers is about 42 percent higher than that of their counterparts teaching in nonunionized private schools. Yet, according to Coulson, research shows that private schools consistently outperform public schools.

He attributes the higher average wages of public school teachers less to union collective bargaining and more to the political clout of unions to maintain the public school monopoly over K-12 education.

Over 95 percent of the political contributions of the two national teachers’ unions — the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers — go to Democrats or to the Democrat Party. Their $56 million in political contributions since 1989 equals that of “Chevron, Exxon Mobil, Lockheed Martin, and the National Rifle Association combined.”

The main beneficiaries of education alternatives are minority children. Yet, at the state level, unions provide a unified lobbying front to block such initiatives.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed reported on the glowing success of charter schools in Harlem: “Nationwide the average black 12th grader reads at the level of a white eighth grader. Yet, Harlem charter students … are outperforming their white peers in wealthy suburbs.”

Yet, in 2009, the New York teachers union successfully lobbied the state legislature to freeze charter school spending and now is pushing to limit penetration of charters in school districts.

Kids in Los Angeles’ public schools are overwhelmingly Hispanic and black. According to the Los Angeles Times, “just 39% of Los Angeles’s fourth-graders are even basically literate.” Yet, the Times attributes union lobbying to undermining a recent attempt by the Los Angeles school board to open failing schools to nonunionized charters.

Similarly, unions played a major role in recently killing the successful private school scholarship program in Washington, D.C.

But there’s a significant and promising sign that blacks are beginning to fight back. The Rev. James Meeks, founder and senior pastor of the largest black church in Illinois, who is also a Democrat state senator, is taking on the unions. He has introduced a bill opening the door for vouchers for kids in Chicago’s public schools.

Examiner Columnist Star Parker is an author, and president of CURE, the Coalition for Urban Renewal and Education (

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