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Randi Weingarten, Lily Eskelsen García and other teacher union leaders have on many occasions extolled the virtues of Finland’s education system, and, at every turn, they remind us that their teachers are unionized.
They are right. Finland does have a highly regarded education system and the teachers are indeed unionized, but then there are the details.
In Finland, teachers are revered, and enjoy the same professional status as doctors and lawyers, though they are not paid as well. (In fact, they don’t earn as much as their American counterparts.) Finnish teachers are recruited from the top 10 percent of their college grads, whereas in the U.S., only 23 percent of new teachers come from the top third. This is one of the reasons that on international comparisons, Finland’s students beat ours regularly, and do so with less funding.
Unlike U.S. teachers, Finns do not have iron-clad job protections. As explained by economist Barbara Bruns, they are hired by individual schools – not school districts. “If a school director asks a teacher to leave – and it does happen – the teacher alone is responsible for finding a new position. Just reflect on the incentives for performance that this creates.” Finland doesn’t have ongoing school choice battles either. As Bruns notes, Finland runs a national school choice system in which parents can choose freely between the 2,600 municipal and 80 privately-managed schools, with funding following the student.
While Finnish schools are unionized, their model is the diametric opposite of ours. Henna Virkkunen, Finland’s former Minister of Education explains, “For me, our teachers’ union has been one of the main partners because we have the same goal: we all want to ensure that the quality of education is good and we are working very much together with the union. Nearly every week we are in discussions with them. They are very powerful in Finland. Nearly all of the teachers are members. I think we don’t have big differences in our thinking. They are very good partners for us.”
And therein lies the rub. Our industrial-style teachers unions were founded and still exist as a counter to management, not as a partner. In 1959, Wisconsin became the first state to allow government workers to bargain collectively. Then in 1962, President John Kennedy, by executive order, allowed federal workers to organize. Shortly thereafter states across the country began to allow teachers and other public employees to unionize. Their models, however, were nothing like Finland’s. From the outset, they were based on distrust and confrontation.
Since that time, nothing has changed. Recent teacher strikes in West Virginia and Los Angeles, especially, have been ugly affairs – three-way battles with angry unionized teachers squaring off against government bureaucrats and parents.
West Virginia has some of the worst schools in the country. In fact, over 75 percent of the state’s 116 high schools fall in the “does not meet standard” category. As such, charter schools would be a beneficial addition. But one of the prominent reasons for the recent teacher strike was a proposed law that would have allowed West Virginia to establish charter schools – making it the 44th state in the U.S. to do so. When a reporter went to the Mountain State, she found “a culture of overwhelming fear and intimidation related to unions.” She writes that some West Virginians’ fear of speaking freely about charters and other reform issues is “something I’ve never before encountered in America. It is, in fact, much closer to the corruption culture I’ve experienced in my 22 years of charity work in post-communist Romania.”
Similarly, a hostile teachers union in Los Angeles is doing what it can to knock charters off the grid, taking their bile to the statehouse in Sacramento, where several laws harmful to charters are on the table. This has prompted parents, mostly African-American and leaders of the California chapters of the National Action Network and the National Urban League, to set up a meeting with Governor Newsom. Activist grandmother Christina Laster explained that “our hope as Black parents is in charter schools, which are free public schools.” The problem, of course, is that most charters are non-unionized and, unlike Finland, American teachers unions really do not prioritize kids and families.
Perhaps the poster boy/patron saint for angry American teachers is Bob Chanin, 41-year general counsel for the National Education Association. At the yearly NEA meeting held in 2009, Chanin gave a legendary talk announcing his retirement. For the first part of his 25-minute speech, Chanin was pleasant enough, recalling with fondness his time as NEA’s top lawyer. But at 15:30 “Uncle Bob” switched gears and started lobbing grenades at perceived NEA enemies, referring to them as “conservative and right-wing bastards.”
He then added, “And that brings me to my final and most important point, which is why, at least in my opinion, NEA and its affiliates are such effective advocates. Despite what some among us would like to believe, it is not because of our creative ideas. It is not because of the merit of our positions. It is not because we care about children. And it is not because we have a vision of a “great public school for every child.” NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power….”
A recent international poll revealed that only 36 percent of U.S. teachers believe that society values their work. While I don’t know how many Americans actually value the work that teachers do, I do know that if American teachers unions were to adopt a Finnish model – getting off their power trip – kids, families, taxpayers and indeed teachers would be much better off. But as long as American teachers continue to go along with the combative and bullying American model, nothing will change.
[Originally Published at the California Policy Center]