Commentary Magazine


Teachers' Unions

To the Editor:

In his review of my book, The Teacher Unions [November 1997], Chester E. Finn, Jr. does not mention the fact that his own views on unions are discussed unfavorably there. Here is what I wrote:

Former assistant secretary of education (under President Reagan) Chester E. Finn, Jr. wrote in 1991 that “Unionism per se does not alarm me. Nor do many of the stances and positions that unions take. There aren’t a dozen issues, foreign or domestic, on which I have any large quarrel with Albert Shanker, for example. That’s why, a couple of years back, I felt comfortable joining his AFT [as an associate member].”

In several articles since then, and despite his support for vouchers, Finn has never suggested weakening the teacher unions in order to enact a voucher plan.

Mr. Finn is prominent in conservative forums, and his naiveté, on display above and elsewhere, is a major factor to be taken into consideration in the effort to promote a competitive education industry. This in itself does not disqualify him as a reviewer. But his review is short on analysis as well as on candor. For example, he is absolutely mistaken in saying that I dismiss as fools reformers who have tried to work with unions. Some are not fools, but their treatment of teachers’ unions has been affected by self-serving or political reasons.

Myron Lieberman
Education Policy Institute
Washington, D.C.

_____________

 

Chester E. Finn, Jr. writes:

Whence cometh Myron Lieberman’s peculiar need to skewer everyone in sight? Did he not actually read the words of my generally favorable review of his useful book on teachers’ unions? I included a straightforward acknowledgment that the book criticizes me (among many others) for past collaborationist tendencies vis-à-vis teachers’ unions:

[Lieberman's] judgments are harsh, even sharp-elbowed. Knowing, for instance, how savvy and relentless the unions are about maintaining their privileges, he dismisses as fools those reformers who have tried to work with them—a group that has included me on occasion.

OK, maybe he did not use the word “fools,” Perhaps naïfs is more apt. But I surely did not conceal from COMMENTARY readers the fact that Mr. Lieberman criticizes me in the pages of his book.

Rarely does a week go by when I do not miss Albert Shanker’s wise counsel on one or another of the education and foreign-policy issues perplexing the nation. We agreed to disagree on vouchers and one or two other issues, including, of course, the role of teachers’ unions. But Albert Shanker was a major asset in the general quest for higher standards, clearer incentives, and stronger academic achievement for young Americans.

But he is gone, and today, while the two national teachers’ unions feign support for education reform, they are, fundamentally, obstacles to almost every important change that needs to be made The rhetoric coming out of their Washington headquarters is daily belied by the actions of their state and local affiliates, which labor mightily in the political vineyards—and with continuing success—to fend off school choice, to maintain ironclad tenure for teachers, and to make sure additional dollars go to salaries. They are simply a menace. And now it is even clearer than when Mr. Lieberman wrote his book that they will soon merge into a single giant union that will be even more of a menace. On this, I believe, Mr. Lieberman and I are in full agreement.

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