Commentary Magazine


Topic: George Parker

Union Leader’s About-Face on School Choice

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

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Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts, union membership remains at all-time lows. Meanwhile, public disapproval of labor unions is near all-time highs. Teachers’ unions have been a main catalyst of public antipathy. During the last presidential election campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney tried to make teachers’ unions a lightning rod to rally support. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has likewise used antipathy toward teachers’ unions as a populist tool.

One of the reasons why teachers’ unions have become such a lightning rod is the belief, even among many who would normally be pro-labor, is the sense that teachers’ unions pit membership interest above that of children. Nowhere has this become more apparent than with the case of school vouchers which allow otherwise underprivileged youth or those stuck in poorly performing districts a chance at a better education. While many underprivileged students have sought to take advantage of these vouchers, teachers’ unions have uniformly opposed them. Here, for example, is the National Education Association position on vouchers and here is the American Federation of Teachers’ position.

How refreshing it is to see a union leader, even if retired, rethink his position and put kids first. George Parker used to be president of the Washington Teachers Union, and is a 30-year veteran teacher of the Washington D.C. school system. Writing last month in the Tennessean, here is what he had to say:

My change of heart boiled down to this: I realized my opposition to opportunity scholarships was based on prioritizing adult interests above those of kids. As a former union leader, I made maintaining union influence and power a greater priority than meeting the educational needs of parents and students. But seeing firsthand the positive impact that D.C.’s federally funded voucher program had on many families — especially those of color and limited means — compelled me to rethink my position.

He then gives three reasons why school vouchers work:

First, it puts more power back in the hands of parents, where it belongs. I think we can all agree that parents should have the biggest voice in deciding what type of school is best for their child. Second, expanding school choice helps level the playing field by giving low-income families the same options as high-income ones. Opportunity scholarships will be a godsend for disadvantaged families who cannot afford private school, or to move to a community with better public options. Third, and most importantly, opportunity scholarships work. Similar programs in other states report greater levels of student achievement and parental satisfaction.

Let us hope that his former colleagues will have a similar change of heart. At the very least, his litmus test of what benefits students should become the key litmus test for anyone concerned about the state of public education in the United States, whether they are parents, community leaders, non-unionized teachers, or, indeed, teachers’ unions as well.

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