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The Market for Teacher Voice

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The teachers unions are under attack -- and not just from Scott Walker. In a recent white paper, Mitt Romney blamed the unions for gridlock and stagnation in American education. In the public discourse, films such as Waiting for Superman vilify union leaders and frame the unions as enemies of education reform. It's fair to say even President Obama and the unions have a rocky relationship, as the administration has supported initiatives that unions have long opposed, such as charter schools and tenure reform. Public dissatisfaction with the unions is mounting, and the ways in which teachers and the groups that represent them respond will shape the profession for years to come.

In addition to attacks from politicians, media, and the public, some teachers have also voiced criticism of their unions. Unsatisfied teachers can respond in one of two ways:

1. Teachers can leave their union. Though they may still need to pay union dues in states without "right to work" laws, teachers are not forced to be union members. This trend has certainly begun, as the NEA has recently lost 100,000 members. Of course, losing 100,000 bodies for the 3.2 million member powerhouse isn't that big of a deal. But this news has certainly riled up the NEA, and rightfully so. Losing members means losing money -- $27 million to be exact -- and that's money that can't be used for staff benefits or to reelect Barack Obama.

2. Teachers can change their unions. Teachers can become more involved in union activities and voice their opinions in union decisions. Teachers can also try to change their unions' structures by becoming more involved as leaders themselves. For example, teachers in Boston recognized that union rules, including the location and timing of union elections, made it difficult for teachers to vote. In response, they mounted a campaign for mail-in ballots called BTU votes that represented a huge step forward for teacher organizing and advocacy.

As evidence of these trends, new organizations have emerged to ensure teachers have a place at the policy table. Teach Plus and Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) are smaller, more streamlined "teacher voice" organizations. For example, Teach Plus empowers current classroom teachers to impact policy, growing from a network of 16 teachers to over 8,000 in just four years. E4E emphasizes grassroots organizing and mobilizes teachers to change policies at the school, district, and state levels.

These organizations don't claim to speak for all teachers. Educators for Excellence uses a declaration of principles to recruit teachers in the "rational middle." Teach Plus does not ask teachers to sign a pledge, but targets teachers who identify as "solutions-oriented." Previous Teach Plus fellows have impacted policies such as removing "last in, first out" provisions and created staffing models to place the best teachers where they're needed the most. These organizations only exist in a few cities. But for the teachers that participate, these organizations serve as an effective outlet for voicing their opinions in policy discussions.

As new organizations in the advocacy space, they could also work with the unions and challenge them to become more reform-minded. In Massachusetts, Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) President Paul Toner recognized that if the MTA didn't act, reform would be done to them, not with them. As Toner mentioned in a 2010 campaign speech, "We have to be the architects of reform, rather than the subject of it." The MTA took the lead in developing a new teacher evaluation system, taking into account student test scores, an idea that unions had traditionally opposed.

Don't get me wrong, the unions are still powerful -- and they aren't going away any time soon. Unions still hold a monopoly in funding political organizations and securing valuable collective bargaining rights. But as for representing the interests of teachers in policy discussions, new organizations have emerged to involve teachers as leaders in reforming and creating policies that will change the profession. With this, they are challenging the unions to become more reform-minded, and incrementally improving the market for "teacher voice" in policy decisions.