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The State of the Teachers' Union

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I must confess -- I look forward to the State of the Union every year, no matter who the president is. Sure, it's a long speech with staged pauses so approximately half of Congress can stand and applaud, giving us a visual reminder of just how divided this country is. Still, at the end of the day, it is the president's time to tell us where he thinks we are as a country and where he wants to take us the coming year.

I have been thinking about what I hope to hear from President Obama tomorrow when it comes to education. And I have also been thinking about the state of some other unions.

Indeed, I am talking about teachers unions.

The state of teachers unions is unstable at best. If they want to remain relevant, they must join the millions of American parents and children demanding equality in education now or be left behind. Education is the key to achieving the American dream and parents will no longer accept the unspoken doctrine that equates destiny with zip code.

After several school choice victories in 2011 and a promising start in 2012, the teachers unions are overwhelmingly standing on the wrong side of change.

For example, an Indiana Superior Court judge just ruled that the state's School Choice Scholarship Program (the largest in the country with about 4,000 children enrolled) is constitutional, dismissing the arguments of union-backed opponents that the state voucher program funds parochial schools. The judge ruled that the vouchers give parents a choice, and where parents choose to apply the voucher is not under the state's control. The primary supporter of the lawsuit against the voucher bill was the state's teacher union.

New York State could lose $1 billion in education funding because of failed negotiations on teacher evaluations stalled by teachers' union-backed state assemblymen. In New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been fighting with the United Federation of Teachers -- the city's branch of the American Federation of Teachers -- to give the highest-performing teachers a $20,000 raise as long as he can fire half of the teachers at the 33 worst-performing schools in the city. To me, that sounds like a win for students and teachers.

The Parent Trigger continues to grow across the country. In Adelanto, California, parents at Desert Trails Elementary School collected signatures from more than 70% of their fellow parents, becoming the second group in the state to "pull the trigger" on their school, enforcing their right to negotiate with the district for real, accountable changes for their children's schools.

Desert Trails parent Doreen Diaz told the Wall Street Journal, "We've been complaining for years that our school needs some help and nobody was listening, so we are taking it into our own hands."

The parents could have taken over the school and made it a charter, but they chose to work with the school district first. The point is, they chose. Of course, the California Teachers Association (a state teachers union) has rallied against the trigger and allegedly harrassed parents in other parts of the state considering the trigger.

All of this reminds me of the teacher town hall during NBC's first Education Nation summit in 2010. A young female teacher stood up and said she didn't understand tenure. She said if you're good at your job, then you don't need a piece of paper guaranteeing you're coming back next year. More important, she said and that her union contract prevented her from doing much-needed extra work with her students.

In short, she said the teachers union was in the way.

Imagine, for a moment, what could happen if teachers unions came to the negotiating table with an open mind and a realization that parental choice is about educating children, not protecting the few teachers who are failing them. Teachers are committed professionals who did not choose this vocation in order to become rich and famous. They genuinely care about educating our children and we should respect that.

However, we also must hold them accountable for our children's academic success and failure. Fighting merit pay, which deals with so much more than student test scores and could actually reward the best teachers, is tone-deaf. Restricting teachers willing to put in extra work is counter-intuitive. Telling parents they should have no power in the way their child's school is run or where their child is educated is simply inhumane and cruel.

That is why I support efforts like National School Choice Week. This bi-partisan coalition celebrates school choice in all its forms and encourages communities to discuss educational options and ideas for making our children's education better. It doesn't say one way is the best. It doesn't enforce unreasonable expectations or offer a silver bullet solution. What it does do is ensure the state of our parents is and must continue to be involved. And that is how we will turn the corner on education reform for all.

Michelle D. Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy and is an MSNBC political analyst. She is also "in" for National School Choice Week.