03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Making Teachers Unions Work for Students -- And All Teachers

This weekend I attended a seminar on charter schools given by a school director of a highly-regarded charter school on the East Coast. As many charter leaders do, he compared the role of the charter movement in public education to the role of Federal Express in forcing the U.S. Postal Service to modernize. And, as many charter leaders also do, he showed a bit of genuine anger when asked about the unions: "Teachers unions," he said, "are the devil."

When I pressed him on the comment -- asking how a non-unionized school could serve as a model given that teachers unions are unlikely to magically vanish -- he admitted that he ought to "dial down the rhetoric" and that he would be fine with unions were they to undergo major reform. His real beef with the unions is their strident support of tenure and seniority and their hostility to merit pay. Were they to confine their advocacy to lobbying for better salaries, health insurance, and pensions, he said, he would have no problem supporting them.

Our discussion ended with what may be an emerging consensus for what the educational sector should -- and perhaps ultimately will -- look like in terms of labor relations. And though it's not exactly what the unions want, it's worth noting that their private-sector counterparts would surely kill for management that is happy with unions that lobby for higher compensation.

As many educational reformers -- most notably Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee -- have pointed out, there is no rational reason for tenure in modern public education; as it stands, the practice serves to protect teachers, no matter how poor a job they are doing. Tenure was originally instituted as a progressive reform to insulate faculties from big city machines and their penchant for stocking government jobs with patronage hires. But even in Chicago, the most machine-dominated major city in the country, it's unlikely that ending tenure in the public schools would result in clouted applicants flocking to LaSalle Street, letters from ward committeemen in hand.

Similarly, the structure of compensation within education is so absurd that it invites scorn from all but the teachers who benefit from the system. Currently, the only two variables that matter in terms of determining a teacher's salary are the number of years he or she has been teaching and whether he or she has a masters degree. The quality of a teacher's instruction and the subject that he or she teaches -- compare the difficulty of finding a physics or calculus teacher to finding a physical education or health teacher -- are entirely irrelevant.

At the same time, data from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation indicates what we have long known: that the United States significantly underpays its teachers when compared to its industrialized peers. In fact, Chicago is one of the few cities in the country that compensates its teachers at a reasonable rate; the short school day combined with the nationally-competitive salaries means that Chicago teachers end up with one of the highest wage rates in the country. If the Chicago Teachers Union were to focus on ensuring that its members continue to receive fair salaries and benefits, I doubt many people would take any issue with its activities.

Getting unions to prioritize compensation and not the strictures that constrain schools would require a tectonic shift in their priorities, but precedent for such reformed advocacy does exist. After all, no less a labor hero than Al Shanker, the heterodox president of the American Federation of Teachers, supported rigorous standards for teachers and proposed a sensible merit pay system.

More recently, the successful charter operator Green Dot, led by a former finance chairman of the Democratic Party, has made teachers unions part and parcel of its efforts. (For a sense of how positive Green Dot's union relations are, check out this picture of Green Dot chief Steve Barr and current AFT President Randi Weingarten.) The Green Dot teachers contract is just 30 pages and provides good salaries and benefits; it does not, however, provide for tenure or lock-step compensation.

Though there is likely broad political support for moving toward more considered labor policy in education, one large question persists: how can we actually make this happen? After all, even in Washington, a relatively small city led by a hard-charging superintendent, scaling back tenure and seniority rules has proven to be extraordinarily difficult. The answer might lie in stealing a page from the idealistic trade union agitators who spend decades campaigning for union democracy, often at great personal risk.

Many CPS teachers, particularly those who do not benefit from the current seniority rules, would likely support a system that involves the end of tenure and the adoption of merit pay in place of compensation based on seniority. Just as dissident factions within the Steelworkers, Mine Workers, and Teamsters organized and ran outsider candidates in the 1970s to make their unions more open and internally democratic, the hundreds of dues-paying CPS teachers who dislike the CTU for its role in entrenching ineffective teachers could play a crucial role in moderating their union.

In speaking out, organizing a dissident caucus, and perhaps even running outsider candidates for union leadership positions, such teachers would not only help provide crucial political space for a reformist chancellor like Rhee, they would show that unions can be reasonable and, crucially, part of the solution. And in so doing, they would help repair the image of teachers unions that has been so damaged by unreconstructed union leaders -- those who reject accountability while wishfully thinking that taxpayers will forever write larger checks in support of the public schools.