Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education

Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education

by Peter Brimelow

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It is no coincidence that the thirty-year decline in U.S. K–12 education and the simultaneous surge in education spending began at the same time the modern teacher unions were created. Today, the National Education Association has nearly three million members. Its agenda is not to provide better teaching in schools; it is to provide more money and benefits

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It is no coincidence that the thirty-year decline in U.S. K–12 education and the simultaneous surge in education spending began at the same time the modern teacher unions were created. Today, the National Education Association has nearly three million members. Its agenda is not to provide better teaching in schools; it is to provide more money and benefits for teachers -- and, above all, for itself.

In this devastating critique, Peter Brimelow exposes the teacher unions for what they are: a political and economic monopoly that is choking the education system. It is time, Brimelow convincingly argues, to bust the Teacher Trust.

Editorial Reviews

In this book, two NEA watchers provide a detailed indictment of the nation's largest teacher union. Forbes journalist Brimelow and Education Intelligence Agency director Antonucci accuse the National Education Association of paralyzing America's schools. Equating modern teacher unions with robber-baron monopolies, they charge that the NEA opposes meaningful educational reform and exploits school systems for its own purposes.
The Washington Post
Brimelow leaves no doubt that the unions' paid organizers and political contributions give them far more influence over the conduct of local school business than parents have -- one reason why conservatives calling for a breakup of monopoly government control of public schooling often find so much support. But he fails to show that the unions' excesses have had much effect on what is going on in classrooms, where teachers are struggling with pedagogical problems that have nothing to do with their union representation. — Jay Mathews
Publishers Weekly
"The problem with America's government school system is socialism. The solution is capitalism-the introduction of a free market." This provocative theme, stated explicitly by CBS Marketwatch columnist Brimelow, aptly sums up the premise of this lengthy opinion piece on what's wrong with American schooling and how to fix it. The real villains in the government educational scam, according to Brimelow, are the unions, with their bloated bureaucracies, political maneuvering and teacher protection rackets. Brimelow's prescriptions go further than suggesting we simply get rid of unions. His remedies run along predictable ideological lines: turn education over to market forces, hand over responsibility for teacher education to private firms instead of universities and abolish the U.S. Department of Education. Competition, in this paradigm, will solve all of education's problems. For politicians seeking ammunition in the war on public education, Brimelow shares plenty of anecdotes highlighting what he sees as the excesses of teacher unions. Unfortunately, his text suffers from selective use of research and unnecessary teacher bashing (e.g., he opens the book with a commentary on how extraordinarily fat teachers are) to make the point. He can also be hypocritical, as when he accuses union spokespeople of hyperbole when warning against vouchers, merit pay and other conservative proposals for school reform, yet engages in much of the same, detracting from what might otherwise be a welcome addition to the national conversation on education. (Feb. 4)

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HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Harper Perennial
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Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)

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The Worm in the Apple
How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education

Chapter One

The NEA, Representatively Assembled

Alas, regardless of their doom
The little victims play!

-- Thomas Gray,
"Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"

They're extraordinarily fat, for a start.

Not all of them, of course. But as you stand looking out across the cavernous Orange County Convention Center, where the National Education Association is holding its 1999 annual meeting -- which it calls its "Representative Assembly" and boasts is the largest democratic deliberative body in the world -- you can't avoid the curious feeling that you've stumbled into a sort of indoor rally for human hot-air balloons. An alarming proportion of attendees wobble and waddle through the teeming crowds of teachers -- there are reportedly nine thousand delegates and several thousand guests -- with thighs like tree trunks, bellies billowing, jowls jiggling.

You don't want to be mean, of course. But you can't help thinking: what sort of classroom role model for America's schoolchildren can these teachers be?

Perhaps the NEA Assembly really is Representative. Although it often comes as news to national journalists isolated on both yuppiefied coasts, as Michael Fumento has pointed out, three-fourths of the US. population is overweight and at least a fifth is obese, to the point where Europeans can pick out Americans in crowds. But it's somehow surprising, given the NEA's unmistakably teacherish air of perfection and its habit, deeply irritating to political conservatives, of demanding perfection from America and the world at large. Resolutions passed at recent Representative Assemblies include:

  • "The Association also expresses concern that the practice of capital punishment in the United States impacts individuals disproportionately on the basis of social class, race, ethnicity, and gender." (Gender?!)
  • "The Association strongly recommends pre-service preparation and staff development for education employees that present strategies for handwriting instruction of left-handed students. Such training should also address sensitizing instructional staff to the needs of left-handed students."
  • "The Association also opposes the exploitation of women as mail-order brides."

Moral of this story: the NEA is human. It's fallible.

But still, it's also, well, large. You wouldn't want it sitting on you -- the way it's sitting on America's government school system.

The NEA Representative Assembly is held over every Fourth of July weekend. But the atmosphere is not patriotic but partisan. In trusting private, speakers are blatantly political and unquestioningly liberal-Democratic. They routinely denounce the "Extreme Right" and the Republican Party, somehow not bothering to distinguish between the two. State delegations hold caucuses and are seated in separate sections with banners and insignia, just like a national political convention.

This year, the Florida delegation seems to be holding a competition for the most insulting poster punning on Governor Jeb Bush's name. (Bush has especially annoyed the union by signing into law a program that provides for the assigning of a letter grade to every government school in the state. Parents whose children attend schools with a grade of "F" are to receive a voucher for any school, government or private, they wish to choose.) The posters get very insulting indeed. Sometimes they are in dubious taste. The role-model question crosses your mind again.

When the NEA speaks, politicians listen. Every year, the NEA summons some prominent national political figure to be its guest keynote speaker. This year, it is Hillary Rodham Clinton. She is beginning what seems likely to be a bitter battle to be elected senator from New York. Her entrance is ecstatically hailed. Her exit is bid an ecstatic farewell. But the hail is no more ecstatic than the farewell, because Clinton's speech is artless, policy-wonkish and, frankly, mildly anti-climactic. It might almost have been written by an NEA committee -- as it probably was. Much of it is a long, detailed list of somewhat trivial NEA objectives that she dutifully endorses ("Phase out emergency certification! ... Don't give new teachers the toughest jobs!")

The crowd applauds each one until Clinton plods into a passage supporting charter schools, albeit only if they are staffed by NEA members. This is greeted with stricken silence. Charter schools are another fashionable reform idea in education: they are public but independent of local regulation, often with significant private input (see Chapter 11). The NEA has endorsed them reluctantly -- and only if they are unionized, naturally. But they are still viewed with intense suspicion by the activist rank and file.

Clinton and her speechwriters have betrayed a tin ear. You begin to feel that she will not prevail in a contest against a ruthless counterpuncher like New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, her presumed Republican opponent. (In the event, Giuliani withdraws from the race because of ill health and Clinton, with teacher unions support, handily beats the candidate put up by the Republican machine.)

The NEA's intense partisanship is actually even more surprising than it might appear. The union's own figures have shown that about a third of its members are Republicans. Almost half have voted for winning Republican presidential candidates like Ronald Reagan and George Bush. There is even an "NEA Republican Educators' Caucus," although cynics wonder who is supposed to be influencing whom. (Answer: the NEA/REC's literature on "Organizing a State Republican Educators' Caucus" says sternly, "Keep uppermost in your mind that the goal of our group is to support and perpetuate the cause of public [i.e., government] education ... ")

You do see a few of the thin-lipped, aggrieved-looking student-leftist types you've grown to know and love when you were attending college. Arguably in this category is the well-dressed, carefully coiffed figure of Robert Chanin, the NEA's longtime general counsel and partner in the Washington, D.C., labor law firm Bredhoff and Kaiser, viewed by many as the power behind the NEA throne. He prowls restlessly along the side of the auditorium and eventually leaves abruptly, muttering in disgust at one of the many procedural tangles.

The Worm in the Apple
How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education
. Copyright © by Peter Brimelow. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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Meet the Author

Peter Brimelow, who has two children in public school, is the editor of VDARE.COM, a senior fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, and a columnist for CBS MarketWatch. A financial journalist, he has written extensively about the NEA and the economics of education in Forbes and Fortune. The author of Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, he has contributed to the Wall Street Journal the New York Times, and the Washington Post.

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