Critic Takes On Teachers` Unions As Enemies Of Good Schools
March 09, 2003, 04:00 AM
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The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute in Arlington.,

THE WORM IN THE APPLE: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education, by Peter Brimelow; HarperCollins, $24.95.

In his 1995 bestseller, Alien Nation, Peter Brimelow warned in the bluntest terms of the danger that open borders pose to the survival of American society. He took a beating from cultural elitists and multicultural zealots, but the 9/11 sneak attack on America made his arguments all the more compelling. Now, with The Worm in the Apple, he writes just as provocatively of what he sees as a corrosive internal threat to American education, the linchpin of a free society.

As a financial reporter, Brimelow long has cast a critical eye on the National Education Association, the larger of the two national teachers' unions. His 1993 Forbes expose, "The National Extortion Association" (co-authored with Leslie Spencer), brought to light so much damning information about the NEA's ruthless pursuit of power that the article surely became one of the most photocopied education pieces ever.

IN HIS new book, Brimelow feels no obligation to pull punches or abjure name-calling. Indeed, he opens the book with a rollicking punch to the midsection. "They're extraordinarily fat, for a start." That was his assessment of an "alarming proportion" of 9,000 delegates to an NEA convention who wobbled and waddled "with thighs like tree trunks, bellies billowing, jowls jiggling."

From that, readers know the author won't be saying much nice about his prey; however, in ways more substantive than issuing personal insults, Brimelow does sustain a theme throughout the book of hoggishness of impact by the NEA and to a lesser extent the smaller union, the American Federation of Teachers. Porcine greed comes to mind with regard to the $500 in unified dues the NEA and its affiliates extract from the average teacher's paycheck each year.

THE $1.25 billion of loot goes to pay for mostly left-wing political activities that many teachers do not favor, and also keeps union bigwigs living in Fat City. Some state affiliates have dozens of officers who draw more than $100,000 a year (Michigan alone has 75). Even more jarring are the kinds of perks they award themselves, such as 100 percent prescription drug, dental, and medical coverage. That sort of security lies beyond the reach of everyday workers, teachers included.

Brimelow finds most contemptible the teacher unions' piggish consumption of educational resources that could be used to overcome lamentable deficiencies in public education. For instance, the Teacher Trust (as he dubs this labor monopoly) adamantly resists merit pay for effective teachers, or bonuses to attract bright newcomers to teaching, or extra pay for those who bring hard-to-find talent to the classroom, as in math and science. Instead the Trust insists on seniority-based raises for the faculty as a whole, in part because the Trust's own compensation depends on lockstep wage increases.

THE NEA/AFT idea of reform is to hire great numbers of new teachers in order to reduce class sizes, even though much research shows this does not bring about greater student achievement. Rather, it only produces membership gains and more revenues for the teacher unions.

School choice is the reform that the Teacher Trust most fears, Brimelow finds. And for good reason: The danger to the unions is not just parents and students leaving failing public schools, but teachers becoming non-unionized free agents. But he does offer a cautionary note to advocates of choice: If the teachers' unions ever decide vouchers are inevitable, expect them to make a major effort to organize private-school teachers.

In a separate chapter, Brimelow offers a 24-point "wish list," mostly composed of actions to cut back the legal privileges the unions enjoy that secure their power base. This impressive work should energize the education debate, much as Alien Nation did the immigration debate.