Are Unions Going the Way of the Betamax?

Disruptive technology is becoming more and more important in the nation’s public education system. And while the effects may be liberating for students, they would be devastating for teachers’ unions, writes president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network Larry Sand atCity Journal.

Stanford political scientist and Hoover Institution senior fellow Terry Moe writes of a series of victories for unions – tenure successes, strike rights, and seniority protection and fighting against accountability, charter schools, and vouchers for disadvantaged families.

But Moe doesn’t believe that this form will last. And he believes that union power will be marginalized, in part, by online learning.

Emerging technology-based education, Moe writes, is the “long-term trend . . . and the unions cannot stop it from happening.”

Online learning is an attractive and cheap proposition for education policymakers. The University of California system is looking to online learning as a way to cut costs. In a report released late last year, UC’s Commission on the Future proposed “a pilot program to explore the quality and feasibility issues regarding fully online courses for UC degree credit.”

But the University’s chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (UC-AFT) website challenges the claims of better and less expensive education online. But Sand believes that the union’s real concern is a significant loss of membership: the union represents all non-tenured lecturers, as well as librarians, across the system’s 10 campuses.

“[W]e are looking to . . . protect our members from potential adverse effects of UC’s rapid adoption of online instruction,” the website announced.

And is the union getting its way? University officials and UC-AFT have come together to agree on a new deal that includes a provision that stipulates that no campus could institute a course or program resulting in a “change to a term or condition of employment” of any lecturer without UC-AFT’s consent, writes Lamb.

“In other words, the union is determined to keep all of its dues-paying members on the payroll whether they’re needed or not—and whether students can afford them or not.”

It now costs three times as much as it did ten years ago to study at the university. Not including room, board, and sundry campus fees, tuition at the University of California this year is $12,182. Talk is that the UC Regents are looking to double tuition again in the next five years.

“Saving money for California’s beleaguered parents and taxpayers with quality online classes is of no interest to UC-AFT. They fiercely protect their turf at any cost.”

Sand believes K-12 is where the greater ramifications of digital learning will be seen. It will also be where the greatest threat to union preeminence will exist. Rocketship Education, a charter school network, is a blended model that fuses teacher-based and computer-based learning. It has five campuses in San Jose and serves a predominantly low-income and minority student population.

Rocketship plans to open 23 more campuses by 2017. And the schools are doing well, achieving an overall score of 868 on California’s academic performance index in 2010, placing the chain among the top-ten performers in Santa Clara County and the fastest improvers in the state.

Sand notes that any innovation requires a judicious dose of skepticism.

“But just as the horseshoe business became significantly less relevant with the advent of the automobile, education will undergo a similar transformation.

“It’s a fair bet that teachers’ unions ultimately will go the way of the eight-track cassette player, Betamax, and the floppy disk,” writes Sand.