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BECKNER: Shattering the teachers union stereotype

Education reformers are shifting their focus away from just money

- - Friday, February 21, 2014

Transforming education for the 21st century has become a top national priority.

With seemingly countless emerging ideas and advocates, teachers are often overlooked as valuable allies. In order to promote positive and practical change in our system, we must listen to the devoted teachers on the front lines.

For too long, individual teachers' voices have fallen on deaf ears in favor of the self-preserving agenda of the teachers unions. Focused primarily on maintaining a system of forced dues and political power, the union's outdated model isn't serving a profession eager to embrace the future.

Do hard-working educators stand in solidarity with union leaders to protect the status quo? Hardly. To establish a credible teacher voice, we must recognize that teachers are not in lock-step agreement with unions as their leaders suggest.

Teachers are individual professionals with ideas and opinions valuable to the education-reform conversation. The vast majority of classroom teachers want to see students succeed and the profession evolve.

According to a survey released last week by the Association of American Educators, the largest national non-union professional educator organization, teachers across the country are embracing policies that promote flexibility and options.

Contrary to what teachers unions would have you believe, classroom educators are indeed warming to many education reforms deemed taboo by union leaders.

One of the most prominent themes in education today is equitable funding. Despite constant pleas for increased funding by teachers unions, AAE members stress fiscal responsibility.

Sixty-three percent of survey respondents do not support the failed Colorado amendment that would have increased income taxes to raise nearly $1 billion for public schools. Teachers are adamant that across-the-board tax increases are unacceptable in their respective states.

While the union-backed establishment has spent decades designing a system that exclusively calls for more dues-paying members, members of our professional organization are supportive of policies that advance their professionalism and provide rewards for excellence.

Sixty-four percent of survey respondents would prefer to negotiate their own contracts to account for their unique circumstances and abilities. Additionally, 78 percent of teachers reject "last in, first out," the practice of firing teachers based entirely on seniority.

With regard to school choice, AAE members support common-sense laws that advance choice and promote options for all stakeholders. A whopping 82 percent of teachers support public school open enrollment, a practice exercised in nearly all 50 states.

Similarly, 68 percent of member educators support Wisconsin's Parental Choice Program, allowing low-income students public funds to attend a school of their choice.

Meanwhile, 72 percent of survey respondents support Arizona's Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which allow parents of special-needs students to use state education dollars in a school that meets the student's needs.

Furthermore, as new technologies make it possible for students to learn at their own pace, states across the country are implementing policies that offer and encourage online learning.

According to the data, 65 percent of the Association of American Educators support blended-learning environments, where students spend part of their day on a computer and part of their day in a lecture hall.

Additionally, 56 percent of teachers support laws that require students to take at least one online class to graduate. Teachers recognize the flexibility and autonomy technology can provide the profession.

These powerful results demonstrate that teachers unions are out of touch with growing numbers of classroom teachers.

Further evidenced by declining membership numbers and the unions' own opinion polls, teachers are fleeing the unions for non-union professional associations that offer many of the benefits they need without the union baggage.

In the months ahead as our country considers critical education reforms, policymakers, elected officials, administrators and parents need to know that the union noise opposed to all reform is just that — noise.

More and more classroom teachers are embracing policies that put students ahead of special interests.

Gary Beckner is the founder and executive director of the Association of American Educators.