Charlie Leonard: Guest opinion |

Charlie Leonard: Guest opinion

Charlie Leonard
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Across the country, the leaders of teachers unions are facing stiff new criticism about inflexible work rules, shortened school days, their ability to strike and tenure protection for some of the worst performers in their ranks. The rhetoric is heating up and some harsh things are being said. Teachers union leadership has been accused of “cheating children … of their future,” and being “more interested in protecting incompetent workers than educating children.” It’s also been said that union leaders are nothing more than “a vocal minority” among teachers, “more interested in their own vested interests than children learning.” One well-funded critic is actually helping organize teachers at the grassroots level to oppose the policy positions of their elected union leaders.

Who are these people that are so fiercely challenging the ability of union leaders to control what goes on – or doesn’t go on – in America’s classrooms? If you think it’s Republican governors or conservative talk radio or the hosts of Fox News, you might want to Think Again. The words above were spoken by Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff and the newly elected Mayor of Chicago; Joel Klein, who led New York City’s public schools for eight years; and Michelle Rhee, the former superintendent of the Washington, D.C. public schools – all Democrats.

On the underground front, it’s none other than Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates who is helping to fund a revolution of sorts in the teaching ranks. In Indiana this year, a number of teachers operating under a Gates-funded umbrella called “TeachPlus” were able to convince the state legislature, over the objections of their union leaders, to eliminate seniority-based layoff policies.

So, why suddenly are Democrats and progressives like Bill Gates, once in total lock step with teachers union leaders, breaking rank and calling for dramatic reforms that would weaken the influence of old guard union leaders? I can’t speak for any of them, but I can speculate that the failure of most of our public school systems to educate or even graduate a majority of students is causing old alliances to crumble.

Here in Aspen, we have one of the finest school systems in the state and, indeed, the country. Clearly, there is a lot of credit to go around, but none deserve more credit for the achievements in Aspen public schools than the outstanding teachers and staff who make it all possible.

Unfortunately, elsewhere in the country, public education has been on a steep and precipitous decline. Nationwide, we barely graduate half of our children from high school. For minorities and big-city school districts, the numbers are even worse – including the Denver public schools. What chance do these kids have in the new global economy, where countries once considered “third world” are besting American students in math, science, computer skills and more?

Clearly, the status quo is not working. In fact, it’s failing. Yet teachers union leaders appear unwilling to give ground on basic reforms like teacher evaluations, merit pay and changes to tenure that would allow schools to terminate teachers that fail to educate our children. As Gates and other reformers point out, there has been virtually no ground given for new and creative approaches that might yield a better result.

This writer truly believes that teachers have one of the most demanding and important jobs in our society. But each of us has also, at one time or another, worked alongside someone who either didn’t carry their weight or was simply not suited for the job they were doing. This is obviously true of some teachers, and the time has come for unions to stop defending the indefensible. Until reformers and parents elsewhere in the country are empowered to make changes in failing classrooms and to replace teachers who are not getting the job done, it’s unlikely we will see any improvement in even the most basic classroom performance metrics.

That’s why it’s so encouraging to see some courageous leaders on the left challenging teachers union leaders and putting children first. And, as Bill Gates demonstrated in Indiana, there are apparently a lot of teachers who feel the same way.

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