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Protecting Teachers Advances Democracy

Teacher Unions provide a system of due process that protects all teachers from arbitrary and capricious discipline or dismissal.

Richard Iannuzzi's picture
Mar 09, 2016

In the most recent Democratic Debate, the candidates were asked about the influence of Teacher Unions in education. But, sadly, the only question the debate moderator seemed capable of asking  with respect to education was why Teacher Unions protect bad teachers. No questions about rigorous licensure standards, no questions about the impact of excessive standardized testing, no questions about improving facilities or available materials—no, just questions that provide a chance to do some union bashing.

Fortunately, the candidates try to squeeze in their views on such issues as common core, early childhood education and the astronomical cost of higher education. But, this isn’t easy. Despite the fact that education is a primary issue of concern for the public, it gets little airing from moderators of televised debates among Democrats—and almost none among Republicans. It simply isn’t sexy enough and fails to get candidates into the gutter with their responses.

Let’s look at the one “education” issue raised: Do Teacher Unions protect bad teachers? Let me rephrase the question: Can we have a robust public education system that fosters critically thinking students without a professional staff that has the protection of due process? The answer, regardless of how you phrase the question, is a resounding: NO!

Teacher Unions provide a system of due process that protects all teachers, whether members or not, from arbitrary and capricious discipline or dismissal. It protects those who have spoken out on behalf of their students; it protects those who might be the target of a vindictive parent or administrator; it protects those wrongly accused of inappropriate behavior; and, it provides a fair and impartial process to adjudicate questions of competency, quality and the ability to practice the art of teaching.

I’ve spent my entire career in the Teacher Union Movement. I held elected union office in the district where I taught for 32 of my 34 years of teaching. Eight of those years I served as the elected president. I then went on to become the elected president of the largest state teachers union, affiliated with both national unions. At every turn, the importance of protecting individual teacher rights was in the forefront of our work.

Union leaders in every field know that protecting the voice of members is the most critical factor in building a strong union. Protecting those who are willing to speak out against injustice, injustices experienced not only by the worker but by the community they serve, is central to the role of unions.

It’s no different for Teacher Unions. Our strength is in our membership. Teachers must feel safe when it becomes necessary to publically challenge the conditions they labor under and that their students experience. Teacher Unions and their members have consistently been the first to expose crumbling facilities (witness the current actions in Detroit). Their members have been in the forefront in demanding appropriate books and materials for their students. They’ve demanded nutritional lunches and breakfast for the neediest students. They have spoken out on behalf of their students with a powerful voice that has strengthened the voices of parents and the community. They’ve done so with the knowledge that their livelihood was protected by a fair and impartial system of due process.

I sit as a board member at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights where, along with advocating for and defending many important social justice causes and individuals, we support educators in their efforts to teach about human rights and social justice. We work to build voices among students that we hope will become the next generation of human rights defenders. We could not succeed in our work if teachers did not feel secure in knowing that they would not be unjustly punished for teaching students to expose injustice. That security comes from the due process guaranteed by their Union.

When I’m asked about who Teacher Unions protect, my answer always includes members, students, communities, and, indeed, the voices needed to advance our democracy.

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