I am now and always have been a union man, and especially a teacher union man. Without the unions, school conditions would be dramatically worse for students and for teachers.
Having said that, I always felt uncomfortable when the union protected teachers who weren't any good at their jobs. Every time I saw those teachers, it upset me to think about how destructive they were to the students who passed through their classrooms, and it rankled that so much effort went into helping them keep their jobs.
I understand and respect the union's argument. If the union doesn't protect all its members as a matter of principle, teachers are going to be subject to arbitrary firings, experienced teachers will be cut and replaced by less expensive younger teachers, teachers will be afraid to stand up to administrators, and so on. I agree with the principle.
But I'm willing to bet, in most schools you could find reasonable consensus among teachers and administrators on which teachers truly don't belong in the classroom. In an exceptional school, all the teachers may range from competent to strong and all of them should stay in the profession. But in other schools, you could pinpoint, say, 10% of the staff that wasn't getting the job done -- the bottom 2-3 at a small school with 20-30 teachers, the bottom 8-12 in a larger school with 80-120 teachers.
To allow those teachers to continue standing in front of classrooms when most people agree they're giving their students sub par educations is simply wrong.
The dangerous movement to wipe out teacher tenure completely has grown lately. Its promoters tend to be anti-union and are often anti-public school to boot.
And their primary argument for ending tenure is, We have to stop protecting bad teachers just because they've been around for a long time.
Unions need to find a way to defuse the main argument of the anti-tenure crowd by working with school districts to weed out the poorest teachers quickly and effectively without sacrificing legitimate protections for the rest of the staff. I don't know what the solution is, but I know it involves the union, teachers and administrators working together to make tough, uncomfortable decisions which will do the most good for children and the least harm to good, dedicated teachers.
If unions refuse to budge on this issue, more states are going to pass draconian anti-tenure laws like the one Arizona passed this year. The union needs to make the difficult but necessary adjustments which have the potential to benefit everyone involved -- with the exception of teachers who should not be teaching in the first place.