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TV debate places union friends and foes in a blame game

The head of a national teachers union and the former U.S. Secretary of Education squared off on a televised debate program this week over the question of whether teachers unions are to blame for failing schools.

Called Intelligence Squared, the program airs on NPR and Bloomberg TV next week, but the transcript (a full 45 pages) of Tuesday’s teachers union-themed debate is online now. The program had six panelists debate the power of teachers unions to influence what goes on in classrooms and how much responsibility they should have for the outcomes. Going by the audience votes at the end of the show, the anti-union panelists swung undecided voters to their side — at the beginning of the program, 43 percent of the audience thought unions were to blame for failing schools and by the end 68 percent did.

Among the three pro-union panelists, there was a California superintendent, a Massachusetts elementary school teacher, and Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. The opposition included a Los Angeles math teacher, a senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution, and Secretary of Education during the Bush administration, Rod Paige.

Weingarten and Co. argued for a causal link between high rates of teacher unionization and high test scores, noting that places like Massachusetts and New York, where teachers are more likely to be unionized, had better schools than states with few unionized teachers, like Alabama and Louisiana. Teachers unions are fighting for teachers, Weingarten said, but their outcomes create stable schools with less turnover that benefit children as well.

“There’s a lot reasons schools don’t work,” said Gary Smuts, superintendent of the ABC Unified School District. “And it’s not just teachers unions. Professor [Larry] Moe said that teachers unions are major obstacles to school improvement. Everywhere? Not in my district,” he said.

Paige and others countered that if unions were truly interested in helping children, they would make it easier to fire incompetent teachers and would become enthusiastic charter school backers.

“Teachers unions have awesome power to cause action in schools. They have zero responsibility for their student performance,” Paige said. “That’s just not fair.”

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