In the national battle over the future of unions, labor’s greatest danger is division among liberals over schoolteachers’ rights in dismissals, evaluation testing, assignments, promotions and tenure.

On one side are the two nationwide teacher unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. On the other are the Obama administration and liberals such as Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Watching are parents concerned about the public school education of their children. In fact, they are probably more worried about education than the deficit, the tea party or any other domestic issue. Worry is a powerful force, enough to prompt this parental army to turn on the teachers unions—and other public employee unions—if children are seen as getting shortchanged in school. As Ezra Klein put it in The Washington Post last week:

“… [T]he future of the union movement is in the hands of the teachers unions. Most people don’t have much contact with the janitors at their city hall or machinists in Chicago. But they do have contact with their child’s teacher and they do read about how well the schools are doing.”

In Los Angeles, Mayor Villaraigosa and the American Civil Liberties Union have taken on the teachers union—the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA)—over the seniority issue and the union’s insistence on a provision that last hired is first fired when layoffs are made during budget cuts. The school district, citing seniority rules in the UTLA contract, fired large numbers of young teachers at schools in impoverished South Los Angeles, where the students are overwhelmingly African-American and Latinos.

The young teachers had volunteered to teach in those schools and by all accounts generally were doing a good job. But seniority rules in the union contract mandated that they be fired, and the young teachers had to take their energy and skill to the unemployment line. The ACLU maintained they were replaced by less talented veterans, including large number of substitutes. Siding with the civil liberties union, a judge ruled that the school district can’t fire new teachers in schools in poor areas because the high faculty turnover hurts students.

Villaraigosa, who was once an organizer for the union, told a nonpartisan public policy group that “there has been one, unwavering roadblock to reform: UTLA union leadership. While not the biggest problem facing our schools, they have consistently been the most powerful defenders of the status quo.”

President Barack Obama, a centrist liberal, and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, supports some ideas the unions oppose: merit pay, charter schools (which are privately operated) and publicly funded schools without union contracts. They also favor relaxation of seniority rules and evaluation of teachers based on student test scores. The administration’s Race to the Top program gives big grants to states that require such evaluations.

The controversy over the teacher evaluations illustrates the complexity of the problem. An increasingly popular way of evaluating teachers is through the “value-added system.” A student who is average one year normally would be expected to be average the next. If test scores show an improvement to above average, the teacher is given credit. If the score falls, the teacher is blamed.

The unions oppose it. The system is imprecise, with a substantial margin of error. But it’s a measurement. “It’s like batting averages,” said David Tokofsky, a former Los Angeles School Board member. A batting average is a measure of a hitter’s ability in baseball, but, as Tokofsky pointed out, there are other statistical measurements as well. Judges of baseball players’ abilities look at all the measurements, as well as intangibles such as attitude. It’s the same with teachers and student test scores. Scores should be just one part of the process of evaluating teachers.

By resisting such changes, the teachers unions are playing into the hands of Republican conservatives such as Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Chris Christie of New Jersey and their campaigns against public employee unions.

The changes championed by Mayor Villaraigosa and President Obama are not union busting. They are not a return to the pre-union days, when teachers were fired for their politics during the McCarthy era or dumped for no good reason by principals who didn’t like them. What the liberal reformers want is an end to union contracts that impose dubious paperwork and seniority rules and too-easy tenure requirements. They want more charter schools — privately run, publicly financed institutions that make their own rules within state and district standards.

They want teachers to be evaluated in a fair, systematic way. “Education may be the most important issue of our time,” Villaraigosa said. “It is an economic issue, it is a civil rights issue and it is the foundation for the common values that bind us as Americans. … A quality education should not hinge on your ZIP code, or your parents’ tax bracket or the color of your skin.”

If the teachers unions are perceived as getting in the way of improving education, parents of all income levels, including the poor, will punish them and vote against candidates who support the unions. And the public workers unions are likely to suffer with them.

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