Teachers strikes hurt the students

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Boston Globe on January 29, 2024. A tentative agreement to end the strike was announced on Friday, February 2, and is subject to approvals by the Newton Teachers Association and the Newton School Committee.

At a time when the country’s basic commitment to the rule of law is being questioned, Newton educators are teaching their students that breaking the law is OK — if it is in your self-interest.

Stuck at home last week because of the Newton teachers strike, a high school student told me, “It’s like the pandemic all over again.” How sadly true.

She and hundreds of thousands of other students are still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the greatest disruption in Massachusetts’ educational history since the Spanish flu. These students are paying the price, with staggering learning loss, chronic absenteeism, and mental health challenges.

And yet, in recent years, teachers unions have further disrupted students’ lives by illegally going on strike in Dedham, Haverhill, Malden, Woburn, Brookline, Andover, and now Newton. Myopically, their parent union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, has gone even further, enlisting elected officials to file legislation to reverse the state’s prohibition on teacher strikes.

Governor Maura Healey, Speaker Ron Mariano, and Senate President Karen Spilka all — rightly — oppose the bill.

They are of course concerned about the learning loss crisis. Massachusetts students were among those most adversely impacted by the pandemic. Dr. Eric Hanushek of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution estimates that the pandemic will reduce the lifetime earnings of Bay State students by more than 7 percent and diminish the Commonwealth’s gross domestic product by more than 2.5 percent.

In Newton, out-of-school students and parents trying to work from home or scrambling to find child care coverage have been treated to the spectacle of a giant Teamsters truck circling the city’s streets, its speakers blaring Twisted Sister’s anthem to adolescent rebellion: “We’re not gonna take it anymore.”

While that may feel satisfying to teachers dissatisfied by the trajectory of negotiations with the school committee, it is a terrible civics lesson for their students. At a time when the country’s basic commitment to the rule of law is being questioned, Newton educators are teaching their students that breaking the law and thumbing one’s nose at a judge’s order are OK — if it is in your self-interest.

Few would disagree that teachers should be paid well, respected, and treated as professionals. Massachusetts does well on these fronts. In the 30 years since the passage of the Education Reform Act, the Commonwealth has had among the most progressive state school funding formulas in the country, which is in part why Massachusetts teacher retention rates are high.

Teachers certainly have the right to bargain collectively — and they have used that right effectively in advancing pay, pensions, health benefits, and, perhaps too often, curbing management’s decision-making power.

Even without the right to strike, local teachers unions can and do bolster their bargaining power through political organization and the use of “work to rule” actions — refusing to participate in outside-of-school-hour activities such as extracurriculars, meetings with students or parents, college recommendations, or meetings with principals and district staff.

The Massachusetts Legislature and courts do not grant teachers and public safety officials the right to strike for a specific reason: They have been granted a near monopoly on their services.

If police, firefighters, or teachers go on strike, localities have no recourse. They cannot recruit replacement workers. When teacher strikes occur midyear, families and students have no other education providers to which they can turn.

In this way, teachers are also distinct from other essential workers like nurses. A nurses’ strike will greatly inconvenience patients, but patients can still avail themselves of another hospital or clinic. That is not the case with public school districts, which have almost total monopoly power, serving approximately 90 percent of the Commonwealth’s children.

Things would be different if parents had other options — or if it were practical for localities to hire replacement workers midyear.

Given the market power granted to district schools, it would be folly to give teachers unions the additional power to strike. It would be unjust to the Commonwealth’s students, subjecting them to recurring disruptions in their formative education without any legal recourse or remedy.