Due South: Attacks on American Unions and Public Education

Vivian McCaffrey

Cautionary Tale for Ontario

A severe budget crisis and a president bent on turning public education on its head have given Republican-led states in the United States a convenient excuse to attack union rights, public education, and teachers. As we head toward the Ontario election on October 6, we face the prospect that a right-wing government here will find these policies attractive.

Between 1995 and 2003 the Ontario Conservative government led by Mike Harris and his successor Ernie Eves introduced many regressive policies borrowed from the U.S. Republican Party playbook. These included teacher testing, standardized student testing, and expanded private school funding. U.S.-based policies also informed the Harris government’s attack on social assistance recipients and unions.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 did not result in a new direction for federal education policy – quite the contrary. Under the direction of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the federal government has become more interventionist and is using its $4.3 billion in funding for education to leverage support for its reforms. To qualify for federal support, state governments must agree to evaluate teachers according to student test scores, establish merit pay based on standardized test scores, and open the way to more charter schools. The administration is also championing policies that undermine teacher collective agreements.

The high-profile documentary Waiting for Superman  popularizes the Obama administration’s education policy. The film trumpets the merits of charter schools and blames teachers and their unions for low student achievement in underfunded public schools in impoverished neighbourhoods.


In the context of budgetary deficits, teacher layoffs are occurring across the United States. Republican governors in Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Ohio, Nevada, and New Jersey have all backed legislation targeting teacher tenure and seniority. For example, new Idaho laws allow school districts to unilaterally reduce salaries and benefits; they forbid the employer from considering seniority in layoff decisions.
Education Secretary Duncan lent his support, saying that “layoffs based only on seniority don’t help kids.”

Florida passed legislation replacing salary grids based on experience with merit pay linked to student test scores. Beginning in July 2011, Florida will hire teachers only on one-year contracts. Annual contract renewal will depend on teachers not receiving two consecutive “unsatisfactory” or three consecutive “needs improvement” evaluations. Half of the evaluation score will be linked to student test results. The Indiana state legislature is dealing with laws giving salary increases only to those teachers who receive “effective” or “highly effective” ratings on their evaluations and mandating that experience can count for only 33 percent of salary increases.

American lawmakers are touting merit pay as a tool to support improved student outcomes, but clearly care more about slashing expenditures. The Ohio Office of Collective Bargaining estimated that replacing statutory grid increases with


graphic of the feature title

The fight against teacher recertification will only be won at the political level and with the support of strong, collective action on the part of teachers across the province.

Teacher smiling at front of classroom with three students in foreground

Imagine the scene as Madame Bonprof goes through her day: the gas tank in her car is full in anticipation of the drive to the two schools w