Panel criticizes teachers' unions

Teachers' unions and education associations bear some responsibility for the failure of the nation's public schools, a major task force reported. The report from the 20th Century Fund Task Force on Federal Education Policy is the first of any major group to say collective bargaining, carried out under union and education-association sponsorship, has resulted in ''protection for the weakest teachers rather than winning rewards for the strongest.'' The task force also said that only a national commitment to excellence in public schools could avert a national disaster.

An estimated 2 million of the nation's 2.2 million school teachers belong to a union or education association that bargains for contracts. Teacher unions and associations grew over the last 15 years, a period marked by a sharp slide in Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and other indicators of school performance. The task force proposed that the federal government set up an award program that would reward excellent teachers in each state with salaries beyond existing pay ceilings over five years. Cost would run as high as $5 billion a year by the fifth year. The task force said unions and education associations protected the principle of equal pay or, at best, a differential pay scale that primarily took into account educational background and seniority, thereby limiting financial rewards for superior professional work.

The task force is headed by Robert Wood, former housing and urban development secretary and urban studies director, University of Massachusetts. The 20th Century Fund is an independent research foundation.

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