BOSTON — In the not so distant past, officials in the teachers unions would have choked on any endorsement of "school choice" or charter schools.
But as the 1996-97 school year opens, the nation's most powerful teachers unions are cautiously embracing education changes they once vehemently opposed. Both the National Education Association and the smaller American Federation of Teachers now support charter schools, school choice, and other keystones of the reform movement such as speedier removal of incompetent teachers.
This grudging shift, by one of the most active arms of the American labor movement, is a recognition that many parents and politicians want to see more competition between private and public schools.
It is a pragmatic but controversial move within the teachers unions, which represent 90 percent of all public school educators. Some teachers perceive the reforms as having dubious merit and as threatening their clout. Others say they want to be active players in what they see as inevitable changes.
"We know there needs to be change in the public schools," says Bob Chase, who will take over the helm of the 2.2 million-member National Education Association in Washington next week. "But we're pushing for real reform. Any union has a responsibility to make sure that its employer [the public school] is doing a good job" and will survive.
How far unions are willing to go remains to be seen. Many teachers worry the reform effort will undercut the gains made since the nation's first teacher contract was negotiated 34 years ago. The average teacher's salary has jumped from $23,000 in 1985 to $36,000 in '95, but in some rural areas, salaries remain just above the poverty level. Teachers' health and retirement benefits - not to mention job security and summer-long vacation - would make a Detroit autoworker envious. But many districts want to reduce these costs.
Critics say the unions are just giving lip service to the reforms. When push comes to shove, they say, many union leaders view change as a threat.
"I see [teachers unions] as the biggest obstacle in the country on school choice," says Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York. "For them, the public school system is first and foremost an employment system. The kids aren't highest on the list of priorities."
STILL, the NEA recently joined the charter school movement, led by parents who are pulling their children out of traditional public schools and setting up independent schools that give them a greater say in what is taught. The NEA has created six charter schools of its own. "Clearly, they are having to respond to the marketplace," says Bruno Manno, of the Hudson Institute in Washington.
To be sure, the American public shows an increasing desire for alternatives to traditional public schools. Almost 6 out of 10 parents with children in public schools say they would send their children to private schools if they could afford to do so, according to a 1995 poll by the independent group Public Agenda.
Albert Shanker, head of the AFT, gives lukewarm support to school choice, the practice of allowing parents to send their children to any school in a district, including, in some areas, private schools.
But Mr. Shanker opposes vouchers - giving parents public money to allow their children to attend private schools - because some of that money may go to religious schools.
The NEA's Mr. Chase agrees that giving public aid to religious schools may be at odds with the constitutional separation of church and state. But in any case, he adds, vouchers are no panacea. In Milwaukee, where vouchers are being used, studies have shown no difference overall between the test scores of those who attend the public system and those who obtain public aid to attend private schools.
Chase also says reformers don't have the public backing that they claim. A recent NEA commissioned poll of Republican voters, a key reform constituency, showed that 61 percent say tax dollars should be spent to improve public schools rather than to assist parents who send their children to private or parochial schools. Nearly 57 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a member of Congress who supports vouchers.
Meanwhile, Shanker says his union of 850,000 teachers is addressing the toughest questions raised by education reformers, including the difficulty of removing incompetent teachers. In most states, if a teacher has received tenure after three years of adequate service, dismissal takes a mountain of evidence and an arduous court fight.
"There is no doubt that providing due process makes it less efficient [to remove teachers] but there's a tradeoff between despotism and due process that protects a teacher's rights," says Jim Gross, a labor expert at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.
"There's a percentage of teachers who shouldn't be there," Shanker says, but he points to new ways of evaluating performance. In Toledo, Ohio, for instance, the local AFT affiliate is using a peer-review system that has removed more teachers to date than were removed when principals alone did the hiring and firing.