Business as usual for unions? Not in today's schools.

Teachers' unions: They're tough, they're entrenched, they stand in the way of progress.

That's the image much of America has of organized labor when it comes to public schools. But the changes that are sweeping through America's public schools have begun tugging at the mantle of union power as well.

"In the last five years the unions have seen more defeat," says Jeanne Allen, executive director of the Center for Education Reform in Washington. "Thirty-five states have charter laws. There are more private companies dealing in education, more high-stakes tests and requirements for accountability, more choice - all of which is in competition with union policy."

In response to harsh criticism during the 1996 Republican National Convention, the National Education Association - one of two national teachers unions in the US, along with the American Federation of Teachers - commissioned a study of its external communications.

It concluded that: "To survive, much less to prevail over its critics, the NEA must shift to a crisis mode of operations.... You take a risk or you don't exist."

The study's message was clear: The union needs to either be perceived at the forefront of reform, or risk being crushed under the weight of it.

Nowhere do those words ring more ominously than in New York City, where the local 140,000-member United Federation of Teachers, part of the AFT, is generally considered the most powerful of the all the nation's teachers unions.

Myron Lieberman, once a candidate for AFT office, holds the UFT responsible for everything from poor teaching to crumbling buildings. "It's their fault if there aren't good teachers," says Mr. Lieberman, a scholar at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. "We don't hire, fire, or assess. And the schools are in terrible condition. Money that should have gone for maintenance went into teachers' salaries."

In part, the New York City teachers union owes its high national profile to Albert Shanker, the fiery UFT leader who went on to head the AFT. Many educators - conservatives in particular - praise Mr. Shanker for early interest in introducing notions of standards and accountability in US schools. But Sandra Feldman, who followed in Shanker's footsteps both as UFT head and -since 1998 -as president of the AFT, insists that her group has always been ahead of the curve when it comes to reform.

She points to the Teacher Center Consortium (a union- sponsored program in New York State where master teachers help improve the skills of peers) and the increase in peer-review programs as evidence that the union is an active advocate for change.

"The union is working hard at improving schools," she says, "But it's an underappreciated role."

The perception that the union exists only to protect jobs is absurd, she says, pointing out that having incompetent teachers in the system only hurts other teachers. "We were in favor of testing teachers long before anyone else was," she says.

But one UFT member, who asked that his name not be used, says any boast the union makes of championing reform is a hollow one. It is in an uncomfortable position, somewhat taken aback by the degree to which parents and community groups support options like charter schools and vouchers, he says.

"There's a real change at the grass-roots level, and the union doesn't quite know how to respond," he says. But he points to its recent opposition to charter-school legislation in New York State as proof of the group's tendency to resist change.

Certainly the union has its defenders. James Bruni, dean of education at New York's Lehman College, says "it's easy to abuse a teacher," and insists that in a tough city like New York a tough union is a necessity.

Ms. Allen agrees that unions have served a practical purpose. But when it comes to reform, she says, it's survival rather than good will that will ultimately produce an attitude shift. Today's climate of reform has the unions "on the run, on the defensive." And although she doesn't see substantial change yet, eventually, she predicts, "They're going to have to restage their policies."

*Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.

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