America can't seem to get its head straight when it comes to teachers' unions. According to poll jointly conducted by Gallup and educators' organization Phi Delta Kappa, 47 percent of American adults say that teachers' unions hurt the quality of public schools--a clear plurality with only a quarter saying they help. But in the recent public employee disputes in Wisconsin and elsewhere, 52 percent of respondents say they side with the teachers' unions over the state governors.
The substantial part of the public holds a seemingly contradictory view of teachers' unions. While seen as a harmful influence in the public schools, unions seems to be the lesser of two evils in the state employee debates. Americans also seem to be able to separate the teachers from the unions that represent them in their minds. Nearly three-quarters of Americans say that they have trust and confidence in those who teach at public schools. They gave higher marks to teachers than they did to principals or school boards. So Americans may see the state budget battles as pinning dedicated teachers against unscrupulous politicians, thus siding with the teachers.
The unions themselves offer another explanation for the discrepancy: one of the questions was misleading. The president of the American Federation of Teachers argues that one question was "framed in a way that implies union work is limited to narrow issues of compensation and working conditions." It read: "Most teachers in the nation now belong to unions or associations that bargain over salaries, working conditions, and the like. Has unionization, in your opinion, helped, hurt, or made no difference in the quality of public school education in the United States?" Surveyors defended the question, telling the Huffington Post that they're just using the wording from past polls so results could be compared.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.