Virginia’s Education System Has ‘Managed Well’ Without Teacher Unions, Governor Says

By Edwin Mora | March 23, 2011 | 4:48 PM EDT

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell delivers the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech in the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond, Va., on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Washington ( – Virginia’s Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell said his state has “managed well” without teacher's unions.

“We banned public sector bargaining 20 years ago in Virginia,” McDonnell said on Tuesday. “If you’re a manager, you take care of your people, you motivate them, you make sure they’re compensated well, you treat people fairly – I think that’s the right approach in the public or private sector, and really it kind of minimizes the need for a union,” he said.

“We got very powerful teachers' associations in Virginia, they’re not a union per se, but they have a lot of influence – they bring good ideas to the table,” he said.

McDonnell and other governors spoke Tuesday at a discussion in Washington, D.C., about an effort endorsed by the Obama administration to prevent kids from dropping out of high school.

While the commonwealth has “managed very well without” a teachers’ union, McDonnell said, the “input” of the teachers associations, which represent a large group of professionals, “is helpful.”

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, said it is the people managing the unions who are at fault for not getting the job done.

Both governors were asked if they regard teachers unions as an ally or an impediment to school reform.

“We don’t go into this [student performance measurement] endeavor with the view that teachers are the enemy, that unions must be destroyed, collective bargaining is bad,” O’Malley said. “Look, we’re either going to work together to improve student achievement for our kids or you’re going to have to find something else to do.

“A lot of times we have found that managers, not only in our public school systems, but throughout government, use collective bargaining and work rules as an excuse for not doing their job as managers – to write people up and to fire them when they’re not performing,” he said.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, center, flanked by Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell, and other governors, speaks to reporters outside the White House in Washington, Friday, Feb. 25, 2011, after Democratic governors met with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

“So I know it doesn’t make a lot of people happy. I know that sometimes it’s an easier construct to think unions are big and bad, they’re evil, they’re stopping all progress from happening,” O’Malley added.

O’Malley said if it were not for the “advocacy” and “hard work” of teacher’s unions in Maryland, the state would not have succeeded in winning one of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education grants.

According to the latest figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Education, Virginia’s dropout rate for public high school students was 2.7 percent in the 2007-2008 school year. Maryland’s high school dropout rate during the same period was 3.6 percent.

The discussion on Tuesday was sponsored by the America’s Promise Alliance, a group chaired by Alma Powell, Gen. Colin Powell’s wife. The group describes itself as a partnership of businesses, nonprofits, faith-based organizations and other entities that are “passionate about improving lives and changing outcomes for children.” Its goals include boosting the nation’s high school graduation rate.

President Obama has joined the America’s Promise Alliance to address the nation’s high school dropout rates and college readiness hurdles.

On March 1, the president proposed $900 million to states and education districts that focus on changing or closing down their worst performing schools.

“This is a problem we can’t afford to accept or ignore,” President Obama said in a statement at the beginning of this month. “The stakes are too high – for our children, for our economy, for our country. It’s time for all of us to come together – parents and students, principals and teachers, business leaders and elected officials – to end America’s dropout crisis.”