By TERRY MOE
This has been a horrible year for teachers unions. The latest stunner came in Michigan, where Republicans enacted sweeping reforms last month that require performance-based evaluations of teachers, make it easier to dismiss those who are ineffective, and dramatically limit the scope of collective bargaining. Similar reforms have been adopted in Wisconsin, Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Tennessee, Idaho and Florida.
But the unions' hegemony is not going to end soon. All of their big political losses have come at the hands of oversized Republican majorities. Eventually Democrats will regain control, and many of the recent reforms may be undone. The financial crisis will pass, too, taking pressure off states and giving Republicans less political cover.
The unions, meantime, are launching recall campaigns to remove offending Republicans, initiative campaigns to reverse legislation, court cases to have the bills annulled, and other efforts to reinstall the status quo ante—some of which are likely to succeed. As of today, they remain the pre-eminent power in American education.
Over the long haul, however, the unions are in grave trouble—for reasons that have little to do with the tribulations of this year.
The first is that they are losing their grip on the Democratic base. With many urban schools abysmally bad and staying that way, advocates for the disadvantaged are demanding real reform and aren't afraid to criticize unions for obstructing it. Moderates and liberals in the media and even in Hollywood regularly excoriate unions for putting job interests ahead of children. Then there's Race to the Top—initiated over union protests by a Democratic president who wants real reform. This ferment within the party will only grow in the future.
Then there's a crucial dynamic outside of politics: the revolution in information technology. This tsunami is only now beginning to swell, and it will hit the American education system with full force over the next few decades. The teachers unions are trying to stop it, but it is much bigger than they are.
Online learning now allows schools to customize coursework to each child, with all kids working at their own pace, receiving instant remedial help, exploring a vast array of courses, and much more. The advantages are huge. Already some 39 states have set up virtual schools or learning initiatives that enroll students statewide, often providing advanced placement courses, remedial courses, and other offerings that students can't get in their local schools.
The national model is the Florida Virtual School, which offers a full academic curriculum, has more than 220,000 course enrollments per year, and is a beacon of innovation. Outside of government, tech entrepreneurs like K12 and Connections Academy are swarming all over the education sector. They are the innovative force behind the rise of virtual charters, which now operate in 27 states, enroll some 200,000 full-time students (who typically do their studying at home), and stand at the cutting edge of technology's advance.
This is just the opening salvo. Most American parents want their kids to actually go to school—to a physical place. So the favored virtual schools of the future will be hybrids of traditional and online learning. There are already impressive examples.
At the high-performing Rocketship schools in San Jose, Calif., for example, students take a portion of their academics online—generating $500,000 in savings per school annually. Schools use that money for higher teacher salaries and one-on-one tutoring.
As the cyber revolution comes to American education, it will bring about a massive and cost-saving substitution of technology for labor. That means far fewer teachers (and union members) per student. It also means teachers will be far less concentrated in geographic districts, as those who work online can be anywhere. It'll thus be far more difficult for unions to organize. There will also be much more diversity in educational offerings, and money and jobs will flow out of the (unionized) regular schools into new (nonunion) providers of online options.
The confluence of these forces—plus the shifting political tides among Democrats—will inexorably weaken the unions, sapping them of members, money and power. It will render them less and less able to block reform. The political doors will increasingly swing open to reforms that simply make good sense for children and for society.
So the unions can weather the Republican attacks of 2011. But the real threats to their power are more subtle, slowly developing—and potent.
Mr. Moe is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of political science at Stanford University. His latest book is "Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools" (Brookings Institution Press, 2011).