Jennifer Berkshire has written a piece in TheBaffler.com that every teacher, parent and student in a public school as well as Democratic Party insiders should read. Norm Scott says, "This article is so good I want to print it out and eat it." I kind of agree. The title and subtitle say it all:
How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party
The Democrats and DeVos have more in common than they'd care to admit
In the article Berkshire meticulously tells the history of Democratic Party support for ed deform (privatization) from the early 1980s, when Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary started a crusade for teacher competency testing, right up through the summer of 2017 when Success Academy Board Chair Dan Loeb compared teacher unions to the KKK. It's all here.
Loeb was certainly not coming from a point of view that is far off from establishment bipartisan elite thinking as Berkshire points out masterfully:
There’s another reason why we can’t dismiss Loeb’s view that teachers unions promote income inequality and serve as a barrier to progress of any sort as just another crackpot rich-bro outburst.
That’s because it’s now a key policy plank of responsible elite opinion almost everywhere. Flip back to The Economist—the bible of savvy, entrepreneurial-minded social criticism—circa 2012, and you’ll find Loeb’s screed rendered in assured magazine prose, minus the overt racist incitements. To wit: “no Wall Street financier has done as much damage to American social mobility as the teachers’ unions have.”
And where The Economist goes, influential “thought leaders” are sure to follow. So now, as America ponders the mounting economic disequlibriums that gave rise to the Trump insurgency, concerned plutocrats can all agree on one key article of faith: what is holding back the poor and minority children who figure so prominently in the glossy brochures of charter school advocates is not the legacy of racist housing policy or mass incarceration or a tax system that hoovers up an ever growing share of income into the pockets of the wealthy, but schoolteachers and their unions.
It was thus no great shock to see that, just weeks after Loeb apologized for his offensive language, attributing it to his passion for “education choice,” David Osborne, a professional Democratic party thinker who heads up something called the Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, said essentially the same thing. On a swing through Philadelphia to promote his new book on the wonders of school privatization, Osborne told an interviewer that teachers unions belong in the same category with segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. “They’re actually doing what George Wallace did, standing in the schoolhouse door, denying opportunity to poor minority kids.” To document their perfidy, Osborne cited the opposition of teachers unions in Massachusetts last year to Question Two—a ballot initiative proposing dramatic charter school expansion. Voters rejected the measure by nearly two to one—the same ratio, as it happens, by which wealthy pro-charter donors dwarfed the union spending that so upset Osborne.
Berkshire then writes an in-depth history showing how the Democratic Party has all along been involved in the war on public schools since 1982.
Redistribution and government intervention were out; investment and public-private partnerships were the way to go. Neoliberal man (there are no women included in Rothenberg’s account) was also convinced that he had found the answer to the nation’s economic malaise: education, or as he was apt to put it, investment in human capital. “Education equals growth is a neoliberal equation,” writes Rothenberg.
But this new cult of education wasn’t grounded in John Dewey’s vision of education-as-democracy, or in the recent civil-rights battles to extend the promise of public education to excluded African-American communities. No, these bold, results-oriented thinkers understood that in order to fuel economic growth, schools had to be retooled and aligned in concert with the needs of employers. The workers of the future would be prepared to compete nimbly in the knowledge-based post-industrial society of the present. For the stragglers still trapped in older, industrial-age models of enterprise and labor, re-training—another staple of the neoliberal vision—would set them on the path to greater prosperity.
Of course, not everyone was on board with the new program—yet. The teachers unions were impeding progress, but that was to be expected, writes Rothenberg, citing what he described as the development of an “education bureaucracy . . . counterproductive to the goals of the 1980s.” By the final pages of the book, he is exultant, concluding that “Neoliberalism is being internalized by the Democratic Party.” The party’s 1982 midterm convention in Philadelphia had come and gone with no call for national health insurance, a federal jobs program or a guaranteed annual income. By the next year, even the teachers unions appeared to be coming around; both endorsed a study of yet another cornerstone of the neoliberal vision for schools: merit pay.
Therein lies the problem: The AFT, NEA and certainly the UFT have gone along with just about every ridiculous school reform policy that have hurt their members. The unions are sheep in wolves' clothing put up by the reformers to give the story a villain.
You name it: school-wide bonuses (instead of calling it merit pay), closing or redesigning schools, charter schools (the UFT even started two of our own), test based teacher and student accountability and more have all been supported by the union. I want someone to find one major anti-public education policy the unions have resisted. Turning New Orleans into an almost fully charter school system, while the Black middle class in that city was decimated, was only possible because the unions hadn't resisted in a generation and could no longer put up a fight.
I will never forget when then UFT President Randi Weingarten from the podium at the Executive Board yelled at my friend Ed Beller and me because we didn't "get it" but how she understood the political situation in 2004. No, I did "get it" Randi. We needed to put up a real fight back then by threatening job actions just like we need to now.
Where was the great teachers' strike since the advent of school reform? It hasn't yet occurred (sorry Chicago and Seattle your strikes were bold but they have not changed the game) and now it might be too late.
The Union's strategy at the local, state and national level of making deals with the reformers and getting what we can has resulted in losses all over the place. When one wants to look at the cause of the demise of public education and the Democratic Party, part of the blame has to go to the unions for going along with school reform through the decades. It started with the sainted Al Shanker and only worsened with Sandra Feldman, Randi Weingarten and Michael Mulgrew.
In NYC back in 2003, NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein proposed gutting the teachers contract down to 8 pages. When a deal was finally reached in 2005 on a new UFT contract, Klein got much of what he wanted and all the UFT could do is say we did the best we could by not giving up everything in tough political times. It should be noted that 40 percent of the teachers did vote no on that contract. Little has changed since that time. Once a union moves backwards, the attacks will only get worse (see Loeb, Osborne, Economist quotes above).
Berkshire's only omission is she does not fault the unions for being willing partners in their own demise. Her conclusion, however, is spot on.
The irony is that the DeVos-Trump vision for fixing our schools is almost as unpopular as the GOP’s plan for health care; if there’s political ground to be gained with Trump supporters, the defense of public education is fertile territory. DeVos’ nomination sparked ferocious grassroots opposition, red and blue, and in a cabinet of rogues, she remains Trump’s most reviled official. Her signature issue—paying for private religious schools with taxpayer funds—has never been popular with voters, even in deep red states.
The problem is that the Democrats have little to offer that’s markedly different from what DeVos is selling. Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix. Four decades after the neo-Democrats set their sights on the education bureaucracy, the journey has reached its predictable destination: with a paler version of what the right has been offering all along.
When the Democrats next attempt to rouse the base of unionized teachers they count on to be their foot soldiers, they are sure to meet with disappointment. In once reliably blue states like Michigan and Wisconsin, the unions have been eviscerated. The right went all in to crush unions—not because they “impede social mobility,” but because they elect Democrats. That wager is now paying off handsomely.
All I can add is that the Democrats are better on education when they are an opposition party.
Have the Democrats learned their lesson on school reform that you don't eat your base? I hope so but I am skeptical. Too much money to be made from the reformers.
1-Challenge every last Democrat in primaries who supports any version of school reform that includes charter schools, closing or redesigning schools, rating teachers based on how well students do on exams, school choice, merit pay, etc...
2-Reintroduce the idea of militant unions nationwide even in the face of the defections the Janus Supreme Court decision is likely to cause when union dues become optional. If the teacher unions fight to make substantial contractual gains instead of accepting more concessions, the unions will again win over the teachers and the public too if we fight for an agenda parents support (lower class sizes, age appropriate curriculum, safe schools, strong neighborhood schools, and more) in addition to what we must have (decent salaries, benefits, job security, autonomy in the classroom and more.
In short, we need to be the powerful force the right wing accuses us of being but we are not in reality.