As several commentators have pointed out, the Chicago teachers’ strike puts Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in an awkward position politically. He has been gleefully endorsed by conservative Republicans such as VP nominee Paul Ryan. Emanuel’s fight with the teachers’ union puts him on the side of union-busting GOP governors such as Chris Christie of New Jersey and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
In cultural politics, too, fighting with a teachers’ union puts Mayor Emmanuel in the company of decades, even generations, of conservative educational activists and intellectuals. As I discussed in an article in Teachers College Record a few months back, teachers’ unions have often been the primary villain in conservative versions of American educational history.
Free-market pioneer Milton Friedman, for example, blamed America’s educational woes on the increasing power of teachers’ unions. In Free to Choose (1990) the Friedmans explained that even well-meaning teachers and school administrators always want “greater centralization and bureaucratization” at the cost of worse schooling (pg. 157). Since the 1950s, Milton Friedman had argued that teachers’ unions invariably degraded education, since most teachers are “dull and mediocre and uninspiring” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2002 edition, pg. 96). Union control of school, Friedman believed, protected less talented teachers and led to less efficient, less effective schooling.
California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Max Rafferty argued that the choking tendrils of unions and educational bureaucracy had almost killed real education. “Education evolved,” Rafferty argued in 1964, “from a sparkling, beckoning opportunity into a more humdrum, sober-sided obligation. It became hedged about with legal requirements and equalization formulas, credentialing criteria and personnel-pupil ratios.” (What Are They Doing to Your Children, 1964, pg. 109).
In the 1980s, conservative educational thinker Sam Blumenfeld called the National Education Association “the Trojan Horse in American Education.” Educational experts, Blumenfeld noted—what he called “remote educational commissions in far-off universities” (Is Public Education Necessary, 1981, pg. 4), had long planned to discredit traditional values in the eyes of American schoolchildren.
For these conservative educational thinkers, teachers’ organizations epitomized all that was wrongheaded about American public education. For free-marketeers like Friedman, unions selfishly choked out all alternate ideas about schooling. For traditionalists like Rafferty, union bureaucracy forced a pernicious pablum down the intellectual gullet of America’s schoolchildren. For more extreme conspiratorial thinkers such as Blumenfeld, teachers’ unions carried out a long-standing plot to rob Americans of their patriotic and spiritual heritage.
And now Rahm Emanuel stands on their side. Emanuel will be gleefully supported not only by contemporary conservative politicians like Paul Ryan, but by generations of conservative educational activists and intellectuals.