In the News: The Chicago Teachers’ Strike and the “Educrats”

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.

IN THE NEWS: Santorum on America’s Educational History

This just in from the Republican presidential campaign trail: Rick Santorum knows what conservatives want to hear.  Not much of a surprise there; Santorum’s knack for positioning himself as the true conservative has led him to a surprisingly strong showing lately.

Of interest to ILYBYGTH readers, Santorum recently described his views on the proper nature of American education.  In doing so, he zeroed in on issues that have long resonated deeply with conservatives.

According to stories in the New York Times  and Los Angeles Times (here and here), Santorum outlined his thinking about the nature of public education in a speech on Saturday to the Ohio Christian Alliance in Columbus.

Santorum has already attracted attention as a homeschooler and advocate of government vouchers.  As his official website articulates, Santorum believes parental choice is one way to “restor[e] America’s greatness through educational freedom and opportunity.”

In Saturday’s speech, Santorum blasted the current “factory model” of education.  Today’s public schools, Santorum insisted, represented an “anachronism,” a period in which “people came off the farms where they did home school or had a little neighborhood school, and into these big factories . . . called public schools.”

Proper schooling, Santorum declared, should begin—and often end—at home.  Santorum appealed to a historical vision that is near and dear to the hearts of many American conservatives.  For most of American history, Santorum argued, even the Presidents homeschooled in the White House itself.

Where did they come up that public education and bigger education bureaucracies was the rule in America?  Santorum asked.  Parents educated their children, because it’s their responsibility to educate their children.

As I argue in an essay coming out this month in Teachers College Record,  this vision of the history of American education has been extremely influential among conservatives.  Since at least the 1950s, prominent conservative activists have based their prescriptions for healing American society on the notion that American education went wrong at a specific point in America’s past.  Of course, they also point out the corollary: conservative reforms can put it back on the right track.

Santorum appeals to a glorious educational past in which public schools had not yet tightened their stranglehold on educational opportunity.  This has been a common trope among conservative activists hoping to free traditionalists’ minds from the pernicious notion that education must look like today’s public education system.

Other common ideas that conservatives have insisted upon in their vision of American educational history:

  • schools started out as frankly religious institutions,
  • schools in the past did a better job of teaching more kids with less public money,
  • a set of notions known as “progressive education” ruined America’s strong tradition of real education, and
  • creeping state control led to ideological and theological totalitarianism in public schools.

On Saturday, Santorum indicated his agreement with these notions.  However, just as “progressive” educators have long fought over the proper meaning and function of schooling, so have conservatives.  In my TCR article I take a closer look at four leading activists since 1950:

  • Milton Friedman,
  • Max Rafferty,
  • Sam Blumenfeld, and
  • Henry Morris.

Each of these writers described a different vision of America’s educational past.  Like Santorum and generations of other conservatives, each agreed that the system had broken down.  However, also like Santorum’s unique insistence on the importance of Presidential homeschooling in the White House, each pundit laid out a unique educational past.

Anyone hoping to understand Fundamentalist America will be wise to listen to Rick Santorum this year.  He seems to have a knack for dishing out all the ideas Fundamentalists want to hear.