I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Campus uproar, SCOTUS deliberations, and a few oddball stories, too. It’s been another whiz-bang week here at ILYBYGTH. In all the fuss, here are some stories we might have missed…

“Like trying to waltz with a wolf:” Jill Lepore in The New Yorker on the history of campus- and NFL free-speech battles.

Things are still weird in Mississippi. Hechinger looks at the ways history textbooks in the Magnolia State still leave out big chunks of uncomfortable history.Bart reading bible

SCOTUS gears up to rule on teachers’ unions. Can non-members really be forced to pay union fees?

Want to play football against the College of the Ozarks? Be sure none of your players take a knee during the national anthem.

Should Virginia Tech fire its alleged white-supremacist teaching assistant? Or is he protected by academic freedom?

Chris Lehmann takes apart the myth that good schools will lead to economic mobility, in The Baffler. HT: D

Why did so many academic historians pooh-pooh Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new Vietnam War documentary? Jon Zimmerman offers a simple explanation at CHE. HT: NBR

Now they’ve got teachers doing it! Massachusetts substitute kneels during the Pledge of Allegiance. HT: MM

Mick Zais hated the Common Core all the way to the White House.

One liberal college’s attempt to attract conservative students, from Inside Higher Education.

Thanks to all SAGLRROILYBYGTH who sent in stories and tips.

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Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.

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Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.

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From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

Scott Walker’s Collapse Means School Is Still Cool

Governor Scott Walker dropped fast. According to the conservative Weekly Standard, Walker led the field of GOP presidential hopefuls in April, dropped to second in August, then plummeted to last place in no time flat. Why? Perhaps his campaign collapse proves that conservative voters do not hate the devils of public education as much as Walker (and I) thought.

Maybe school bashing's not enough...

Maybe school bashing’s not enough…

Walker had built his national reputation on a consistent diet of education-bashing. He famously attacked teachers’ unions. More than that, though, he blasted lazy university professors. Perhaps most uniquely, he himself had never completed college, having dropped out to pursue more worthwhile goals.

Make no mistake. As a voter and a teacher and a lazy college professor, I’m glad to see Walker crumble. But as an historian, I’m surprised. Whatever his faults, I thought Walker had shown some savvy in following a conservative script with nearly a century of success behind it.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know the story, but for new folks, here’s a quick history lesson: When Governor Reagan was elected president, his first decorating move was to put a large portrait of Calvin Coolidge in the Oval Office. Reagan, after all, modeled himself after Coolidge’s brand of small-government conservatism.

Coolidge had come to national prominence for his stern opposition to a police strike in Boston. Reagan, too, made his bones by combatting an air-traffic controllers’ strike.

I thought Walker could win by using the Coolidge playbook. I thought his union-bashing policies were terrible, but I thought they would win.

We were both wrong. Walker went from conservative hero to zero practically overnight.

Why? There might be education-related reasons other commentators have missed. Maybe GOP voters really don’t hate public-school teachers as much as people think they do. Maybe GOP voters expect their candidate to have a college degree. Could it even be—perish the thought—that voters don’t hate university professors as much as Governor Walker thought they did?

Conservative pundits offer different reasons. Jonathan Last at the conservative Weekly Standard found Walker’s collapse “shocking.” Unlike other meltdowns, Walker’s campaign had suffered no embarrassing gaffes or scandals. Walker had real credentials, so his early front-runner standard was not a fluke. Last concluded that Walker’s loss was likely due to the weirdly broad field of candidates this year and to Donald Trump’s “disruption” of the nominating process.

Over at the progressive Nation, John Nichols focused instead on Walker’s tired and unpopular anti-unionism. As Nichols put it,

A lot of Republican voters work for a living, and a substantial number of them are union members. While grassroots conservatives have been instructed by corporate America’s amen corner in the media to be angry with unions and living wages and teachers and public employees, they have never been so enthusiastic in that anger as the billionaires who seek to build their empires on a foundation of income inequality and wage stagnation.

So Walker’s core message—union busting—never really resonated to the extent that the governor and his strategists imagined it would.

But don’t forget that Walker’s union-busting was only one leg of a broader strategy based in educational culture-war thinking.  He loudly and proudly fought against teachers’ unions, certainly, but also aggressively went after lazy college professors. Even his own story of dropping out of college to do something more important shows a long-term dedication to bucking the educational status-quo.

I admit it. I thought Governor Walker had hit upon a winning program, even if it was a program I didn’t like. In my last book, I argued that Walker’s brand of educational conservatism had proven politically unbeatable time and again. Throughout the twentieth century, it became a winning strategy among conservatives to bash teachers in no uncertain terms.

I thought it would still work, especially in the howling scramble of this year’s GOP presidential contest. But maybe I got it as wrong as Governor Walker did. Maybe that time has passed.

School Politics Cracks the Race Wall

The unions like the one on the left...

The unions like the one on the left…

Who backs market reforms of schools? Conservatives, of course, and rich people. Oh, and African American voters. The race for superintendent of public instruction in California is suggesting a dramatic realignment of electoral politics. But those conservative dreams might not be warranted.

As we’ve explored in these pages (here and here, for example), white conservatives have long dreamed of shaking off their racist reputations. In school politics, it seems those efforts have finally begun to bear fruit.

It has not been easy. The conservative, or, to be more precise, the more conservative candidate for New York City mayor tried to woo non-white voters with similar school appeals. That candidate, Joe Lhota, blasted Bill de Blasio for his opposition to charter schools. Such schools, Lhota insisted, were the only educational hope for “minorities and inner city children, and children of immigrants.”

In New York City, it didn’t fly. But the race in California is much different. According to the San Jose Mercury News, one candidate for superintendent has cobbled together a coalition of super-rich backers and conservative voters, plus Latino and African American support.

That candidate, Marshall Tuck, is running neck-and-neck with the establishment choice, incumbent Tom Torlakson. Tuck’s success is built on his appeal to both the rich and the poor. The teachers’ unions have spent plenty to support Torlakson, but Tuck has still managed to outspend them, thanks to his deep-pocketed backers among the usually conservative California business elite.

Non-white voters like Tuck’s plan. According to a recent poll, Tuck leads by 38% among African American voters and 13% among Latinos. Why? One expert thinks that such voters want more charter schools, more vouchers, and less power for teachers’ unions.

Could this be the realignment conservatives have long been dreaming of? A chance to appeal to the conservative feelings among non-white voters? A chance to split off non-whites from the clutches of the Democratic Party and get them voting Republican on issues such as gay rights, abortion, and school choice?

After all, there have been similar epochal realignments in electoral politics. Most famously, FDR managed to convince African Americans to vote Democrat. Since the days of Abraham Lincoln, African Americans had been solidly Republican. Or, more recently, Reagan wooed “lunchpail” Democrats to the side of the GOP.

Could we be on the verge of a similar realignment? One in which conservative non-white voters ditch the Democrats in favor of the more conservative GOP? And if so, will school politics lead the charge?

There are a couple of things that should temper the hopes of conservative poll watchers. First, this California race is non-partisan. Both candidates are Democrats. So conservative African Americans and Latinos can vote for the more conservative candidate without abandoning the party of FDR and LBJ.

Second, though Tuck is the candidate with the more conservative positions, he’s not calling himself that. Instead, as with much of school politics, Tuck is calling his marketization plan the side of “school reform.” And his election fund, filled by mega-rich donors, officially calls itself “Parents and Teachers for Tuck.”

In this case, non-white voters seem to like the market idea that conservatives have long promoted. But they like it when it comes in a Democratic Party wrapper. They like it when it is called the progressive choice, not the conservative one.

Will non-white voters soon flock to the conservative banner? Maybe, but this race shows they might only do so if conservatism calls itself something else.

Teachers’ Unions: The Root of All Evil

Last week a California judge decided that bad teachers can be fired.  In his decision in Vergara v. California, Judge Rolf M. Treu dealt a severe blow to the power of teachers’ unions.  Not surprisingly, conservative intellectuals rejoiced.  For almost a century, conservative school reformers have insisted that teachers’ unions represent a double-headed threat.  But here’s my question: why do today’s conservatives only focus on one half of their traditional gripe against teachers’ unions?

In Judge Treu’s decision, he argued that ineffective teachers have a negative impact on students.  And since the poorest students suffer most, the judge concluded that the situation was open to judicial remedy.

In the pages of the conservative National Review, writers celebrated the decision.  One “liberal” pundit shared her horror stories of terrible teachers and school principals, protected and made more arrogantly despicable due to their union-backed sinecures.  Andrew Biggs suggested taking the California decision national.  Biggs offered a simple four-word phrase to rejuvenate the nation’s public schools: Fire the Worst Teachers.

Not every conservative intellectual liked the decision.  Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute warned that the judge’s power-grab could spell out a future of terrible decisions by similarly activist judges.

But even Hess did not support the unions’ traditional role as the unpopular defender of teacher-tenure rules.  After all, conservative school reformers have for generations identified unions as the source of all that was rotten in America’s public-education system.

Perhaps most memorably, the late free-market economist Milton Friedman argued that the dead hand of teachers’ unions had strangled public schooling.  As I wrote a few years back in the pages of Teachers College Record, Friedman’s narrative of educational history pivoted on the development of teachers’ unions.  Most teachers, Friedman wrote, were “dull and mediocre and uninspiring.”  Nevertheless, beginning in the 1840s, Friedman believed, those teachers had captured control of America’s educational system.  Instead of working to improve education for all, teachers’ unions only worked for their own “narrow self-interest.”  The driving force of expanded public-education systems in the 1840s, Friedman argued in Free to Choose, was teachers’ selfish desire to

enjoy greater certainty of employment, greater assurance that their salaries would be paid, and a greater degree of control if government rather than parents were the immediate paymaster.

Today’s conservative complaints about the power of teachers’ unions owe a lot to Friedman-esque free-market critiques.  Schools suffer, free-market conservatives argue, when the market for good teaching talent is blocked by sclerotic union rules.  Instead of bringing in the best teachers, unions dictate a self-interested last-in-first-out rule that preserves seniority, no matter how incompetent.

But there is another reason why conservative intellectuals have long battled against the power of teachers’ unions.  Those unions, after all, have resolutely supported left-leaning or even frankly leftist social programs.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this leftist tendency was the tumultuous history of New York’s Teachers Union.  From the 1930s through the 1950s, as Clarence Taylor has described in his great book Reds at the Blackboard, New York’s Teachers Union wrestled with questions of communism, reform, and subversion.  Again and again, the union suffered internal factional disputes, most famously the expulsion of the communist Local 5 faction.  And again and again, the union came under attack for harboring subversive teachers, most famously the purge of hundreds of affiliated teachers in the 1950s.  Throughout its history, though, the famous union supported left-leaning causes.  Internal factional disputes were not left versus right, but rather left versus left.

Even today, teachers’ unions often endure factional disputes on the left.  The militant Badass Teachers Association wants to push the more moderate American Federation of Teachers and the staid National Education Association to take more recognizably leftist positions.

Given all this history, why do conservative these days focus on the free-market angle?  That is, why don’t conservative pundits attack unions as islands of antiquated leftist ideology, instead of just attacking unions as inefficient and self-serving?

One possibility is that conservative school reformers these days take the tried-and-true school reform tactic of taking the politics out of education.  As historian David Tyack argued most memorably in his 1974 book The One Best System, school reformers always insist that their ideas are not about politics, but only about better schooling for all.  As Tyack showed, calls to “take the schools out of politics” never really want to take the politics out of schooling.  But reformers from every political background score more success when they appear to be impartial educators, interested in pedagogy, not ideology.

Is that what’s going on here?  Do today’s conservative intellectuals hope to eliminate the power of leftist teachers’ unions without making it look like a politically motivated hack job?  Do conservative pundits focus on the educational problems of teachers’ unions, instead of focusing on their left-leaning political positions, in order to make it look as if conservatives only want better schools for all?

 

Conservatives Look South

If educational progressives these days tend to wave Finland’s flag, perhaps educational conservatives will start to wave Mexico’s.

Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, has made aggressive moves against his country’s powerful teachers’ unions.  Most dramatically, the government arrested teachers’ union leader Elba Esther Gordillo, “La Maestra.

Gordillo had long been famous for her lavish lifestyle, suspicious on her relatively frugal official salary.

La Maestra in 2005

La Maestra in 2005

By moving against the teachers’ union, President Pena Nieto made some powerful enemies.  The Mexican union had ultimate power over teachers’ jobs, often creating hereditary no-work positions.

But by attacking the union he has also gained some influential friends and admirers.  The Heritage Foundation, for instance, a leading conservative think-tank in the United States, lauded Pena Nieto’s move as the first step toward “meaningful education reforms.”  In the United States, after all, conservatives like those at the Heritage Foundation have long attacked the pernicious anti-market power of teachers’ unions.

This conservative admiration for Mexican education policy has not always been the case.  As historian Ruben Flores of the University of Kansas argues in an upcoming book, a century ago it was educational progressives who fell in love with the Mexican education system.  Back then, according to Flores, United States progressives admired the centralization and efficiency of the Mexican system.

Today, it is union-bashing conservatives who look south.