President Obama, Michelle Bachman, and a Teacher Unionist walk into a bar
Professor Alan Singer has written the thoughtful and honest pro-union piece I've been waiting to see for a long time. In doing so he breaks one major rule, which is that you never call out your own people when they're walk does not match their talk. It's forbidden. This is a tough one. Believe me, I understand. For instance, as a black man I'm not allowed by the new black code to admit when President Obama is wrong. Even as he coddles every American interest group while seemingly being allergic to the words "black unemployment," even as he tells us to straighten up, be good parents, and he isn't the president of "black America," he's the president of the real America - still we assign any criticism of him to right wingers who look like stunt doubles from the Hills Have Eyes.
Drones and student loans be damned, he's our man.
We're not unique. Happens to the best of us. The right-wing can't admit that Michelle Bachman embarrasses herself and cheapens her office by insinuating that President Obama is the love child of the Muslim Brotherhood and Malcolm X. On the other side, the left-wing can't admit that school integration failed because even white liberals select white or mostly white schools for their own children.
Yes, this includes those who voted for Obama.
Then there are the teacher unionists. They seem unable to admit anything is wrong in their camp. Ever. The only thing wrong with them or their union are things that are outside of their own control. Just like black folks who believe any criticism of the President makes one a Republican, or right-wingers who believe that any criticism of Michelle Bachman makes one a communist, the teacher unionist are quick to call you a corporatist teacher bashing union buster if you suggest teachers should be evaluated, schools should come in many different forms (including non-unionized schools), and in fact poor children of color can and should achieve proficiency in school.
Instead of hearing valid concerns for the social stratification that comes from producing too many illiterate, innumerate people of color, they see a threat. It generates suspicion and hostility. The siege mentality blinds them to the possibility of any personal shortcomings and hardens them against any criticism. It's all an "attack." They have research studies to prove their own perfection and the inferiority of their accusers. They trade Dissent magazine articles written by college professors who write dispatches from the tower imploring them to stand firm against evil doers who might suggest change is needed. It all supports a story that any opponents they may have are part of an international conspiracy to harm children, destroy public education, and impoverish the world.
Of course the simpler story is that many of us might believe schools and teachers need to be much better at what they do. Not because they are bad people, but because what they're doing isnt working. And, further, we have examples of it being done. In some schools children are learning at high levels without the use of magic or prayers for miracles.
Which is why professor Singer's piece is important. He's not a Koch-brother wolf in reformer's sheep skins. There's no reason to believe he has hidden motives. He's actually is a strong believer in teacher unionism who does not equate that with blind allegiance. He makes that clear, saying "[w]hile I am a strong supporter of the right of workers in both the public and private sectors to organize labor unions, I am not an uncritical supporter. I am pro-public education, pro-teacher, pro-student, and pro-union, but while their interests often overlap, they do not always, and when they do not I favor the students."
Since he is that honest upfront, I should be too. I'm pro-black people, pro-my family, pro-student, and pro-liberation of oppressed peoples. Sometimes that overlaps with unionism, but often it does not. I grew up working class, in a working class community, where people were proud of what they did for a living. But I also grew up in a racial hierarchy of labor that defies any romance with notions of black-white labor solidarity, especially the whitewashed versions I hear from white middle-class college graduates who moved to the big city after suburban lives, and who read Freire and thought they suddenly understood my condition better than I do. I come from a practical people who were proud and often practically broke. Don't pee on my leg and tell me it's raining because I'll crap on your thesis and remind you that is what it's worth.
Which is what I bring to the conversation when we discuss teachers unions.
If you listen to teacher unionist you hear what you should expect. They care about children, so much so that they've dedicated their lives to serving children. They're close to the kids so they see what children need and what children are not getting. They love what they do and want to be treated fairly because their work conditions are children's learning environments.
I'm supportive of these premises and believe them when they talk this way. There is solidarity at that level of discussion.
The problem I have is that I've seen too much that conflicts with these beatitudes. I've seen bad teachers quietly shuttled from a rich schools because parents complained. They were sent to a poor schools where parent complaints were not valued, and this is routinely done with union blessing. Conversely, I've seen union leaders grieve the most outrageous cases of teacher misconduct, which includes ones student harassment and striking children in poorer schools.
I've also seen school staff freak out because the district was going to integrate them with a handful of black students, and teachers' unions, knowing where their bread is buttered (with public opinion of the rich), support the schools rather than the students.
I've seen them ignore the inequitable redistribution of compensatory funding, the hollowing of academic programming in poor schools and the overstocking of programming in the whiter, more affluent schools, and so many more infractions on the whole educational justice front that it is mind boggling. It seems that they only find their own personal Jesus when pay or accountability are on the line. In four years on the Minneapolis School Board there were a number of things the teachers' union could - and should - have protested on behalf of students and a just system of public education, but the only thing that made them put on matching t-shirts and crowd our boardroom was pay or job losses.
I understand politics. We are political people and education is a political enterprise. Teachers' union leaders have learned to tie their bread-and-butter issues to the needs of children as a tactic rather than a reality. They talk a big game about educational justice while ignore injustice all day, everyday. Justice isn't their job. Jobs is their job. They can't be faulted for selling out in the end for small pay raises and a defense of their unionist position within the management/union power continuum. That's why they exist.
We can see that as a reality for professional unions, and also for the celebrated urban activist Chicago Teachers Union who raised their celebrity by taking members to strike, only to cave for dollars, cents, and a deferment of accountability by way of teacher evaluations.
Mr. Singer points out how the state CTU agenda failed in the end, mostly because the real agenda for increased pay was achieved.
In Chicago, teachers went out on strike in September 2012 with a list of demands that included smaller class sizes, an elected school board, support for children exposed to violence and poverty, and more social workers, counselors, audio/visual and hearing technicians and school nurses. But in the end, the union settled for a three-year contract that included pay increases and a new evaluation system. A year later, the Chicago public school system, faced with a $1 billion deficit, closed 50 schools forcing thousands of students to travel to different schools in unfamiliar and sometimes unwelcoming neighborhoods. It was the largest school closing in United States history.
Consider all of their histrionics and public theater created by marketing people inside their supposedly grassroots union, and the illusion of a cathartic battle between forces attempting to end public education and those attempting to save it. In the end the battle was really about money and resistance to being evaluated as teachers. All of the talk about the needs of children, complete rubbish. And even with the complete failure of their strike gullible teacher unionists are so uncritical of Chicago's renewed industrial unionism that some are importing the CTU as consultants. It's even here in Minnesota where teachers' unions are desperate to shed a Mary Poppins image in favor of the dicey and facile Chicago unionist porn.
What they will latch on to most is messaging and the brush that paints the world in corporate green and community red. Their convenient labeling of people as corporate reformers if then come within ten feet of Bill Gates' money or attempt to open new schools or look for improvements in teacher quality ring hollow. Mostly because they themselves are guilty of the very crimes the accuse other of committing.
Mr. Singer goes right there too.
Both the AFT and the NEA will also have difficulty convincing anyone they are serious about educational reform or worker rights when both organizations take millions of dollars from groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to champion the Gates school agenda. Between 2009 and 2013, the AFT accepted $11.3 million and the NEA over $7 million to promote common core standards and teacher assessment.
Corporate reform. Privatization. The end of public schools as a public good? How can we take those teacher unionist claims seriously when they accept money from Gates', have started (and ruined) their own charter school in New York, have become charter school authorizers in Minneapolis, and benefit from a ton of corporate cash that has nothing to do with "reform"?
That sounds a lot like the pot calling the pot a pot.
And, what do we make of the fact that as teacher unions paint corporations as greedy and suspicious entities that threaten democracy, and at the same time the unions themselves look much like corporations did 40 years ago.
Whatever its benefit or lack of benefit for union members and their students, this system has worked well for union leaders. The Unity Caucus, a political party within the union, has controlled most union offices since the early 1960s. National AFT President Randi Weingarten earns over $400,000 a year with an expense account that brings her remuneration to almost $500,000. New York City local President earns about $250,000 a year with an even more generous expense account. National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel earns over $360,000. In 2011, his salary, stipends, and other paid expenses were $460,060.
It should be noted that those salaries for Weingarten and Roekel make them members of America's 1%. That's ridiculous and I shouldn't be the one saying it. Dues paying members should be the ones saying it. Why rail on telecom CEO's for the pay distance between them and line workers, but ignore Randi Weingarten? It's hard to rage against the machine when you one of its components. You cannot serve God and Mammon.
Though I'm fond of Mr. Singer's critique of his union leadership, it's not without reservation. Sure, it's refreshing to see anyone within the teacher camp take off the Teflon body suit for 5 minutes and admit that much of the unionist educational justice sloganeering deserves serious questioning and quite possibly an intellectual enema. Still, he arrives at a different place than I do.
Here's what he's shooting for....
The kind of action I am calling for by teachers and their unions means developing a level of what used to be called working-class consciousness. In the post-Occupy Wall Street era it means supporting the 99 percent, even if the 1 percent offer you a sweetheart deal if you are willing to ally with them against other working people. It means recognizing the necessary relationship of teachers to the public and to parents. It means we rise together or we do not rise at all. It means the teachers' unions can compromise on their own wages and hours, but not on their commitment to students and their families. In Chicago it would have meant keeping community schools from being closed for budgetary reasons was more important than a small wage increase.
While I get the whole class warfare ideology, I'm looking for something a little more practical from teacher leaders, something black people can actually use.
First, how about a commitment to teaching as measured by student learning. I'm happy that teachers care so much about us having wrap around services and food and housing and all that, but I don't call a plumber when I have a toothache. Teachers need to focus on teaching, and when no one in their classrooms are learning it doesn't help us for them to focus on political science debates rather than pedagogical revolution and new practices.
Second, how about a little humility. Teachers are not the experts on my children. At very best they are students of teaching my children. While I appreciate their pride in vocation it's misaligned with their results. We can argue about the reasons behind that problem. You can say my community is deficient in so many ways that teachers can't possibly be held accountable for what takes place for the 12 years of our lives that we're in public schools without becoming literate or numerate. Fine. But then let's make a deal that teacher unionists keep their pie holes covered when we find other options and other teachers (for instance, a charter school or private school).
Third, let's dispense with the solidarity crap. In most urban districts the social and economic poles between the teachers and the students they're paid to teach is light years apart. In every one of those districts middle-class careerists are living off of black and brown Average Daily Attendance. That's how urban teachers make their mortgage payments and pay for their own children to live far from the students they teach.
Think about it: 60% of Minneapolis Public Schools teachers live in the suburbs, which might as well be Mars to the 65% of poor students that fill MPS schools. The ones that live in the city have no school aged children. Those that do avoid racially and economically isolated schools by using staff privilege to shelter their kids in magnet schools that are demographically unlike the rest of the district. We are not really in this together. You've got they have their mortgages and car payments, and we have our kids. The interests of the two are not always in sync.
Finally, until teacher unionists have reflect about the innumerable inequities that take place in the district schools, which they hold up as being the American ideal, the should know they lose credibility. They can't cover that with a social justice t-shirt. Equating social justice with a right to a job helps no on. Ignoring the beam in your own district's eye, while overexposing the speck in the eye of competitors is just plain shady. Going breathless about segregation, student creaming, drill-n-kill instruction, and student pushouts in charter schools is pure self-interest talking so long as you fail to acknowledge that all of those things happen on a much larger scale in district schools.
They know it to be true, but they are mum.
District schools are segregated by unjust residency enrollment practices and flight by white parents. The most tony schools in the district cream students through enrollment boundaries, the removal of programming to serve needy students, and resistance to intra-district integration programs.
And student pushouts were invented and perfected by traditional school districts, which is why you have alternative learning centers (and some charter schools) as dumping grounds for unwanted students.
When they are ready to challenge their own system, the one that pays them, it will be the beginning of a real discussion.
While I disagree with some of Mr. Singer's conclusions, at least he seems willing to be an honest contributor to the debate.
I wish we all could get their about Obama, Bachman, and teacher unionism in the 21st century.