My dear mother is a knee-jerk liberal hippie Democrat progressive pro-labor vegetarian yoga-doing leftie. For most of her adult life she’s served as one of the most beloved and revered elementary school educators in her community. She’s taught across the spectrum of scenarios: inner-city public school with “at risk” students; suburban public school with “smart kids” using all the best learning tools; and private college-prep school with privileged children enjoying every advantage in the world. At every milieu Mom has succeeded: her children learn what they’re supposed to at their grade level and then much more. They leave her classroom prepared for the next grade and for an inquisitive, thoughtful life.
My mother is a great teacher, not just a very good one. Her classroom is a place of wonder and imagination, like a hybrid Children’s Museum-Zoo-Library-Art Studio-Epigram Factory. The bulging file of thank you letters from students and their parents, as well as a long “request list” to be placed in her homeroom class, suggests she’s winning over hearts and minds in addition to generating impressive test scores.
Everyone is grateful for a teacher like Mrs. Konik in his life. Most of us who have achieved anything have at least one charismatic educator in our past, someone who sparked us to think, and maybe even live, in a different, richer way.
Here’s another fact about my leftie Mom: She steadfastly refuses to join the Teacher’s Union.
She has many reasons for being a scab, but the essential one is that she thinks the American Federation of Teachers encourages educational mediocrity, and in her view that’s not good enough. If the last 50 years of declining, abominable results are acceptable evidence, she’s got a point.
Organized originally around the principle of gender wage-equality and job security, the Teacher’s Union is now largely responsible for our dysfunctional education system. The contracts they’ve negotiated refuse to recognize individual merit and are filled with notorious tenure requirements. These insure steady pay and benefits to educators who, based on any number of measurable results, aren’t educating. The most egregious are AFT members in the so-called “rubber room” – awaiting the outcome of disciplinary or administrative hearings, designed by the union to be protracted (up to 6 years), and costing New York State taxpayers alone $100 million a year. Even though, according to a Stanford University study, getting rid of the worst 10% of teachers in the union and replacing them with average teachers would immediately vault the US to a tie with Finland at the top of industrialized nations education ratings, the union’s imperative to protect the few bad apples at the expense of all the good ones (and the unfortunate kids who get stuck with incompetent teachers) compels them to fight The Man at every step, accusing Him of union bashing, anti-labor skullduggery. They treat every member of the union as a civic hero. Only some of them are, and those are the ones we want gainfully employed.
We could dismiss all this as a fascinating charade if so many millions of kids – many of them poor and some shade of brown – weren’t condemned to dropout factories that don’t prepare students for life, college, or, for that matter, the next grade. Like most of the stakeholders in our society, the Teacher’s Union has political motivations in maintaining the status quo, no matter how grim. (The AFT is, in fact, one of the largest political donors in America, right up there with Big Pharma.) Every President since Lyndon Johnson has declared himself an “education President” and signed some sort of omnibus bill devoting millions of taxpayer dollars to the public school system, supposedly the crucial lynchpin in our glorious republic. The more dollars devoted to public education, the more teachers have jobs, and the more the union skims off their cut. We earmark staggering sums for teaching our precious children, but the return on investment is horrible. Like our War on Drugs, our country’s “Educate Everyone Well” initiative has been an obvious and colossal failure. To borrow the language of that great Education President George W. Bush, according to every kind of result data available, the majority of children in the USA are getting left behind.
Call me a crazy leftie vegetarian conspiracy theorist, but logic tells us that the way our allegedly free-market capitalist system is set up demands a vast number of citizens who will never go to college or be “professional” or have any real stake in the future of the country. A nation of excellently educated citizens would be untenable: there would be no one to do the labor, consume the media propaganda, fight the wars, and continue to prop up the Privileged Class. Since slavery (the involuntary kind) was outlawed some time ago, we’re not allowed to requisition dark people from across oceans; instead, we just set up factories there that pay workers a few dollars a day so our underclass doesn’t have to.
The down side of not providing an excellent public education to all our citizens is that many of them become criminals. But we’ve got plenty of law enforcement officers and prisons (and prison jobs protected by powerful unions) to handle that. Never mind that it’s probably cheaper to teach someone than incarcerate him. When folks have entrenched investments, they don’t necessarily act in their own best interest, only what feels like their best interest. When you’re getting paid steadily and re-elected steadily and paying off the mortgage steadily, the last thing you want is unsteadiness.
Here’s another fact about my mother: she lives and works in Wisconsin. You know, the state that has forbidden public service workers to engage in collective bargaining. In other words, the nation’s leading union basher.
My leftie mother is outraged at what the Republican leadership has done in her formerly Progressive state. She’s reflexively pro-labor, staunchly supportive of working men and women. But when it comes to education, she cares even more about another constituency: the students.