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Published in Print: February 27, 2002, as Remembering Al Shanker


Remembering Al Shanker

Five years after his death, Al Shanker's tough liberalism looks better than ever.

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Five years after his death, Al Shanker's tough liberalism looks better than ever.

When Albert Shanker, the legendary leader of the American Federation of Teachers, died five years ago this month, he was eulogized by Bill Clinton and Al Gore, but he was also lauded by education conservatives like Chester E. Finn Jr. and Diane Ravitch. One might be tempted to think Shanker's cross-cutting appeal anticipated George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism, except Shanker's tough liberalism was in many respects the mirror opposite: pro-public schools, pro-labor, and unerringly colorblind.

At the time of his death, Shanker's worldview looked decidedly out of place, with the voucher movement growing, labor crumbling, and political elites making their peace with affirmative action in education. Today, however, with the nation under attack, the very principles that Al Shanker championed look particularly appealing, as Americans may be gaining a new appreciation for certain enduring values: the unifying power of public schools, the solidarity of labor, and the need to avoid the dangers of racial and ethnic balkanization.

Al Shanker's unusual brand of liberalism was forged in childhood, when the New York City public schools of the 1930s and 1940s gave him and many of his immigrant classmates the chance for social mobility, and, as an adult, in the 1960s, when he was caught up in the fight over community control of schools in Ocean Hill- Brownsville in Brooklyn. The educationally sound impulse to give more power to local educational communities took a bad turn in 1968, when militant leaders in the predominantly black ghetto of Ocean Hill-Brownsville decided to dismiss 13 white school teachers. Shanker, then the president of the local United Federation of Teachers, said the teachers shouldn't be removed without due process, and closed down the entire New York City school system in a strike lasting more than a month. Some of the community-control protests turned violent and anti-Semitic; as Yale University's Alexander Bickel noted, where in Little Rock, white parents had shouted at black students for integrating schools, now black militants were shouting at white teachers for teaching in black schools.

Shanker was seen by some on the left as a reactionary, unwilling to give an oppressed minority a measure of self-government, and Woody Allen mocked him in the film comedy "Sleeper." Allen's character, frozen in 1973, awakens 100 years later and learns that civilization was destroyed when "a man by the name of Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead."

Yet, if Shanker stood strong against the demands of black radicals, he was hardly a neoconservative. A significant minority of liberals sided with Shanker—Bayard Rustin, Michael Harrington, Arthur Schlesinger, and Reinhold Niebuhr among them—because he was fighting in Ocean Hill-Brownsville not only against race-consciousness, but also in favor of organized labor as an institution to protect teachers from arbitrary dismissal and for public schools as a unifying force in the multiethnic society. Indeed, shortly after Ocean Hill-Brownsville, New York City's paraprofessional educators, largely African- American, voted to join Shanker's UFT, setting aside racial politics for a chance to negotiate better salaries and career ladders. When votes from Ocean Hill-Brownsville put the UFT over the top, it was, said Shanker, his proudest moment.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Albert Shanker's tough liberalism suddenly looks a lot better suited for the times than George W. Bush's much-trumpeted compassionate conservatism. The key difference is this: Whereas Shanker appealed to the "radical center" who honor democracy above all else, Mr. Bush appeals to the "moderate middle," who place free markets as the higher value.

Of course, we're all democratic capitalists in the United States—democracy and capitalism are usually mutually reinforcing—but on critical issues such as schools, unions, and race, democratic and market values diverge. While democratic values promote public schools, organized labor, and nondiscrimination, market values favor private school vouchers, a free-agent workforce, and racialized market niches. Where democracy seeks unity through umbrella political coalitions (of gays, African-Americans, and Latinos, for example), capitalism by its very nature seeks ever finer segmentation of markets to meet individual consumer needs (a gay cable channel, Black Entertainment Television, and Univision).

To be sure, there are some strong points of overlap between the Bush and Shanker approaches. On foreign policy, Shanker was a Scoop Jackson Democrat, and a Cold Warrior who would surely have stood strongly behind President Bush in his war on terror abroad. So too, the president's education bill establishes common standards and rejects the "soft bigotry of low expectations," ideas Shanker had fought for back when Mr. Bush was still engaging in youthful indiscretions. But the similarities largely end there, which is troubling for those of us who think that at this point in history, we could use a little more community and democracy, and are getting, instead, an administration committed above all to market-based individualism.

Vouchers. The Bush administration sees education primarily as a way of creating productive workers, and backs school vouchers as a way of meeting the needs of education "consumers." By contrast, Shanker placed emphasis on public schools as a place not only to train future employees, but to create tolerant citizens and loyal Americans. He didn't see the idea of government-run schools as a violation of freedom; he saw them as a prerequisite to binding diverse people together and committing them to common democratic ideals.

In the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, Albert Shanker's tough liberalism suddenly looks suited for the times.

Shanker saw the strange parallel between voucher advocates of today and the old community-control advocates in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Indeed, Howard L. Fuller, the former Milwaukee superintendent who heads the pro-voucher Black Alliance for Educational Options, was, in the late 1980s, a proponent of a separate black school district in Milwaukee. With vouchers, Shanker told reporter Sara Mosle, "you'll end up with kids of different religions, nationalities, and languages going off to different schools to maintain their separateness, and I think we'd have a terrible social price to pay for it."

As a union official, Shanker had a strong self-interest in protecting public schools against vouchers, but he took a very different tack than many defenders of the status quo. Where many public school advocates have argued defensively that schools are doing as well as can be expected, Shanker shocked many when he endorsed the landmark 1983 education report A Nation at Risk, which called for radical reform. He acknowledged shortcomings in the teaching profession and advocated testing all new teachers, much to the dismay of the rival union, the National Education Association. He conceded that some teachers are better than others, and proposed a way to reward talent that avoids the downside of traditional merit-pay schemes.

Instead of basing pay on administrator judgment, which might be open to favoritism, Shanker called for a system of board certification, like that used for doctors. Likewise, he openly acknowledged that it is unfair to trap poor kids in bad schools and promoted public school choice and charter schools.

In today's world, where we have new appreciation for the institutions that bind us together as a nation, the notion of using public money to promote vouchers that may undercut that very unity looks suddenly dangerous.

Voucher supporters are likely to receive a green light from the U.S. Supreme Court when it rules on the constitutionality of Cleveland's voucher program later this year. But the timing appears terrible for such advocates, for the public mood is likely to be much closer to Albert Shanker's, whatever the legal standing of voucher programs.

Unions. The Bush administration's market values see labor unions as essentially negative forces, promoting economic inefficiency by reducing business flexibility. President Bush has repeatedly clashed with teachers' unions; and Republicans in Congress delayed federalization of airport security for weeks, so adamant was their opposition to anything that would help unions (and therefore Democrats).

Shanker, by contrast, was a staunch trade unionist, who worked his entire life to expand labor's influence in the public sector. When he began with the fledgling UFT, people said collective bargaining for public employees made no sense, given laws making it illegal to go on strike. But Shanker, drawing on Martin Luther King Jr.'s example, spent many days in jail over the years, arguing that unlawful strikes were a form of civil disobedience. While labor collapsed all around him, Shanker's American Federation of Teachers almost tripled in size during his reign as president from 1974 to 1997. He argued that strong trade unions are an indispensable counterweight to corporate power in a democracy, and an important tool for tempering economic gaps and sustaining a solid middle class. "There is no freedom or democracy without trade unionism," he said. "The first thing a dictator does is to get rid of the trade unions."

In today's world, where the solidarity of working-class heroes, firefighters and police officers and construction workers, is celebrated, the Bush administration's staunch opposition to organized labor looks out of place.

Shanker's vision captures the zeitgeist perfectly: "The very idea of unionism is solidarity. I'm not strong enough to do things alone. I've got to band together with brothers and sisters."

Shanker's vision was a coherent philosophy that consciously privileged democracy over capitalism.

Race. On the issues of race—particularly affirmative action, multiculturalism in education—Shanker differed again, strongly opposing preferences, while Mr. Bush provides soft support. Embracing a kind of multiculturalism of the right, Mr. Bush has pursued a form of identity politics in appointments and supported a contracting set-aside program in the courts. He is likely to take note of the fact that the University of Michigan's affirmative action program now being contested in the 6th Circuit of the federal court system is supported by 20 major corporations, from 3M to Procter & Gamble to Dow Chemical. These business interests argue that racial preferences in education and employment are a necessary means of creating a multiethnic workforce that will sell to diverse domestic and foreign markets.

Shanker, by contrast, argued that while "segmenting markets" could make economic sense, it wreaked havoc on democratic unity. He said that you need a consistent race-neutral standard in a democracy to foster social unity and social cohesion, with special help for the disadvantaged of all races. In conventional terms, this put Shanker to the "right" of George W. Bush, although in fact Shanker's opposition stemmed in part from the old leftist wariness toward any attempt to divide working people by race.

Shanker, an early supporter of the civil rights movement who marched in Selma, stood alone among union leaders in raising questions about the new scheme of racial preferences that upended the nondiscrimination ideal, from Ocean Hill-Brownsville to Bakke. Today, in an environment where people of color say they are more likely to think of themselves as simply American, Shanker's classic liberal position may become salient again.

Albert Shanker's democratic vision made for strange political bedfellows. In December 1995, when friends gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Shanker's paid New York Times column, "Where We Stand," guests marveled at the ideological mix of the crowd: from Ted Kennedy (whom Shanker endorsed over Jimmy Carter in 1980) to Linda Chavez.

Shanker's vision, which tied together the various positions that superficial political categories would label as contradictory, was of course more than common sense: It was a coherent philosophy that consciously privileged democracy over capitalism. At a time when Americans favor "United We Stand" over Enron individualism, Shankerism may finally have its day.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools Through Public School Choice.

Vol. 21, Issue 24, Pages 36,39

Web Resources
  • The Albert Shanker Institute posts a biography of Albert Shanker, as well as essays on Mr. Shanker from a special April 1997 memorial issue of the American Federation of Teacher's magazine American Teacher. Includes links to other materials on Mr. Shanker.
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