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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Slandering Weingarten Is No Recipe for Reform

By Rick Hess — October 01, 2010 3 min read

In a troubling bit of ad hominem mud-slinging, political blogger Keli Goff penned a Huffington Post piece this week comparing American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten to Osama bin Laden. In “What Teachers’ Unions, the Pope and Osama Bin Laden Have in Common,” Goff wrote, “American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten is about to join Osama bin Laden on the list of Most Despised People in America. And if even one tenth of Guggenheim’s film is to be believed, then this distinction is well earned and well deserved.”

Back story: Goff apparently saw the new movie Waiting for ‘Superman’ and now understands that teacher tenure is problematic. In true Oprah-style, Goff then proceeded to go from ignorant to self-righteously bombastic in the blink of an eye. Goff declared, “While most adults can agree that the system is failing too many of our kids, we have long been unable to come to an agreement on why. But Waiting for ‘Superman’ seems to settle the debate once and for all...It’s not teachers but it is the union bosses who lead them.” (I’m curious just who Goff thinks it is that foists those bosses upon these teachers. I always find this the crudest of panders. If you think that teachers unions are problematic--and I do--then you need to have the courage to calls teachers to account as well. You can’t just let teachers off for the policies that their unions promote).

Goff went on, seeking new opportunities to offend: "[Watching] Weingarten deflect question, after question about failing and at times abusive teachers (in the film and on MSNBCs recent education special)...it was as though she and Pope Benedict, head of the Catholic Church, are operating from the same playbook; ... [one] in which the primary play is this: Defend and protect the very worst in our profession at all costs.”

Practically speaking, a good reason to steer away from ad hominem tirades is that the resulting contretemps tend to muddy the debate and distract attention from the substantive critique. As the old legal adage has it, you pound the table when you don’t have the facts on your side. When you think the facts make your case, it’s a mistake to push the debate into a bout of name-calling and claims and counter-claims about who’s “really” putting the kids first.

Lord knows I’m a critic of the AFT and the NEA, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to engage in public debate, and we owe it to ourselves to speak up when lines are crossed. This is just ugly and lazy. It’s one thing to satirize, to skewer, or critique. It’s another to invoke mass murderers (especially when one might draw upon far more pointed and insightful comparisons, such as Jay Greene’s analogizing the teachers unions to big tobacco). I know Randi Weingarten and respect her. We disagree on much and I’ve certainly taken my share of shots at her, but she is a smart, professional, and accomplished women who deserves better than this kind of high-profile slander.

The classy Joe Williams, chief of Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), which has been an outspoken champion of all things Superman, may have said it best. He took the time to issue a well-deserved blast at Goff, even though her substantive points echoed DFER’s. Williams wrote:

We're all for rigorous debate, but a recent rogue column on Huffington Post (and that is making the rounds elsewhere in the blogosphere) that compares AFT President Randi Weingarten to Osama bin Laden is so far over the top it begs for a quick beat-down... This kind of irresponsible comparison is totally uncalled for in public discourse... Randi Weingarten is the last person you could possibly describe as hiding in a cave, plotting to destroy America. She has appeared on so many panels and television programs as part of the WFS roll-out - and she's taken quite a public beating in many of them - that 'cowardly terrorist' is the last phrase you'd use to describe her."

I’ve noted before that one of my concerns about Superman is that Davis Guggenheim seems to be playing the role of the magician’s apprentice. He crafted a movie that any reasonable viewer would regard as virulently anti-teachers union but has since gone to great pains to tell interviewers that he’s a “pro-union, liberal Democrat” who just wanted to raise awareness. Well, be that as it may, Goff-style rants seem to be precisely what his film is geared to produce. And we would all do well to anticipate that and respond according to our own lights.

Here’s my take. We need to have honest, adult, hard-hitting debates about the state of our schools and how to improve them. That becomes harder when the air is filled with ad hominem attacks. Here’s hoping that Goff goes back to ranting about whatever her usual hobby-horses are, and that we agree--wherever we stand on the issues--to emulate Joe Williams and denounce the hysterics and mud-slingers, especially when they happen to agree with us.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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