School Choice & Charters Opinion

People vs. Dollars

By Deborah Meier — April 07, 2011 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Even when we were fierce “enemies,” we held one thing in common: our support for unions in general and the teachers’ unions in particular. You were fonder of Al Shanker’s politics than I was—but I rather miss him of late.

Were you as “amused” then as now by all the talk about “Big Labor”? It was, I thought, one of those white lies that serve all sides. It defused, for corporations, the classical and unflattering icon of the fat capitalist boss with one of a labor boss. But for labor, too, it was an attractive recruitment tool: “Join us! We have power, too!”

But it was a double-edged sword for the union movement, and it’s amazing how it has withstood its decimation. The lead story in the American School Board Journal this month comes with this lead-in on the journals’ website: “Once nearly untouchable, teachers’ unions now are portrayed as barriers to school reform.”

Even at their most awesome, unions in America enrolled a distinct minority of our workforce, and it was only several decades ago that most state and federal public-service employees were allowed to organize. State governors and mayors have a long history of “standing up” to unions—and forcing costly strikes (often illegal).

Untouchable? How many years ago was draconian anti-strike legislation passed even in New York state? And, how many states to this day don’t allow collective bargaining for public employees, including teachers? And, meanwhile, weakened federal labor legislation, the government’s use of scabs (under President Reagan), the destruction of the manufacturing base of America, and a weak and largely anti-union No Child Left Behind Act have destroyed most private unionization.

In a country in which the very richest “capitalists” now possess more than half the wealth of the nation, and when many pay virtually no taxes and earn as much of their profit overseas as they do “at home,” we still hear talk about Big, Bad Labor.

Democracy requires conscious and everlasting miracles to survive, resting on needed balancing forces of power. These balances come in many shapes and forms, but since the late New Deal (in the late 1930s), chief among them has been the power of organized people—unions first and foremost—to confront the awesome power of organized money.

Lobbyist by lobbyist, the unions certainly couldn’t match their opponents, even if we added in the many good citizen advocacy groups. But they had one advantage over the others: the relatively high loyalty of their members. Numbers of people vs. numbers of dollars.

What will serve as a balancing force in the days and years ahead? What prevents the richest 1 percent from spending half their money on politics, while still having more left than the other 99 percent together?

And what will stop them from using the newly privatized school chains they are busily packaging to their self-interest, not that of the families of their students? What is unique about such schools is that they are not, by law, required to be public in nature. They’re not in any way governed by either their own public (parents, students, teachers, or neighbors); like any small, unmonitored business, they are hard to organize for parents or teachers, and it’s difficult to “recall” their boards of trustees. They are accountable more or less only for test scores and graduation rates, if we can imagine what it would cost to truly monitor them all! Try getting real facts now. (Although, I’ll admit it’s not a lot easier to get reliable data from the regular public schools either.)

Yes, we need accountability. That’s what, after all, democracy is all about. And, when democracy fails us, we need more of it, not less of it. We need to tackle the real dilemmas that democracy faces in the operation of a universal free education from K-12 for all our children—and ideally prior to age 5 and after 18, as well.

The various players have been arguing over this for years. (I came to New York City in 1967 during a struggle presumably over decentralizing control and left Chicago right before it engaged in a similar reform struggle.) In fact, Chicago’s decentralization was a success, the documentation now demonstrates. But, as in New York, it was soon abandoned by a counter-revolution and has moved fast and furiously in the other direction ever since. Both NYC’s and Chicago’s decentralizing efforts were far from perfect. But they were on the right track, and many of the best ideas of the “charter movement” were borrowed from the decentralizers. In 1993, with funding from the Annenberg Foundation, New York City had an opportunity to create a truly public district of schools with charter-like freedoms, with the support of the local union; the city turned it down for more of the same. In 1995, the Boston union proposed something similar for a few dozen local schools; it grew and grew until a new administration chose to join the “new consensus.”

Had all the current crowd of billionaire de-formers really wanted a more innovative and flexible school system, they’d have jumped on board long ago. But they didn’t. They were either too impatient or too eager for direct power and abandoned these early efforts to democratize schooling in favor of privatizing it.

Is it too late to imagine how we might recapture the spirit of those earlier reform efforts? Do we have the patience to persuade the public that there’s a safer and better solution to giving up on one of our nation’s finest inventions?

Maybe Madison, Wis., is the beginning of a new cycle. Maybe, Diane, your courage and that of thousands of parents, teachers, and young people will save the day.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.