Ugly Attacks on Teachers and Teachers Unions

As a candidate for President, Joseph Biden promised to appoint a teacher or someone experienced in public school education as U.S. Secretary of Education. Now as Biden is appointing the members of his Cabinet, we are reading opinion pieces filled with all the old conventional biases against schoolteachers in general and against the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Many Republicans are suspicious of teachers unions, but a lot of the current attacks on teachers are coming from Democrats—from the supporters of the “corporate school reformer” education policies of President Barack Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan. These are Democrats who adhere to the neoliberal policies that endorsed school privatization in the form of charter schools whose operation is entirely private. Some of these Democrats are people who promote business school school accountability based on incentives and punishments said to increase teachers’ productivity. The current protesters are worried about the possibility that President Elect Biden will appoint Lily Eskelsen Garcia, NEA’s recent president, or Randi Weingarten, AFT’s current president, as the next U.S. Secretary of Education.

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal printed an extraordinary classist, sexist, elitist, and insultingly anti-teacher screed by Joseph Epstein, the former editor of The American Scholar.  Here is how Epstein begins his personal attack on Jill Biden: “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo…  Your degree is, I believe, an Ed.D., a doctor of education, earned at the University of Delaware through a dissertation with the unpromising title, ‘Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs.'” Mr. Epstein continues, “The Ph.D. may once have held prestige, but that has been diminished by the erosion of seriousness, and the relaxation of standards in university education generally… Getting a doctorate was then an arduous proceeding: One had to pass examinations in two foreign languages, one of them Greek or Latin, defend one’s thesis, and take an oral examination on general knowledge in one’s field.” Epstein extols the intense pressure on candidates in the olden days before, as he contends, standards collapsed and the comprehensive exams became less threatening: “Dr. Jill, I note you acquired your Ed.D. as recently as 15 years ago at age 55, long after the terror had departed.”

You will have noticed that Mr. Epstein does not attack unionized teachers directly. In fact, he does not even mention that Jill Biden, an English teacher at a community college and a former high school English teacher, is a member of the NEA.  But he manages to denigrate and insult not only women (“kiddo”) and the idea that a woman might have a life and career independent of her husband (“Mrs. Biden”), but also the fact that most school teachers earn advanced degrees by going to school part time at the local state university at the same time they are teaching.  Epstein also disdains the idea that today teachers earn advanced degrees by studying issues related to pedagogy, developmental psychology, or the conditions and needs of their students. Epstein’s bias is for the ivory tower and against what education writer Mike Rose names in the title of his wonderful book about the importance of community colleges: Back To School: Why Everyone Deserves a Second Chance at Education, An Argument for Democratizing Knowledge in America.

A month ago the Wall Street Journal also published an explicitly anti-teachers union piece by William McGurn, a former speech writer for President George W. Bush: “During his campaign, (Biden) promised to appoint a teacher as education secretary.  Now the talk is that Mr. Biden will appoint not only a teacher but the head of a teachers union… Everyone has understood that a Biden Education Department would mark a change of direction from the past four years. But to elevate to education secretary someone whose career has been spent fighting any reform aimed at relaxing the teachers union’s stranglehold on the public schools would be an astonishingly bleak admission about whose interests come first.”

Then there was Jonathan Chait’s New York Magazine  interview last week with President Barack Obama. A devotee of Obama’s pro-school reformer–pro-charter school policies, Chait asks the former president why he chose not to discuss his education policies in his new 700 page book, A Promised Land.  Obama replies that he will be exploring education policy in a second volume.  He also hedges as he explains the Race to the Top Program in which Arne Duncan required states, as the qualification to apply for a grant, to judge teachers by their students’ standardized test scores:  “I think it has to do with the fact that our reform efforts were relatively complicated to explain to the public. It’s easy to talk about ‘We’re going to put more money into buildings’ or ‘We’re going to talk about buying more books or science labs or you name it.’  It’s harder to talk about how we’re trying to create a sense of accountability, but also one that is not loading up even more rigid standardized-testing approaches that I think a lot of teachers rightly feel are suffocating.” Obama tells Chait: “What is… true is that I was fully supportive of the idea of raising expectations, raising standards, encouraging states and local school districts not to give up on kids because it’s hard.  To not assume that money is the only problem.”

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss bluntly identifies as the primary flaw in Obama’s education policies his failure to address school funding inequity and child poverty: “Race to the Top did not make systemic improvements in public education in part because it failed to address some of the most important reasons for low student achievement. It did nothing to tackle the fundamental inequity of America’s education funding, which has historically penalized high-poverty districts and rewarded wealthy ones. It also did not address out-of-school factors that affect how children perform in school—even though research shows that most of the achievement gap is driven by factors outside school.”

It was to address these two issues that candidate Joe Biden turned away from the education policies of the Obama administration in which he served as Vice President. What happened as Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan was implementing Race to the Top is that state budgets collapsed during the Great Recession in 2008, and then in 2010 in state after state, Tea Party candidates took over and began further to cut taxation.

In their new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire explain that: “Of each dollar spent on education in the United States, just 8 cents comes from the federal government… The real spending action in education takes place at the state and local level. States pick up the tab for approximately 47 cents of each dollar spent on public education, while local communities contribute an additional 45 cents, primarily through property taxes. In an effort to starve the beast, then, conservatives have worked at all levels of government to reduce taxation…  Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession, but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.  In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker took aim at education through Act 10—what was first called the ‘budget repair bill.’  Act 10 is mostly remembered for stripping teachers and other public employees of their collective bargaining rights.  But it also made $2 billion in cuts to the state’s public schools. Though Wisconsin, like many states, already capped the amount by which local communities could raise property taxes to fund schools… Walker and the GOP-controlled legislature imposed further limits, including restricting when and how local school districts can ask voters for additional help funding their schools.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,  pp. 34-36)

One of the authors of The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider published a tweet last week that captures the truth of what has happened over two decades of education policy: “Most people, when talking about “good” or “bad” schools, are talking about schools they’ve never visited in communities they don’t know. Their judgments are rooted in status ideology, rather than knowledge. If we nod our heads, we are complicit in an ignorance that harms us all.”  I believe President Elect Biden has promised to appoint someone with direct public school experience, because Biden noticed that it took teachers themselves to show us the flaws in the movement for corporate school reform and school privatization.

In a new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy, constitutional scholar Derek Black reminds us what happened: “In the spring of 2018, teachers across the nation waged a full-scale revolt, shutting down public schools and marching on state capitals in the reddest of red states. From West Virginia and Kentucky to Oklahoma and Arizona, teachers went on strike over the condition of public education. Stagnant and depressed teacher salaries were the initial focal point, but as the protests spread, it became clear that teachers were marching for far more than their salaries. They were marching for school supplies, school services, class sizes, and more. They were marching for states to reverse the massive budget cuts of the past decade and stop funneling more resources into charters and vouchers.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 23-24)

President Elect Biden may or may not choose a member of a teachers union as the next education secretary, but it’s time to stop permitting the corporate-accountability school reformers and charter school privatizers to trash the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. And it is time for us all to examine the stereotypes by which we define school teachers. It ought to be utterly unacceptable to insult Jill Biden for teaching at a community college and for earning an advanced degree at night school at the University of Delaware at the same time she was teaching high school during the day in Wilmington.

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