Public school teachers and their unions are under a sustained assault that is still unfolding. In 2010 Michelle Rhee, former Washington, DC, schools chancellor, announced the creation of a multimillion-dollar lobbying organization for the explicit purpose of undermining teachers unions. She has charged that “bad teachers” are the primary cause of the problems that beset America’s schools. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has asserted that effective teachers need no experience. Romanticizing the young, energetic, passionate (read: cheap) teacher, he has made eliminating seniority preferences in layoffs (aka, last in, first out—or LIFO) his pet cause (it has been stymied for the time being by the state legislature).
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has slashed school aid by $1.2 billion while refusing to comply with a court-mandated formula for school funding equity. He has become a right-wing hero by demonizing teachers, lambasting unions, challenging tenure rights and introducing a crude teacher-evaluation process based on student test scores. Christie is also pushing what he calls a “final solution”—$360 million in tax credits for a tuition voucher system that would permit any child in New Jersey go to any school, public or private, and would include state subsidies for some students already attending parochial schools and yeshivas.
It’s hard to think of another field in which experience is considered a liability and those who know the least about the nuts and bolts of an enterprise are embraced as experts.
The attack has diverse roots, and comes not only from Republicans. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform have dedicated substantial resources to undermining teachers unions. With Race to the Top, the Obama administration has put its weight behind a reform agenda featuring charter schools, which employ mostly nonunion labor, as its centerpiece. A disturbing bipartisan consensus is emerging that favors a market model for public schools that would abandon America’s historic commitment to providing education to all children as a civil right. This model would make opportunities available largely to those motivated and able to leave local schools; treat parents as consumers and children as disposable commodities that can be judged by their test scores; and unravel collective bargaining agreements so that experienced teachers can be replaced with fungible itinerant workers who have little training, less experience and no long-term commitment to the profession.
In this atmosphere of hostility to public schools and teachers, it has become nearly impossible to have a rational discussion among educators, parents, advocates, youth and policy-makers about what should be done. Honest analyses suggest that removing ineffective teachers is an excessively slow and arduous process, though unions are often blamed when administrators have failed to document problems systematically. Likewise, the LIFO system for layoffs does need reform because it contributes to high turnover in the most disadvantaged schools. These schools are the hardest to staff, and in cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, many veteran teachers have found ways to avoid being assigned to such schools. But candid conversations about how to solve these problems are extraordinarily difficult when any comment critical of unions is likely to be used as a weapon by the right.