This article is adapted from Dana Goldstein’s new book, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Doubleday).
For as long as there have been teachers unions—and they date back to 1897—there have been tensions between them and other progressives committed to public education. In Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century, settlement-house crusader Jane Addams thought teachers union leader Margaret Haley was wrong to resist tougher classroom evaluations. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson created the Teacher Corps, a sort of proto–Teach for America, over the objections of the National Education Association. But it wasn’t until the urban teacher strikes of the late 1960s and early ’70s—when unions opposed black and Hispanic community control in favor of job security for predominantly white teachers—that the unions became downright villains not only to anti-labor conservatives but, for the first time, to large segments of the American left.
In the push for community control, we see a precedent for many of today’s school-reform battles. Just as the Ford Foundation, in the late ’60s, funded parent activists in Brooklyn who eventually took over their school district and tried to fire tenured teachers, so today Bill Gates donates to “parent-trigger” efforts in California and other states, where school reformers help low-income parents organize petition drives in favor of overhauling the management and staffing of their children’s schools, sometimes turning them into nonunionized charter schools. Both then and now, reformers who describe themselves as progressives assert that unions impede the creation of quality schools. In 1967, Howard Kalodner, a New York University professor and prominent schools activist, spoke for many when he professed a desire “to destroy the professional educational bureaucracy.” Today’s reformers have coined the term “the Blob” to refer to the same tangle of bureaucracies—teachers unions, school boards and teacher-education programs—that Kalodner denounced, equating loyalty to these institutions with a belief that minority students lack intellectual potential.
This vilification of teachers unions misses a much more complex reality. Even as the unions argued—often in a tone-deaf way—for job-security protections that few parents could support, organized teachers were (and remain) potent advocates for many of the education policies that most benefit disadvantaged children, from tuition-free pre-K to better training for teachers. Despite this fact, as Northern school boards and mayors resisted desegregation in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and the hopes for an integrated Great Society curdled, the community-control and Black Power movements loomed with a forceful critique of teachers unions—a critique that was eagerly adopted by the liberal elite within philanthropy and government, and one that remains potent today.