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Jews, teachers unions and education

by Raphael J. Sonenshein

July 16, 2014 | 10:07 am

<em>Grover Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, image via Wikimedia Commons</em>

Grover Cleveland High School in Los Angeles, image via Wikimedia Commons

When the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) came here this week to hold its annual meeting, it was a reminder that Los Angeles is now the center of the American labor movement. The AFL-CIO held its conference in L.A. last September. Decades of local and statewide organizing have led to a major upsurge in labor strength in L.A., in contrast to labor’s struggles in the rest of the nation and in national politics. Teachers unions, in particular, long have been pillars of the state and national Democratic parties, constituting an important bloc of delegates at nominating conventions.

The AFT meeting also has been a reminder of how perilous an issue education has become within the Democratic Party. The role of the Jewish community in education offers some particular perils, as well.

Jews always have played a major role in debates over public education. As true believers in education, Jews have served as teachers and professors, as well as active parents watching fretfully over the public schools — even those that are not widely attended by Jewish students. Jews have voted overwhelmingly in favor of school expenditures. As beliefs in science and education have been challenged on the right, Jews have strongly retained loyalty to their heritage of intellectual inquiry from the European Enlightenment.

During the last two decades, however, a new debate on school reform has broken out that has divided Democrats, including Democratic Jews. It was probably long overdue, as the comfortable alliance between teachers unions and big-city school boards could not last forever. The school-reform debate has begun to replicate the internal split among Democrats between those who are closer to business and those who lean toward labor. The reformers advocate for, among other things, changes to teacher tenure and the expansion of charter schools.

Richard Riordan, a moderate Republican elected mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, challenged the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), the teachers union that had political control of the Board of Education. He backed winning candidates for a majority of the school board seats and set about replacing the superintendent with Roy Romer, who made significant changes. Then-Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former UTLA organizer, made permanent enemies of his union by following the Riordan game plan of winning school board seats in order to bolster the current superintendent, John Deasy.

The nationwide school-reform movement, which has been funded by major business leaders, including Riordan’s ally, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, has built momentum throughout the country. Writing in The Daily Forward in February, Josh Nathan-Kazis noted that Jewish activists are now playing leading roles on both sides of the debate, including both national teachers-union leaders and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who poured more than $1 million into Villaraigosa’s Coalition for School Reform targeting Los Angeles school board races in 2013. (The coalition’s well-funded candidate lost handily to a schoolteacher, Monica Ratliff, who spent around $50,000.)

At the national level, President Barack Obama has leaned more toward the reformers, as shown in his appointment of Arne Duncan as secretary of education. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff and current mayor of Chicago, is wholly in the reform camp. Soon after his election, he became embroiled in what became a losing battle against a surprisingly strong teachers-union leader who now may challenge him for re-election. In California, we have a West Los Angeles state Senate runoff race in November between Ben Allen and Sandra Fluke.  Allen, a Democrat, received major funding from former Republican and now moderate independent Bill Bloomfield, who is deep in the school-reform camp, although Allen has steered clear himself of taking sides in the reform debate.

And then, on June 10, came the Vergara decision, with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu issuing a landmark ruling that declared California’s laws on teacher tenure to be unconstitutional. The case is now on appeal. The political fallout among Democrats was quick. Duncan immediately praised the court’s decision, angering teachers-union leaders. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti initially called it a “great decision” but seemed to back off from that position somewhat in his speech to the convention this week. Gov. Jerry Brown withheld comment on the judge’s ruling, focusing instead on his school-funding plan to distribute more funds to school districts with the greatest need.

Republicans, meanwhile, have found in the Democratic split a rare opportunity to gain leverage in blue California and on education, which has traditionally been a Democratic issue. Neel Kashkari, the underdog Republican candidate for governor, attacked Brown for his decision not to comment on the Vergara decision.  

But the Republican position lacks one popular policy that Democrats on both sides of the reform argument favor: more funding, especially for schools serving low-income communities. In fact, the Republican camp includes people who would like to defund public schools entirely, a position foreshadowed by some conservatives labeling public schools “government schools.” Kashkari has expressed doubt that more funding will ever help education, an opinion that will surely run up against firm public support for the notion that public schools need more funding, and that the money must be more fairly distributed.   

The reformers have succeeded in breaking the teachers-union monopoly of school district politics and have divided Democratic leaders over how much they should agree to do what the union wants. Teachers unions, embattled in the face of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that may, in the future, make it difficult to collect union dues from non-members, are going to have to reinvent their roles in a broader social context. That’s why it was encouraging that, according to the Los Angeles Times, Alex Caputo-Pearl, the new president of the UTLA, called for “social movement unionism … explicit about fighting for racial and social justice,” along with his more militant suggestions that a strike might be possible.

Without that wider connection, the teachers union will fall into isolation. Even with its renewed militancy, the teachers union will have to be part of the reform, even if that means agreeing to needed changes on some rules that have endured for years. There will have to be a wide-open debate about the pros and cons of charter schools, which ones work and which ones don’t. They are most likely neither the magic bullet that reformers portray nor the end of public schools as union advocates suggest.

But the reformers have their own limitations. They have put reform on the table — no small task. But by elevating the issue of teacher tenure to such a high level, they are coming dangerously close to seeming to blame teachers alone for the poor quality of the schools. No one would have blamed nurses for the pre-Obamacare problems in health care, or firefighters for a shortage of fire engines. Voters are reluctant to blame those who deliver services that they can touch and feel, that are visible where they live and breathe. They are extremely unlikely to follow the lead of well-funded outside groups.

Where this could get really dicey for Democrats is if school reformers use racial and ethnic appeals to marginalize teachers. The language of the Vergara decision was alarming in connecting teacher tenure to the landmark Supreme Court ruling on integration of schools, Brown v. Board of Education. It has to be shocking to teachers to be compared to segregationists. Even worse, if minority communities are placed in direct conflict with teachers, we risk a repeat of what happened in New York City in 1968, when racially divisive school issues broke apart the multiracial civil rights coalition and largely ended progressive politics in New York City for the next three decades.

While the struggle over school reform is not going away, it will — sooner or later — have to stop being a power struggle between reformers and teachers unions. If one side manages to eliminate the power of the other, there will be no outside check on insider power in the schools, and no teacher-based power to resist cockeyed ideas from the outside. And, even more alarmingly, those who have little commitment to the public schools may someday find in political chaos an argument for defunding the schools. 

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