But if these attacks on teachers aren’t about ending the systemic racism that continues to undermine our education system, what is the goal? With forces as seemingly disparate as the Obama administration, the Walton Foundation, the late Milton Friedman, and the New York Times all pushing the same ideas, this is a complicated question, but there are at least two major goals: destroy the power of the teachers’ unions, and turn the public school system from a public trust into a new market for corporate development. From the time of Reagan, who used his “welfare queen” stories to scapegoat the poor as a basis on which to destroy the welfare system, this has been a tried-and-true approach to privatization: use visceral anecdotes to whip up hysteria that a system is “broken,” argue that only market competition can fix the situation, and then sell off pieces of the public sector to private corporations. This time, teachers are the scapegoats.
So it’s no accident that a major thrust of the media and political campaign has been the elimination of teacher tenure, which is blamed for making it hard to fire “bad” teachers. Everyone—as student, parent, or colleague—has felt the impact of teachers who should not be in the classroom. But don't blame tenure. Tenure is not a guaranteed job for life; it’s the right, which all employees deserve, not to be fired without due process and without just cause. If the goal were really better teaching, Race to the Top would be promoting union/district peer review and mentoring programs that are effective in helping struggling teachers and removing those who can’t make the grade. Instead, President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have made linking retention and salaries to test scores a precondition for Race to the Top funds, and encouraged states to break the power of teachers’ unions.
The attacks on tenure are, in fact, essentially attacks on the teachers’ unions. Despite their problems, teachers’ unions are one of the few remaining bulwarks of organized labor. They are the only protection for teachers’ rights and, at their best, facilitate teachers joining forces with parents and students to fight for equitable, forward-thinking schools that meet the needs of communities and the future.
Teacher tenure—at both the K-12 and university level—is enormously important, not just to individual teachers, but also to society as a whole. Tenure is protection against shortsighted or vindictive administrators. Tenure is what enables teachers to collaborate with each other instead of competing, to speak up for the rights of students, and to fight for justice in the classroom, the school community, and the larger community that the school serves.
“Bad teachers” are being used as the excuse to turn schools into one more arena for corporate development. First Hurricane Katrina provided the context in New Orleans for firing all unionized teachers and replacing most of the public education system with market-driven charter schools. Now this phony “crisis of bad teachers,” piled atop the economic crisis, is supposedly the reason to dismantle much of the country’s commitment to public education. Just in the past few months, both Obama and Duncan publicly applauded the firing of every teacher at a Rhode Island high school; Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb announced plans to close another 44 schools in that city and replace them with non-union private and semiprivate charters; and the Florida legislature voted to eliminate teacher tenure entirely and revoke credentials based on standardized test scores.
Teachers, teachers’ unions, and public education itself are under serious threat. It’s vital that we build alliances with everyone who stands to lose from these assaults on public education.
The editors of Rethinking Schools.