Unions vs Teacher: Who is the bad guy?

Who Breaks a Butterfly Upon a Wheel
by Bill Lyne

An Open Letter to Nick Hanauer

Our friends over at Publicola have recently been hosting a rousing debate between big bucks Democrat Nick Hanauer and WEA President Mary Lindquist on teachers’ unions and K-12 schools.  Here at the blog, we have a hard time resisting sticking our nose into we don’t know much about, so we decided to join the fun with our own open letter to Mr. Hanauer:

Dear Mr. Hanauer,

I’ve been reading your recent Publicola colloquy ( with WEA President Mary Lindquist with interest.  I appreciate the way that you have genuinely engaged the question of what you call school reform and that you took the time to respond to Mary’s letter to you.  That’s unusual—most rich people who appoint themselves experts in something don’t usually engage with the people they criticize.  You seem like a guy who might be willing to listen, so I’d like to take the presumptuous step of joining the discussion.

In the full disclosure department, I am a professor at Western Washington University and the president of the United Faculty of Washington State, which represents the faculty at Washington’s four regional comprehensive universities.  We are affiliated with WEA and I sit on the WEA Board of Directors.  But, while I have learned a lot about K-12 education from the teachers and staff at the WEA, my union work deals almost exclusively with higher education, so I’m probably as much out of my depth as you are when it comes to K-12 education.  This letter is from one uninformed outsider to another and is not in any way an official response from the WEA.

In your letter to Mary you say that it’s not the hard-working, dedicated teachers who are ruining education but rather their nasty, child-hating union.  I grew up as an upper middle class white boy in the American South, where all of the white grownups had their favorite Black people—the cook, the person who looked after the kids, the guy who took care of the cattle for a share of the corn crop.  But God forbid that one of those favorites be seen gathering on a street corner with Black people from out of town, or at an NAACP meeting, or having coffee with a union representative.  At the first hint of any organized activity, our grownups would turn on their favorite Black people faster than a summer squall could dump an inch of rain on the pasture.  Suddenly the individuals who had been so tender, wise, and trustworthy were scary, too stupid to know better, and not to be let into the house.  Everybody loved the solitary black person, nobody liked it when they started to bunch
up and talk crazy.

That’s kind of the way it is with teachers.  Everybody loves a teacher, nobody likes the big, bad teachers’ union.  As long as they’re staying after school to give the extra help to the kids who need it or reaching into their own pockets to pay for the supplies that the state doesn’t anymore, teachers are saints.  But when they collectively advocate for decent wages, adequate health care, and working conditions that don’t erode by the minute they’re a threat to the moral fabric of the state.

Perhaps it is this construction of a teachers’ union that isn’t composed of teachers (the same way my southern relatives always believed that organized black people were put up to it by uppity Northern Blacks or communists) that leads to some of the difficult constructions in your letter to Mary.  You say that “the vast majority of Washington’s teachers care deeply about student outcomes, work incredibly hard, and are constantly working to improve their instructional practices.”  But in the very next paragraph you talk about the “elements that are largely missing from our State’s public education system: relentlessly high standards, a culture of excellence, and a systemic commitment to innovation.”  For both of these things to be true, you have to imagine the deeply caring, hard working, forward looking teachers you describe coming together in their democratically elected union and suddenly losing all interest in excellence and innovation.

The truth is that teachers in this state and across the country are concerned about the “reforms” so relentlessly pursued by well-funded corporate interests (from Arne Duncan to the Gates Foundation to the League of Education Voters) because many of them will do to public education what the same kind of privatizing “reform” did to health care.  Education is what Wall Street has called “the big enchilada,” the last big public sphere (after health care) available for private exploitation and profit.  And if we privatize education while trotting out euphemisms like reform, efficiency, and excellence, we’ll get exactly what we have now with health care.  Rich people will have access to the best education in the world and everybody else will get education that is extremely profitable but below the standards of many developing countries.

There is something deeply disingenuous about the arguments that you and other business elite school reformers make when you say things like “I am not a teacher and would not presume to tell you how to teach . . . but in my experience as a business leader and entrepreneur . . . .”  The education foundations and leagues and task forces that people like you fund are full of non-teachers who are constantly telling teachers how to teach, but even if that weren’t true, the evidence of your steel-eyed business sense is hard to see in the education “reforms” you’re pushing.  I’m not a business leader and entrepreneur, but it isn’t a stretch to imagine that if education were a company you were trying to turn around, you wouldn’t be focusing on the stuff that’s always a part of education “reform.”

If you had a company that was as desperately underfunded as public education, you probably would make that funding your first priority.  If you had a company that needed more workers as desperately as public education needs more teachers, you wouldn’t spend all your time worrying about the order in which you were going to lay off the workers you have.  If you had a company that desperately needed the most trained and qualified workers the way that our schools need the most trained and qualified teachers, you wouldn’t turn to a temp agency like Teach For America (whose freshly scrubbed and earnest young charges make up for their lack of qualification with lots of well-meaning white liberal racism).
And you certainly wouldn’t spend your time writing complicated and lugubrious evaluation policies that only the most committed HR bureaucrat could love.  If a smart business person like you were running public education and looking to genuinely succeed, you would hire the very best people you could find, you would hire enough of them, you would pay them very well, you would get out of their way and let them do their jobs, and you would fire them if they didn’t get that job done. The only thing that the education “reform” movement seems to be genuinely interested in is the firing part.

In your letter to Mary, you tell the world that “my record as a proponent of more funding for our public schools is unassailable.”  Bully for you.  The fact that you and everybody else has failed in the quest for adequate funding (as even the State Supreme Court has acknowledged) should not lead you to abandon your progressive values.

You shouldn’t fall into the trap of scapegoating teachers for American racism and class inequality.  A UW Philosophy grad like yourself should know that a teacher evaluation bill isn’t going to make a dent in the alloy of democracy for white men, capitalism, and racialized slavery that coalesced in the 18th century and created the backbone of American inequality that persists to this day

You should get out of the weeds of charter school statistics and Bellevue anecdotes and recognize that the assault on teachers’ unions has nothing to do with education and everything to do with the further erosion of public infrastructure and what few collective bargaining rights remain.  Most school reform policies come from a very unprogressive playbook and most of the bills you support get their templates from ALEC.

You should recognize that public school in the United States has never been pure.  The two big forces behind creating and mandating public schooling have been anti-Catholicism and child labor laws.  Nineteenth-century Protestant elites, fearing that Catholic schools were creating a populace more loyal to the Pope than the President, were the driving force behind the public school system. And in the twentieth century, mandatory public schooling to the age of 16 went hand in hand with the outlawing of child labor and the need to create a warehouse for the suddenly unemployed and unruly mob of children of the laboring classes.  School is as much about learning to pledge allegiance, line up, and respond to Pavlovian bells as it is about education.  Teachers work in a context that is usually completely antithetical to the creativity and innovation you talk so much about.  Insofar as you’re interested in public schools as something more than a factory that produces semi-skilled wor
kers for businesses, you should focus on reforms more fundamental than busting teachers’ unions.

Maybe you should have tried to have a cup of coffee with Mary Lindquist before you made a big public show of chatting up Rob McKenna—another guy who, like you and me, doesn’t really know anything about K-12 teaching.

The WEA has its problems—it’s almost as white as you and me and it has all the usual inefficiencies that come with a big democratic organization.  But the WEA is not education’s problem.

I hope you’ll consider that.


Bill Lyne

Who tried teaching high school for one year before moving on to the much less difficult job of college professor.

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