Saturday, October 31, 2020

The National Review Vs. Evil Teachers Unions

Upon first reading "Teachers Unions and the Myth of 'Public' Schools" at National Review, my immediate impulse was to just mutter "fatuous bullshit" and move on. But this piece is a fine distillation of a current genre of writing--the piece that blames current school closures on the self-serving teachers' unions, who see distance learning as a great way to pursue their dream of being paid for doing nothing. And as such, it needs to be responded to, even if only by a lowly blogger. Also, the National Review is not some completely stupid rag, and it should do better than this.

The writer is Cameron Hilditch, a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at National Review Institute. He's originally from Belfast, went to Oxford, and has been playing in the big leagues. When you see his picture, you're going to think he looks like he's about twelve, but it's not fair to hold that against him; in my picture at the top of this blog, I look like I still have hair. 

Hilditch comes out of the gate mighty aggressive:

American taxpayers have been hoodwinked by the whole idea of “public schools.” No other institutions get away with such bad behavior on the part of some employees who staff them.

He cites the last batch of NAEP scores as his proof, making the usual mistake, deliberate or not, of mistaking NAEP "proficiency" for "adequacy" instead of "top quality." He calls these numbers "appalling," based on the fact that he wants something more to blame on public teachers unions that "continue to behave like the nation's most lucrative and powerful racketeering ring." 

All of this allows him to sidle up to his point, which is about the use of a "public" and "private" as political language; "these terms," he claims, "stop us from thinking clearly."

"Private," he argues, is at a disadvantage in a democratic society because it's "a word used by individuals to make claims on their own behalf against the claims of others." But with "public," he says, "at a time when loneliness and social isolation are rampant (a premise that cries out for some actual support), it conjures up associations with community, solidarity, and collective effort."

Those associations with "public" he argues, allow the people who work in such institutions to cloak themselves in nobility when they're "just as nakedly self-interested as everybody else." Now back to his main point of attack:

The saddest and most salient example of “public” institutions that are nothing of the sort in the United States is our “public” education system. These schools are advertised to taxpayers as institutions that serve every child in the nation. In reality, they serve the interests of no one other than the small group of Americans who work in these schools as teachers and administrators.

This is the classic anti-union vision of public education-- the whole education system is set up as a scam to fool taxpayers into providing gobs of money to sinecure-filling teachers and undeserved political power to union leaders. And Hilditch lays on the purple prose with a trowel:

Since the teachers unions can shield their own avarice with claims of “public service” to children, they can manipulate the actual public into thinking that more money, job security, or political power for themselves is in everyone’s interest instead of their own. They can claim that the hopes and dreams of America’s children are somehow mystically present in their paychecks and their extended holidays as if the funds in each of their bank accounts amount to some sort of progressive eucharist of which the entire nation partakes.

But while Hilditch can badmouth teachers like a pro, he does not actually provide a counter-argument. Is his claim that public schools don't actually serve all students? Then some sort of evidence would be helpful here; he just name checks graduation rates, test scores, and graduate employability without details, as if those constitute proof. 

The object of all this high dudgeon is teachers unions that are resisting re-opening of schools during the pandemic. This is a not-unpopular narrative among some folks, despite the fact that it doesn't have much basis in reality. There are plenty of parents out there who are not in any hurry to send their kids back, and plenty of private, charter, and non-union schools (which in some states include public schools) that are also keeping their doors closed. Hilditch is going with the "there's no real danger here" argument, specifically, there haven't been any surges in K-12 schools so far. Just a few deaths here and there. That leads him to arguing 

In typical fashion, the teachers unions are arguing that their actions are meant to protect the health of both teachers and students.

"In typical fashion" does the heavy lifting here, suggesting that teachers don't really care about anyone's health, and that such uncaring selfishness is standard fare for Those People. It also proves that they either "don't know or don't care" about the long-term effects of distance learning, then he goes on to link childhood brain damage directly to teacher union policy (not with evidence--he just links it by saying it's so). 

He also takes a swipe at Becky Pringle, lifting a quote from a Politico profile of the new NEA president. She's talking about what the union will do in the face of second DeVos term:

She said that “we will lift up all of the things that they are doing to destroy public education, to dismantle it, to hurt our educators’ rights to organize and have a voice to advocate at work for our students and for their community.” Notice the sentence structure. It isn’t “our students and … their community” whose “rights” are being “hurt.” It’s “our educators,” who stand in as middlemen between taxpaying parents and their children in order “to advocate at work for our students and for their community.” They claim the mantle of “public educators” when they should be called “taxpayer-funded educators.”

This is just... well, that parsing of the sentence structure is a reach. The NEA represents teachers, not the public. But he's pointing at a distinction without a difference. Teachers do, in fact, stand up as advocates for students, families, and taxpayers. They do it all the time. And his zinger at the end is kind of zing-free. Yes, teachers are taxpayer-funded educators. This point lands about like sneering, "And you know, those public school teachers all teach in public schools." Well, yeah. So? 

In fact, this is the closest Hilditch comes to hitting the major point that this whole piece dances around--the word's "public" and "private," when applied to schools, have actual meanings, not just shades of political rhetoric. A public school is funded by the public, owned by the public, operated by elected representatives of the public, and accountable to the public. They cannot turn away any students without extraordinary processes. A private school is privately owned, privately operated, and accountable only to its owners. They can turn anyway anyone they want to turn away. We're living through a long-term attempt to get these private schools the use of public funds, but even in those cases, private schools remain privately owned and operated. Words have actual meanings. This is not something that a traditional conservative should need to have pointed out to him.

But Hilditch's argument, such as it is, rests on sloppy conflations. In his conclusion, he says:

The assumption that government-run schools operate in the “public interest” has prevented us from noticing the many ways in which teachers unions operate in their own self-interest.

Also, a bicycle, because a vest has no sleeves. The only way this sentence even makes sense is if one assumes, as Hilditch seems to, that public schools, public school teachers, and the teachers unions are all a single entity. They aren't. He seems really, really pissed that the pandemic hasn't shown everybody that public schools are just venal and selfish. Again, I can't believe that it's necessary to explain to a traditional conservative that things are complicated, especially worldwide pandemics in which hard data is scare and actual leadership on the state and federal level is even scarcer. Even simple complicating factor like, you know, teachers mostly don't want to die or have a hand in the deaths of students or students families, but nobody can show exactly how much risk is involved in opening doors, or we could note that teachers would prefer, mostly, not to teach from home, because it's mostly an awful imitation of the work they really love to do, or that the equations of home v. school learning are different for Black and brown families. (And as always when confronting the Hilditches of the world, teachers want to know--if we've got such a stranglehold on the schools and the taxpayers, why are we still not rich?)

Maybe Hilditch is just upset that people are too nice to teachers. His final line is "But as long as they have the language of the 'public'-'private' divide to draw upon, they’ll probably succeed in convincing themselves and a good deal of voters that they are the selfless ones." It is symptomatic of the piece that the antecedent of "they" is unclear. Public schools? Teachers? Teacher unions? It's not clear. But whoever it is, Hilditch apparently just plain wants people to stop liking them. 

The comments mostly sing with the same stringent vitriol, but there is one on-point reply from an actual teacher:

Is there a way that don't have to look at everything in absolutist terms? Everyone is an enemy sent to destroy us? I am a teacher and I care about my kids. I appreciate my union and it's efforts to create a better working environment. I appreciate that they give us a voice and the admin listens to that voice. They advocate for us and for the kids. Can't we all do more than one thing at a time? Public schools do try to help kids. So do the teachers. This article is dripping in poison as are a lot of the comments. I think the slim possibility must be considered that teachers and public schools are trying to the right thing.

Hilditch appears to be quite certain that nobody in the public school sector is trying to do the right thing at all, ever. I started reading his piece getting angry, started laughing somewhere in the middle, but by the end just wanted to ask, "Who hurt you, buddy? Would you like a hug?"

1 comment:

  1. I think your first reaction was pretty accurate. -- Also, I think he's completely misread the connotations of "public" and "private" in the US. Not only do they have actual specific meanings as regards school, as you say, but that idea that people sort of half-disapprove of "private" initiatives shows his UK origins. Yes, in London, people generally feel icky about making money out of essential services - that is very much not a reservation felt over here.