Saturday, February 27, 2016

Can Conservatives and Unions Play Nice?

Andy Smarick is a partner at Bellwether Partners and a senior fellow at Fordham Institute, two reliably reformy right-leaning thinky tanks, so it's safe to say that he favors the reformster view of the education debates. But I also find him to be thoughtful and intellectually honest, particularly when it comes to considering the role of conservatism in the reform movement.

I've been saving a Smarick piece from last week's Weekly Standard to mull over (it's show week, and my close reading time has been replaced by rehearsal time). In "Don't Scoff," Smarick considers the possibility of collaboration between conservatives and unions, particularly in light of two events-- the passage of ESSA and the Friedrich's case. Granted, the Friedrich case is not looking quite so game-changing now that Scalia has shuffled off this mortal coil, but Smarick's points are still worth considering. I do recommend that if you want a fuller understanding of his argument, you read his piece.

Where he sees the "key overlap in the conservative/union Venn diagram is a respect for local custom and knowledge." Both conservatives and teachers wanted the feds out of the education business, and so ESSA-- a sort-of rejection of Big Government and a extra-rare example of a federal agency being stripped of powers.

The corollary is that cocksure D.C.-dwellers not only lack the right answers; they also inadvertently warp local practice by concocting policies that serve the purposes of central administrators. The cognoscenti may view the local leader as helplessly parochial, but conservatives and unions can recognize her as informed, no-nonsense, and prudent.

Smarick sees this as a larger trend. In a term that I fully intend to steal, he refers to our recent past as The Decade of Mistakes by Experts. The failure of bankers, the economy, the border patrol, "even the New Orleans levees" has provided example after example, alarming folks all across the spectrum. "We were told ISIS was a JV team, that we could keep our health care if we liked it, that Iraqi WMDs were a slam-dunk." You may disagree with some of the failures on Smarick's list, but that's kind of the point-- no matter what your political inclination, the experts have screwed up something that you care about. While we may disagree on the particulars, all Americans have shared the experience of seeing federal experts and bureaucrats make a hash out of something important.

Smarick believe that this trend feeds directly the traditional conservative desire for decentralized, local government, and I agree with that notion even as I question just how much traditional conservatism is still alive in America. Just hold that thought for a few paragraphs.

Smarick sees Friedrich as a catalyst for what he views as a useful change-- unions dropping their political focus for a more tradespersonlike approach, a union more focused on strengthening the practices and craft of the field, thereby helping more clearly establish teachers as Local Experts who are better positioned to take the reins of local control. He does acknowledge other possible outcomes, but it looks like we don't really need to discuss the possible effects of the plaintiffs winning the appeal, so I'm going to stick to his vision of a less-politicized union.

I see a couple of problems with Smarick's vision.

First, I remain skeptical of how much traditional conservatism, the conservatism of my father and grandfather, is still a force in the world. I don't, for instance, think that Trump is a rejection of the conservative GOP establishment, but the miscalculated-but-all-too-predictable outcome of it. The right has been trying to panic voters with a long list of Terrible Things That The Government Must Put a Stop To Right Now; they simply failed to realize how effective the panic would be and how completely successful a candidate shameless enough to give the subtext voice would be. Trump is not a revolt against the GOP-- he has simply put his money where their mouth has been.

Meanwhile, Trump's Democrat counterpart is not Sanders, but Clinton, who is also a fully-manufactured product of the establishment. In her case, it's just a fulfillment of the establishment big-money purchase of politicians. They are both exactly what one could expect from the system as it stands.

At any rate, I don't see any real candidate for much of anything who actually represents the traditional small-government, trust people with local control conservative.

Nor do I think that education reform as practiced has much to do with conservative, liberal or progressive philosophies. What we have is an establishment sleight-of-hand designed to make everybody happy. "Look," say faux conservatives. "We will starve the government schools and get the centralized education monopoly out of schools." Meanwhile, liberals announce, "We will make sure that the needs of various constituencies like the non-wealthy and the non-white are thoroughly met."

And what all this actually means is that we will starve the central government into the business of being essentially a contractor who hands tax dollars over to various subcontractors. I find it telling that this ed reform pattern is repeated with Republicans, Democrats, conservatives and liberals. It's not about a political philosophy; it's just about the politics of directing public tax dollars to private corporate pockets. The beauty of it is that it can be dressed up with the rhetoric of the left ("Helping the poor"), the traditional right ("Getting government out of the X business"), or the corporate right ("Letting the free market's invisible hand sort things out"). Folks who really believe those things can and do sign up to be part of the journey, but I'm not sure they ever get to actually drive the bus.

Meanwhile, the teacher unions, even in a parallel universe where Friedrich was settled against them, can never leave politics alone, because politics can never leave education alone.

Back in the early years of my career, I subscribed to the notion that I should just do my job, teach my students, and leave politics alone. But the more I paid attention, the more I realized that every dumb rule that got in my way and even the occasional smart rule that helped me do my job-- every single one of them had been birthed by politicians working with other politicians to do some political stuff. If there's a family of angry badgers living in your house, you can tell yourself, "Well, they're not actually members of our family, and I don't really know anything about badgers or badger control," but after they keep busting up the furniture and eating the food and pooping the living room, you eventually understand that you have to get involved in the badger game. Politicians are the badgers in the house of education, and the only hope education has is for some to work badger control. Nobody in the political world has the interests of schools, students, or teachers very high on their priority list; teachers cannot afford to sit silent while other disinterested uninformed parties decide our fates.

This has created its own set of issues. Union leadership and union membership interests are not always perfectly aligned, and leadership's desire to have a seat at the proverbial table often puts union leadership out of step. Union leaders were all in on Common Core and Arne Duncan while members were still not so enamored of either, just as both NEA and AFT leaders threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton to the distaste of many, many members. And that's before we get to the many teachers who are happily registered Republicans.

So the fracture between conservatives and teacher unions is, for me, overlaid with dozens of other fractures-- traditional conservatives vs. values voters, rand and file vs. leadership, establishment vs. upstarts, corporate interests vs. public interests, centralized power vs. local control, and the unending debates about who should get to make mistakes and who should get to judge whether or not they are mistakes. No matter what labels we're playing with or what tribes we're identifying, I remain convinced that there's almost always somebody Over There who shares some of your values and you are going to have to decide whether you follow your labels or your values.

I think Smarick's idea that teacher unions could become depoliticized tradesperson groups is unlikely given where the controls of the education biz lie-- but they can certainly focus more on the craft and profession of teaching. I think Smarick gives traditional conservatives more credit for power and, well, existence than is supported by reality-- but there are such people out there. I think it's possible to reach agreement that DC should not be running the show, but I think that agreement evaporates about the moment we start discussing what should be driving the bus. I have zero faith in the Free Market's ability to improve education for many reasons, but I have great faith that it would open the door to renewed federal meddling (all free markets are "maintained" by government). I am perfectly okay with true local control with little or no provision for being able to compare schools from state to state, but I'm pretty sure Smarick is not excited about that idea.

At root, the education debate always runs into the same snag-- as a country, we have no shared vision of what a school is supposed to do, what excellence looks like, or how to achieve any of those things. We have fundamental disagreements about how the world works and what that means to teachers in a classroom. I have no doubt that for specific issues, we can all find unlikely allies in unexpected places if we're just willing to look. But I don't think we get much further than that.


  1. I agree that we have no shared vision of what a school is supposed to do. Some parents look at Montessori education and think it is great, others think it is terrible. Some students would thrive given the freedom to educate themselves, others would be lost without the direction of a teacher outlining each step.

    I think this is an argument for abandoning the traditional geographically based school admission policies of traditional public schools. Allow the families that want a Montessori education to join together, even if they can not afford a private school.

    While this is not possible in all school districts, it can certainly work in reasonably large district. The NYC public school district, for example, has more students than the entire states of Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kenucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jesey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, or Wyoming. If these states can reasonably run more than a dozen school districts each, NYC public can certainly run at least a dozen separate systems.

  2. Shared vision? how about the UChicago Lab School? The Obama daughters' school Sidwell Friends? Gates' children's school? Crossroads School in Santa Monica? Now if each of our public schools had as much money and were as well run as these schools...

    1. I think you will find that parents who send their children to Waldorf schools would object to the Crossroads School philosophy of education. My middle son needed far more academic challenge in mathematics than than the Lab School provides. Lakeside School doesn't seem to offer a French immersion program like the Le Monde French Immersion Public Charter School. If you want your children to learn Greek, don't send them to Sidwell Friends. The Hellenic Classical Charter School would be the place to go for that.

      It is not about money, it is about diversity of educational approaches.