Certain portions of the political blogosphere have erupted over the subject of teacher’s unions. It started with this column, from July 3, by Richard Cohen of The Washington Post. Those of you who follow these things will recognize Cohen as one of the most odious skunks in the punditocracy. Any time his name comes up we really must recall the following incident, here described memorably by The Daily Howler:
In October 2000, things got better. Cohen savaged VP hopeful Joe Lieberman for something he said before B’nai B’rith. “I wonder what in the world he’s talking about,” Cohen wrote. Lieberman’s statement was “downright smug,” “preposterously false,” and “downright repugnant,” Cohen said. But there was one small problem with Cohen’s rant; it was actually George W. Bush, not Joseph Lieberman, who had visited B’nai B’rith and made the statement in question. And yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Cohen spent an entire column trashing Lieberman for something Bush, his opponent, had said. A small note at the end of a subsequent column acknowledged the comical blunder. (Emphasis in Original)
This column, mind you, appeared one month before a Presidential election. Only in the punditocracy could one keep his job after so serious an error.
So, when Cohen’s name appears above the column the best you can hope for is that it will simply be vacuous and easily ignored. In this case he was bashing the Democratic Presidential candidates for their stance on education:
The eight Democratic presidential candidates assembled in Washington last week for another of their debates and talked, among other things, about public education. They all essentially agreed that it was underfunded — one system “for the wealthy, one for everybody else,” as John Edwards put it. Then they all got into cars and drove through a city where teachers are relatively well paid, per-pupil spending is through the roof and — pay attention here — the schools are among the very worst in the nation. When it comes to education, Democrats are ineducable.
Cohen can’t seriously deny Edwards’ contention that there are effectively different educational systems for the wealthy and the non-wealthy. Nor can he deny that in many parts of the country, public education is woefully underfunded. Instead he merely points to one specific school district — Washington D.C. — and uses that as evidence that Democrats are “ineducable” on this subject.
Per-pupil spending is certainly very high in Washington D.C., but that probably has something to do with the high number of at-risk students with whom they have to deal. As for teacher salaries, the key word in Cohen’s description is “relatively.” I haven’t been able to find ready statistics on teacher salaries in Washington D.C. specifically, but according to this 2005 survey from the American Federation of Teachers, nationwide the average salary for teachers is just over $47,000. Since starting salaries are typically in the low $30,000 range, while the average is skewed by a handful of very senior teachers in wealthy districts who make substantially more than the average, I suspect the median is even lower. Little has changed in this regard in the past two years. The fact is there is absolutely nowhere in the United States, least of all Washington D.C., where teachers are paid anything close to what they deserve.
The litany of more and more when it comes to money often has little to do with what, in the military, are called facts on the ground: kids and parents. It does have a lot to do with teachers unions, which are strong supporters of the Democratic Party. Not a single candidate offered anything close to a call for real reform. Instead, a member of the audience could reasonably conclude that if only more money were allocated to these woe-is-me school systems, things would right themselves overnight.
Gosh! It’s hard to believe that in a debate conducted in thirty-second sound-bites the candidates chose to focus on an obvious problem over which the government has direct control — lack of adequate funding — and did not unveil major new proposals for fundamentally altering the social dynamics of high poverty school districts. And how dare a worthless, pampered, empty-headed, know-nothing pundit like Cohen, who probably hasn’t set foot in a classroom since he was a student, pass judgment on whether urban school districts are justified in feeling starved for resources.
But that is not the main subject of this post. Instead it’s that gratuitous slap at the unions that struck me. Cohen, like a trained seal, has learned that mindlessly bashing teacher’s unions will never get you into trouble. That is why he feels no need to provide any specifics about what, exactly, the unions are doing wrong. Instead, when it comes time to reveal those subtleties of the education problem about which Democrats need to be instructed, Cohen only produces this:
Only one candidate, Barack Obama, suggested that maybe money was not all that was lacking when it comes to educating America’s poor and minority children. Parents had a role to play, too. “It is absolutely critical for us to recognize that there are going to be responsibilities on the part of African American and other groups to take personal responsibility to rise up out of the problems we face,” he said. What? It’s not just a question of funding?
Parents! Of course! How could those money grubbing teacher’s unions and their slavish Democratic puppets have overlooked such a thing? All this focus on making sure schools have the funds to heat their buildings in the winter and patch the roof when it leaks, this crazy idea that a school using twenty year old textbooks needs money if they are to procure new ones or that science labs are not exactly inexpensive, and they simply overlooked that parents have a role to play in their children’s education. One can only hope the Democrat’s pay attention to someone as perceptive as Cohen.
(I mean, for heaven’s sake, you really have to read the rest of Cohen’s essay. A whole column on the revelation that parental involvement is important in education! For this he’s given a regular place on one of the most prestigious op-ed pages in America. Unbelievable!)
It’s time for a quick reality check. Teachers are the absolute bottom rung of the American educational system. They are given virtually nothing in the way of resources or institutional support, and yet they are usually the only ones held accountable when students underperform. Their salaries and benefits are laughable compared with those of any other profession, and, even worse, they live in a society that has only contempt for the work that they do. Precisely because they are so powerless, they are a conveninet scapegoat in explaining the inadequacies of American education.
And against this relentless onslaught of criticism from politicians, school administrators, and arrogant and irresponsible parents, there is exactly one force that has the interests of teachers at heart. The unions. The only reason teachers get the few crumbs that they do is because the unions fight tooth and nail to get them. As badly as teachers get screwed now, the situation would be orders of magnitude worse without the unions.
In opposition to the unions we hear only that they are against “reform,” which usually refers to some combination of vouchers, eliminating tenure, some condescending and Orwellian notion of “merit pay” or making it easier to fire teachers with very little in the way of due process. Bascially, “reform” is a euphemism. Depending on the context, it means either (a) Screwing teachers by reducing their salaries and benefits while expecting them to take on more responsibility outside of the classroom or (b) Screwing teachers by making it easier to punish them when their arrogant, undisciplined students underperform on standardized tests or (c) Screwing teachers by eliminating their job security and leaving them subject to the whims of irate parents and craven principals, or (d) Screwing public education generally by diverting money away from them and into the hands of private and parochial schools. God bless the unions for opposing such things.
There is no secret to running good public schools. Wealthy districts all over the country manage to do it year after year. And we have the examples of all those other countries we keep hearing about that score higher than us on various exams. Those countries don’t starve their schools for resources, treat their teachers contemptuously, or force public schools to compete with private concerns for funding. Such ideas are the exclusive province of anti-government, anti-intellectual right-wingers, and cowardly, quisling liberals who inexplicably desire the praise of the right-wingers.
For more on this, check out Kevin Carey’s mostly excellent smackdown of Cohen. Ezra Klein also offers some worthy sentiments. From the other side Mickey Kaus, who for some incomprehensible reason is provided with a platform over at Slate, also weighs in.