Two extraordinary things happened in the world of education recently. Taken together, they’re powerful confirmation of just how precipitously the teachers’ unions are declining in power and influence. Yet I can see a very plausible outcome in which we conservatives fumble the ball on the one yard line — and hand them back their power.
First, a Rhode Island school district decided it was fed up with chronic failure at one of the state’s (and probably the country’s) worst schools, and announced it would fire every single teacher at the school. In an industry where pretty much nobody ever gets fired for anything, that was an earthquake.
Then something even more amazing occurred: President Obama gave the firings an unambiguous endorsement. Noting that only 7 percent of the school’s 11th graders pass the state math test, he remarked: “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”
The teachers’ unions exploded; the president of the largest union made openly threatening statements about how much the president would regret crossing them. The professional experts whined that we don’t know whether this kind of dramatic intervention will work!
“I’ll tell you what doesn’t work,” replied Obama’s education secretary. “Doing nothing.”
I don’t want to oversell this. They’re now making noises in Rhode Island about finding some kind of “compromise” that will save some teachers’ jobs. That would save some degree of face for the unions, which would reduce the scope of the victory.
But those noises may themselves be a feint; I wouldn’t be surprised if the full firings went through. And the district is demanding big concessions from the unions in return for any walkback on their part, and there’s every reason to think that they’d get them. With Rhode Island being singled out as having one of the nation’s worst education gaps, with a national leader in teacher personnel policy reform (and protégé of D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee) running the state school system, and with Obama providing cover, there’s no way the district will do anything that could be seen as caving in. However this goes down, it doesn’t end well for the unions.
The first question we should be asking is this: why on earth would Obama endorse something like this? It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to say something like: “We need to create accountability, and that needs to be firm, but this isn’t the way to do it.” He would pay no price — zero — with any of his constituents for saying that. And he would have avoided hacking off the nation’s biggest labor union, one of his more important constituencies.
Because he’s a political entrepreneur. He’s not content to advance himself by playing it safe — you don’t get to be president at so young an age by playing it safe. He advances himself in more risky ways. That’s why he’s tied himself to the mast on heath care; the safe thing would have been to retrench with something more modest, but that’s just not Obama.
That leads us to the second question: why does Obama think he can advance himself by gratuitously hacking off the teachers’ unions? Answer: because the unions are on the way down, and he wants to ingratiate himself with the people who are taking them down.
The signs that their decline is picking up speed have been there for a year now. What’s destroying them is not opposition from the right. We conservatives have always been against them. What’s destroying them is opposition on the left.
A critical mass of the “social justice” folks are realizing that the unions have been taking them to the cleaners for a generation. For decades, the unions have screamed about how schools are desperately underfunded and they need more money. For decades, the social justice folks bought this story and put themselves on the line to extract more taxpayer money for schools. For decades, the school-monopoly blob absorbed the money and nothing got any better.
The social justice folks are wise to this now. And they’re not happy about it.
I can’t see into Obama’s mind. But the way things look from where I sit, this is the parsimonious explanation that covers all the facts. Obama realizes that the social justice folks are angry at the unions, and he wants to position himself to benefit from that.
That’s not good news for the unions. Even the MSM has already stopped buying most of the big union lies. Once their allies on the left get wise to their game and abandon them — seeing them, at best, as competitors in the race to gobble up a bigger share of government spending — where will they turn?
Last year was a rough year for education reform. We won some important battles and made some progress, but not as much as we have in the past. This year will still be rough, though it’s likely to be better than last year.
But in the long term, I’m as optimistic as I ever have been about the prospects for real reform — especially for vouchers, the only reform that will make any of the other reforms sustainable. In the Cold War, the Russians had more men, more missiles, more tanks, and (let’s be honest) more guts. The only things we had that they didn’t were the entrepreneurial spirit and a just cause. And guess what? It turns out that in the long run, that’s what you really need. “Thrice is he armed that hath his quarrel just,” wrote Shakespeare, “and he but naked, though locked up in steel, whose conscience with injustice is corrupted.”
The dam is cracking. We are going to win. I may not live to see it — Milton Friedman was convinced for a long time that he’d live to see it, and he didn’t, so I won’t make rash predictions about the length of the road. The destination, though, is not doubtful. For the unions, it’s the end of the line in more ways than one.