Teachers Unions and the Myth of ‘Public’ Schools

Teachers, students, and members of the community hold a rally as Denver public school teachers strike in Denver, Colo., February 12, 2019. (Michael Ciaglo/Reuters)
When all is said and done, the pandemic ought to have robbed the idea of “public education” of all its rhetorical currency.

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. We’ve been putting more and more money into the system for decades without reaping more returns for the nation’s children. Just this week, the national 2019 results for 12th grade student achievement were released, showing an average score of 37 percent reading proficiency and 24 percent math proficiency. These numbers are appalling but unlikely to improve as long as public teachers unions continue to behave like the nation’s most lucrative and powerful racketeering ring.

They get away with it in part because of the terms we’ve all been trained to use when speaking about them. Political language is often used to preempt political debates in this way. A case study would be the way the words “private” and “public” are used in political discussions. We speak of a private and a public sector; private and public land; and, of course, private and public schools. These terms stop us from thinking clearly.

The word “private” smacks of a desire to shield something from other people. It describes things that concern self rather than society and it’s almost always used in a defensive way. When we lift a book off a friend’s shelf and hear them shout, “That’s private!” we know we’ve been told to retreat from an unwanted advance into guarded territory. It’s a word used by individuals to make claims on their own behalf against the claims of others. For this reason, it’s at a distinct disadvantage in a democratic society.

The word “public” fares much better in majoritarian politics. It describes things that concern everyone rather than things that pertain to specific individuals. At a time when loneliness and social isolation are rampant, it conjures up associations with community, solidarity, and collective effort.

Neither of these terms are fit for the purposes they serve in political discourse, but the common use of “public” is the more pernicious one. By defining a given interest or industry as “public,” we give the impression that it benefits everyone in society instead of just a few individuals. This creates a blind spot in our discourse. It prevents us from recognizing the fact that the people who staff “public” institutions or those who sell their political prescriptions as salves to be applied in “the public interest” are just as nakedly self-interested as everybody else.

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 should not surprise us. We expect workers in the “private” sector to pursue their own financial gain. When “private” sector unions go on strike, they do so not for any altruistic reason but in pursuit of higher wages and better working conditions, and they do so unapologetically. But “public” sector unions operate within a different rhetorical framework that puts them at a distinct PR advantage when compared with their “private” sector counterparts. 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 a look at graduation rates, test scores, and graduate employability calls this into question.

We’ve seen a ramping-up of their special pleading during the pandemic as union leaders have identified the crisis as an opportune moment to blackmail students and parents for more concessions. The mafia-style protection racket proceeds apace even as I write this. Just this week, the Fairfax Education Association, a union that represents teachers in northern Virginia, announced its refusal to return to in-person schooling until August 2021 at the earliest. This is in spite of the fact that K-12 schools across the nation that have reopened have managed to avoid coronavirus surges so far.

In typical fashion, the teachers unions are arguing that their actions are meant to protect the health of both teachers and students. All this proves is that they either don’t know or don’t care about the extremely concerning negative effects that long-term distance learning is having on the neurology of children. My colleague Madeleine Kearns recently conducted an interview with the child psychiatrist Allan M. Josephson for National Review in which Dr Josephson details the disruption to childhood brain development that the policy of the teachers unions could bring about. Face-to-face interaction with other kids is critical if children are to develop the interpersonal problem-solving skills that will be required of them as adults. Clearly, no child psychiatrist was consulted when the Fairfax Education Association was putting together its list of demands or, if one was, he or she was summarily ignored.

Becky Pringle, the newly elected leader of the National Education Association (the country’s largest union) recently spoke out about what the policy of her 3-million strong organization would be if Donald Trump is reelected and Betsy DeVos kept on as secretary of Education. 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.”

Political language is never more powerful than when it circumvents arguments by generating assumptions instead. 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. When all is said and done, the pandemic ought to have robbed the idea of “public education” of all its rhetorical currency. 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.


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