In the classic ur-text of the school privatization and anti-teacher union movement, Politics, Markets and American Schools, John Chubb and Terry Moe provide a forthright statement of their perspective on public education. The problem with American public schools, Chubb [a founding partner of the for profit management company Edison Learning, once Edison Schools] and Moe [a stalwart of the ultra-conservative Herbert Hoover Institute] explain, is democratic control of schooling. Markets, they contend, will change all that:
The real cause [of the problems in public schools -- LC] is the public education system as a whole. Its institutions of democratic control are inherently destructive of school autonomy and inherently conducive to bureaucracy… Were the same people picked up and placed in a different system, they would behave differently. Were they placed in a market system, in particular, they would find that decisions about the structure of education were no longer the province of public authority… Emancipated from the hierarchical imperatives of the democratic “organization,” and with property rights — and therefore governing rights — guaranteed, they would be free to adopt structures well suited to the goals they want schools to pursue…
Partisans of the privatization and market transformation of public education view teacher unions as an obstacle to their agenda precisely because we are representative democratic institutions, with leadership chosen by and accountable through secret ballot elections of the membership. We are one of the institutions — indeed, the main such culprit in their eyes — which need to be swept aside so that management with “property rights” in schools can act without regard for “democratic control.”
It is interesting, therefore, to see two of those partisans — Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, blogging at the National Review Online, and Greg Forster of the Milton Friedman Foundational Educational Choice, blogging with Jay Greene — trying to find some way to cast discredit on the UFT’s recently completed elections. They offer a misinformed attack, aptly characterized as trolling by Sherman Dorn, on the participation of the different constituency groups in the union’s elections. It seems that their fealty to the market extends not just to a lack of commitment to democratic institutions, but to a surfeit of basic knowledge on how representative democratic institutions work.
First, the UFT represents all of the non-supervisory pedagogues in New York City public schools: classroom teachers are the largest group, of course, but the union also represents classroom para-professionals, guidance counselors, social workers, school secretaries, laboratory specialists, attendance teachers, school psychologists, and school nurses and therapists, to name the largest constituencies. All of these constituencies have been part of the UFT for decades, participating in election after election without the slightest controversy. The notion that somehow the vote and the voice of a union member in one constituency group counts more than a vote of another union constituency group is simply not seriously entertained within the UFT. That’s how our democratic culture works, and that’s how representative democratic institutions generally work, as strange an idea as it is to Hess and Forster.
Second, UFT retirees are a special constituency within our union. They participate in our deliberative bodies like the Delegate Assembly, are active in our political campaigns and work, and vote in our elections. They have a direct stake in the UFT’s position and advocacy on issues such as pension and health care. But retirees are a special constituency in that there are a number of issues which impact active service members, but not them. By tradition, retiree members of the Delegate Assembly do not vote on contracts, as a way of respecting that difference of interest.
Many years ago [not recently as Hess and Forster claim], the UFT’s Delegate Assembly discussed how we should balance the need for retiree participation in the democratic elections of the union with the fact that they have become such an increasingly large portion of the union’s growing membership. We set a limit on the weight of retiree votes in an election: to the extent that more than 18,000 retirees vote, their vote is pro-rated down to 18,000. That is what was done in this election. [Hess' and Forster's garbled account that retiree votes automatically count for 72% of a regular vote reflects their failure to research the actual by-laws and practice.]
We understand that the objective of Hess and Forster is to encourage division among union members, setting constituency group against constituency group, the better to weaken the union. But they are sadly mistaken if they think their transparent arguments to that end will take in UFT members. We’re a helluva lot smarter than that, and solidarity and democracy are our life-blood.