January 23, 2005

Look Who's Wielding the Ax Handle Now

Lester Maddox owned a fried chicken restaurant in Georgia, the Pickrick. When in 1964, desegregation, enacted in the Civil Rights Act, was on the way, Maddox stood in the doorway of his restaurant and tried to stop the tide. Many of his supporters carried ax-handles. The ax handle became Maddox’s symbol.

Through a series of electoral flukes, Lester Maddox was elected Governor of Georgia. Although Maddox surprised many while he was in office, rather like the latter-day Strom Thurmond, the image of folks with ax-handles trying to prevent the advancement of black people has become a symbol.

Among today’s ax-handle wielders are the teacher’s unions. Having once belonged to one and tried to organize the exploited masses of the University of California faculty, I come with some reluctance to this conclusion .

Two recent examples from California are illustrative.

Reed Hastings, a philanthropist and Democrat fundraiser, was a member of the California State Board of Education. He came up for reappointment, and three Mexican-American members of the state legislature torpedoed his appointment:
On a 2-2 vote - with the two Democrats on the five-member Senate Rules Committee voting in opposition and the third abstaining - the panel declined to confirm Hastings to a new four-year term.

Hastings, a Democrat, was appointed to the Board of Education by Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2000, and renominated last year by Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

But as board president in 2002, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur angered advocates of bilingual education when the 11-member panel imposed restrictions that advocates charged undermined bilingual education.

Hastings maintained that a requirement that students receive at least 2 1/2 hours of daily instruction in English for schools to get new money from the federal No Child Left Behind Act was intended to help students become proficient in English by third grade.

But bilingual education advocates said they were not aware of the new regulations until they were posted on the board's Web site, and accused the board of stifling dissent. Advocates said time restrictions and textbook costs would have impeded bilingual education.

The wheel within this apparently self-defeating Latino caucus wheel, however, is probably the California Teachers’ Association, according to the well-connected and prescient Mickey Kaus:

Are those secret reasons he was defeated--with the Democrats carrying the teachers' unions water, but letting Latinos take the lead? The unions might not want to be seen publicly opposing someone like Hastings who had been effective at getting more money for schools. ... ["Suslovs" was the best you could do?--ed Yes. California Dems are still in their Brezhnev era! If you have a better "S"-word, though, I'd be interested in hearing it.]

It seems that in addition to angering the doctrinaire and English-speaking professional Latinos in the Legislature by insisting the kids learn English, Hastings also advocated charter schools, which are mightily unpopular with the union.

Meanwhile, in San Diego, Alan Bersin, the Superintendent, wants to make certain chronically underperforming schools into charter schools, to give them a fighting chance to reform and do what they are supposed to do and aren’t – make their students literate and numerate.

As Eduwonk reports:

Yet the school board member who represents these schools has apparently decided to oppose this and in the process force a vote on buying out the remainder of Bersin's contract because he won't play ball. Possible reasons for her move? (A) It's a great way for her to make a lifelong friend of the Bersin-loathing teachers' union there. Or (B) concerns that if several schools in her district become semi-autonomous it will hurt her political clout and power on the board. There is no (C) because it's generally agreed that changes are in the interest of the kids....600 parents showed up at a recent school board meeting to push for these changes.
So the pressure is on Bersin to ignore the chronic problems for children at these schools and go against the wishes of a majority of parents and in two cases teachers or see one more (possibly decisive) board vote slip into the union's column.

A commonly reported sin of the teachers’ unions, one example of which is reported here, is fight-to-the-death opposition to school vouchers in any form.

Now, where are schools failing? On some ethereal cultural level, perhaps most of them are failing in one way or another, even in prosperous exurbs and harmonious small towns. But on the most basic level—keeping kids safe, keeping the schools orderly, and imparting basic skills—where the schools are failing worst of all is in black and Mexican immigrant districts. It is there that the need for school choice is most critical.

Yes, there are all kinds of explanations for these failures, not all of which are the fault of the school system or of teachers. It’s equally true that these big-city school systems are often union-dominated, costly, hidebound, and ineffective.

In opposing even experiments with vouchers, the unions are protecting their chicken restaurant at the expense of people who are hungry for basic learning. They are betraying their students and their profession, for the sake of tax-supported sinecures in a failed system.

This conflict poses a dilemma for the Democratic Party. Among other things, this party has become the party of government, or rather of the public employee unions that supply much of its money, and many of its foot-soldiers and voters.

However, black and Mexican-American voters are the voting cattle for the party. Can the party count on support from both of these elements of its coalition, when its policies, supposedly so pro-black, have contributed so mightily to the perpetuation of a black underclass?

This could be a major problem for the party in the near future.

It should be.

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