Jennifer Berkshire recounts the sad history of the Democratic party’s abandonment of teachers, public schools, and teachers’ unions. 

This article is worthy of your attention. In my view, Democrats won’t start winning seats again until they embrace public schools again and break free of their love affair with charters and other free-market solutions that evicerate their message and turn them into Republican-lite.

How many Democratic governors today are unabashed supporters of public schools? How many Democratic Senators and members of Congress? How many are funded by Democrats for Education Reform (hedge fund managers who love charter schools and high-stakes testing), whose purpose is to buy Democratic support for Republican policies?

The strange part about the story that Berkshire tells  is that the teachers’ unions were a core part of the Democrats’ base. As party leaders turned against their own base, they hurt their party. They turned off teachers and lost seats across the nation. They lost governorships and they lost legislatures. They lost the House and they lost the Senate.

Berkshire says that it started with the Clintons in Arkansas.

“To begin to chronicle the origin of the Democrats’ war on their own—the public school teachers and their unions that provide the troops and the dough in each new campaign cycle to elect the Democrats—is to enter murky territory. The Clintons were early adopters; tough talk against Arkansas’s teachers, then among the poorest paid in the country, was a centerpiece of Bill’s second stint as Governor of Arkansas. As Hillary biographer Carl Bernstein recounts, the Arkansas State Teachers Association became the villain that cemented the couple’s hold on the Governor’s mansion—the center of their Dick Morris-inspired “permanent campaign.” The civil rights language in which the Democratic anti-union brigade cloaks itself today was then nowhere to be heard, however. And little wonder: Civil rights groups fiercely opposed the most controversial feature of the Clintons’ reform agenda—competency tests for teachers—on the grounds that Black teachers, many of whom had attended financially starved Black colleges, would disproportionately bear their brunt.

“Tough talk against Arkansas’ teachers, then among the poorest paid in the country, was a centerpiece of Bill’s second stint as Governor of Arkansas.

“Hillary made the cause her personal crusade in 1983, trotting out anecdote after anecdote about teachers she’d heard about who couldn’t add or read. The reform package passed, cementing Bill’s reputation as a new breed of Democratic governor, one who wasn’t afraid to take on entrenched interests in order to tackle tough problems. “Anytime you’re going to turn an institution upside down, there’s going to be a good guy and a bad guy,” recalls Clinton campaign manager Richard Herget. “The Clintons painted themselves as the good guys. The bad guys were the schoolteachers.”

“By the early 1980s, there was already a word for turning public institutions upside down: neoliberalism. Before it degenerated into a flabby insult, neoliberal referred to a self-identified brand of Democrat, ready to break with the tired of dogmas of the past. “The solutions of the thirties will not solve the problems of the eighties,” wrote Randall Rothenberg in his breathless 1984 paean to this new breed, whom he called simply The Neoliberals. His list of luminaries included the likes of Paul Tsongas, Bill Bradley, Gary Hart and Al Gore (for the record, Gore eschewed the neoliberal label in favor of something he liked to call “neopopulism”). In Rothenberg’s telling, the ascendancy of the neoliberals represented an economic repositioning of the Democratic Party that had begun during the economic crises of the 1970s. The era of big, affirmative government demanding action—desegregate those schools, clean up those polluted rivers, enforce those civil rights and labor laws—was over. It was time for fresh neo-ideas.

”Redistribution and government intervention were out; investment and public-private partnerships were the way to go. Neoliberal man (there are no women included in Rothenberg’s account) was also convinced that he had found the answer to the nation’s economic malaise: education, or as he was apt to put it, investment in human capital. “Education equals growth is a neoliberal equation,” writes Rothenberg.

“But this new cult of education wasn’t grounded in John Dewey’s vision of education-as-democracy, or in the recent civil-rights battles to extend the promise of public education to excluded African-American communities. No, these bold, results-oriented thinkers understood that in order to fuel economic growth, schools had to be retooled and aligned in concert with the needs of employers. The workers of the future would be prepared to compete nimbly in the knowledge-based post-industrial society of the present, For the stragglers still trapped in older, industrial-age models of enterprise and labor, re-training—another staple of the neoliberal vision—would set them on the path to greater prosperity…

”The irony is that the DeVos-Trump vision for fixing our schools is almost as unpopular as the GOP’s plan for health care; if there’s political ground to be gained with Trump supporters, the defense of public education is fertile territory. DeVos’ nomination sparked ferocious grassroots opposition, red and blue, and in a cabinet of rogues, she remains Trump’s most reviled official. Her signature issue—paying for private religious schools with taxpayer funds—has never been popular with voters, even in deep red states.

“The problem is that the Democrats have little to offer that’s markedly different from what DeVos is selling. Teachers unions, regulation, and government schools are the problem, Democrats continue insisting into the void; deregulation, market competition and school choice are the fix. Four decades after the neo-Democrats set their sights on the education bureaucracy, the journey has reached its predictable destination: with a paler version of what the right has been offering all along.

“When the Democrats next attempt to rouse the base of unionized teachers they count on to be their foot soldiers, they are sure to meet with disappointment. In once reliably blue states like Michigan and Wisconsin, the unions have been eviscerated. The right went all in to crush unions—not because they “impede social mobility,” but because they elect Democrats. That wager is now paying off handsomely.”

Unless there is breaking news, no more posts today.