John Thompson, historian and former teacher, updates us on the state of education in Oklahoma. I reported a few months ago on a secret Republican poll showing that Oklahomans overwhelmingly oppose vouchers. Wouldn’t it be great if they held a state referendum? We know they won’t.

It is virtually impossible to understand the Oklahoma State Superintendent of Schools Ryan Walters recent rant against teachers unions without understanding the reason the American Federation of Teachers president, Randi Weingarten, has been targeted by MAGAs – and vice versa. Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article about Randi Weingarten, The Most Dangerous Person in the World offers some – but not nearly enough – perspective on why teachers, unions, and schools are under such brutal, and fact-free, inter-connected assaults.

It took the threat of “arm-twisting” by Republican Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall to get Ryan Walters to speak to the House Appropriations and Budget Committee. Then, as the Tulsa World reports, “Tensions flared Monday as House lawmakers grilled Oklahoma’s controversial state superintendent.” He “called teachers’ unions ‘terrorist organizations’ and accused his predecessor of running the State Department of Education into the ground.” Walters said that Joy Hofmeister had left “an absolute dumpster fire.” Presumably that is why he fired 7 employees, had 37 resignations, and eliminated 17 positions.

As the Oklahoman reports:

Lawmakers were particularly concerned with whether the agency would meet deadlines to apply for federal grants this month.

The state Education Department, which recently lost its lead grant writer, manages about $100 million in competitive grants from the federal government and over $900 million in total federal funding.”

This prompted pushback by Republican Vice Chairperson Rep. Ryan Martinez, who, like McCall, supports most of the session’s anti-public education bills, complained about a lack of transparent actions by Walters:

“If we do not receive specific grants, if we do not apply for a certain grant or if those monies are not disbursed, guess who’s trying to find the money to make sure those programs don’t go away,” Martinez said. “It’s the people on this committee.”

Walters also “accused teacher unions of demanding extra government funds in exchange for their cooperation with reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.” As Nondocexplains, he added, “I don’t negotiate with folks that are going to intentionally sabotage our kids. (…) You are hurting kids intentionally to shake down the federal government for money — that’s a terrorist organization in my book.”

Then, the Oklahoman reported, Walters’ “most incendiary comments prompted groans from Democrats before the meeting came to an abrupt end.” As Walters claimed, “Democrats want to strike out any mention of the Bible from our history,” Martinez “gaveled for adjournment amid vocal objections from the minority party to Walters’ comments.”

The latest performance by Walters should be seen in the context of the best parts of Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article about Randi Weingarten, Mahler starts with former CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s charge that Weingarten is “the most dangerous person in the world.” Then he puts it in context with similar attacks on the teachers union, such as the previous claim that former AFT president Al Shanker said, “When schoolchildren start paying union dues, that’s when we start representing the interests of schoolchildren.” Mahler adds that the highly respected researcher, Richard Kahlenberg, found no evidence that Shanker ever said such a thing.

Mahler also added context to the claims rightwingers have made that teachers unions hurt students by keeping schools closed during the Covid pandemic. I wish he had been more explicit, but implicit in his narrative is a reminder that it made sense for public health institutions, like the Center for Disease Control, to consult with organizations with knowledge of diverse conditions in schools. He notes that while suburban parents were pushing for re-openings, poor and Black parents, and families with multi-generation households, opposed the early returns to in-person instruction.

The AFT plans that are now under attack came at times when deaths and/or new variants were surging. I would add Education Week’s explanation that yes, “the pandemic has massively disrupted students’ learning,” but the story is complicated. It explained, “Reading scores for students in cities (where the AFT is strongest) stayed constant, as did reading scores for students in the West of the country.”

Yes, Covid closures led to an unprecedented decline in test scores, especially for the poorest students. But Mahler, like so many other journalists, should have looked more deeply at propaganda dating back to the Reagan administration that inappropriately used NAEP test scores when arguing that public schools are broken.

First, as Jan Resseger and Diane Ravitch noted, Mahler made:

A common error among journalists, critics, and pundits who misunderstand the achievement levels of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “Proficient” on NAEP is not grade level. “Proficient” on NAEP represents A level work, at worst an A-. Would you be upset to learn that “only” 40% of 8th graders are at A level in math and “only” 1/3 scored an A in reading?

Secondly, Mahler should have asked why the admittedly unprecedented (and expected) fall in NAEP scores during Covid followed a decade of stagnating or declining reading and math scores, that also disproportionately hurt low performing students. Like virtually every teacher I’ve worked with, I would argue that the pre-Covid decline was due, in large part, to test-driven, competition-driven corporate school reform. (I also suspect this is especially true of the dramatic drop in History outcomes due to instruction in that subject being pushed out of classrooms by pressure to teach-to-the test.) Had Mahler taken this into account, he likely would have understood why teachers resisted corporate reforms, and chosen his words more carefully, and would not have repeatedly labeled us as “leftists.”

Such an understanding would help explain why No Child Left Behind’s and Race to the Top’s focus on “disruptive” change prompted teachers to resist policies that undermined high-quality instruction, and undermined holistic learning, especially in high-poverty schools. It also explains why, for the benefit of teachers and students, Weingarten had to seek centrist compromises when resisting doomed-to-fail mandates by the Obama administration.

As Ravitch explains, it’s okay to disagree with Weingarten, but it makes no sense to compare her balanced approach to the rightwing zealotry of those who have attacked her so viciously. She also worries that the Times Magazine’s format and attempt to present both sides as political activists could put Weingarten in danger.

Education and education politics are political. Yes, the bipartisan corporate reforms, which a full range of educators resisted, is now “a shadow of itself;” that is due to both the inherent flaws in their reward and punish policies, and the pushback by those of us who were in schools and saw the damage it did to our students. Similarly, the CDC was correct in listening to educators and parents of students who attended schools where vaccines, social distancing and masks were, due to anti-science mandates, not implemented, especially after holidays when variants were surging.

But, Mahler and others who bend over backwards to treat the words of moderates like Weingarten, and rightwing extremists and their funders as equally true, should ask what will happen if the nation’s Ryan Walters and Mike Pompeos, and their funders succeed. Surely he understands that the argument that teachers and unions are terrorists is not equal to the counter arguments of education leaders like Weingarten, and those of us who are still fighting for what we believe is best for our schools and students.