84: In Defense of Public Education w/ Dr. Jennifer Berkshire & Dr. Jack Schneider

Today we are joined by Dr. Jennifer Berkshire and Dr. Jack Schneider. Dr. Berkshire is a journalist and educator who focuses on podcasting and labor organizing at Boston College and Umass Amherst respectively, and Dr. Schneider is an education historian focused on reform and school accountability.

30 min read
84: In Defense of Public Education w/ Dr. Jennifer Berkshire & Dr. Jack Schneider

0:00:10.7 Nick Covington: Hello and welcome to the Human Restoration Project Podcast. My name is Nick Covington, and I'm the creative director here at HRP. And I'm a high school studies teacher here in Ankeny, Iowa, where I am broadcasting to you from Ankeny High School. I'm also joined by our Executive Director, Chris McNutt. Before we get started, I do want to let you know that this podcast is brought to you by at least three of our supporters, Nadine Ley, Kaneshiro Bernier, and Elliot Baer. Thank you all for your ongoing support. So today we're joined by Doctors Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider. Dr. Berkshire is a journalist and an educator who focuses on podcasting and labor organizing at Boston College and UMass Amherst respectively. And Dr. Schneider is an education historian focused on reform and school accountability.

0:01:03.1 NC: They also co-host the wonderful Have You Heard Podcast, which focuses on hot button issues in educational policy and current events. Both Chris and I would highly recommend checking it out if you aren't listening already. Thank you, Jennifer and Jack for coming on here today.

0:01:18.9 Jennifer Berkshire: Thanks so much for having us.

0:01:21.9 NC: Of course. Our discussion today is gonna cover a lot of ground, but really center on some key issues of education reform, the issue of innovation, labor rights and unions, and this issue of change. There's this odd dichotomy between progressive education and the assault on public education. A cognitive dissonance between the necessity for systemic reform, ensuring a free and accessible public education, and recognizing the need for organized labor as a path to a strong working class, that teacher unions are among the largest and most powerful in the country. Yet there's a narrative, real or not, that unions are resistant to the change that many progressive educators want. And of course, more recently, this idea that they have become the sole and major road block to full school re-opening to 2020.

0:02:12.5 NC: But before we dig into any of that, let's just talk about the idea of the book. The book, of course is, A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door: The Dismantling of Public Education and the Future of School, out now, as of November 2020 from The New Press. So before we dig into all of that, what motivated you two to team up and write this book on this topic at this particular moment in time?

0:02:38.2 JB: Well, before I launch us into that, I wanna start with a shocking confession. Before, I had not actually heard of the Human Restoration Project. I didn't know about the great work you were doing. And now I feel like the more I learn, the more interested I get. And I haven't told Jack this, but you guys are actually gonna be featured in an upcoming podcast. And that's partly why I'm so excited about this conversation, the unique perspective that you guys bring is we're gonna be able to sort of go back and forth about issues that really haven't come up in our other interviews. The way that the book started... You mentioned that I'm a journalist, and Jack and I do a podcast together. So part of what I love about the podcast is that I get to hit the road.

0:03:27.4 JB: And so I started going to Michigan and could really see that there was something going on there. That they were in the throes of really a three-decade-long effort, largely led by a famous family that your listeners will be very familiar with. That would be the DeVos family. And what you could see was that while everything was focused on these specific policy changes at the school level, often incremental policy changes, the overall thrust of all these changes was to weaken the structure of public education in the state. And really I mean that at every level. Whether we're talking about school funding, whether we're talking about like a weird bill that would suddenly pop up that would make it illegal for school officials to publicize a bond measure.

0:04:16.2 JB: Things that... Just an unending stream of these things. And so I would learn about these issues and write about them, but I would bring them back to Jack Schneider. And we would sit down together to record a podcast, and I would call upon his knowledge of education history, to help me understand what it was that I was seeing out in the rest of the world. And I think over the course of many podcast episodes, and many conversations, we started to come to the shared understanding that what we were seeing was really different from reform efforts, previous reform efforts, especially the reform efforts that we've grown so used to in the Obama era. And Jack will talk a little bit more about that. But he was the one that came to me and said, "You know, I think we need to write a book about this." And I thought about it for about 30 seconds and I agreed, it was a good idea. So Jack is that an accurate depiction of what happened.

0:05:19.0 Jack Schneider: Yeah, I think most accurate here are two phrases that you used. First you said that you haven't told me that there's an upcoming podcast planned with these guys, which is a clue into our working relationship. It's like I show up in the studio sometimes, and Jennifer springs on me that I should have read an entire book that I haven't. And... Well, I do the best that I can. And the other piece is that Jennifer talked about hitting the road, and that's another characteristic of our partnership with each other, as Jennifer loves to hit the road, and I love to not hit the road. So I hit the books when Jennifer hits the road. And I think the thing that we bring together is a combination of a kind of journalistic instinct for a good story and a kind of relentless inquisitive-ness about what's going on right now, along with an instinct to always fill in the backstory and to figure out what's the bigger picture of which this present story is a part.

0:06:35.5 JS: What I started to realize across our podcasts together, is that because of that partnership, we were both learning from each other and we were essentially creating a story as we went along, we were creating the path as we walked and looking back on the trail that we had sort of blazed together, of course with lots of help from scholars and investigative journalists and teachers, careful observers, what I began to realize is that there was a real story there, right, that that path was headed in a particular direction. For me, I think I initially was prompted into action, like so many people, by the 2016 election, and my thinking was, Betsy DeVos is a vulnerability for the Trump administration that the things that she was pushing were so clearly either unpopular or destined to be unpopular with ordinary Americans that if we can tell that story really clearly, it felt like we could potentially make a difference in the 2020 election.

0:07:43.0 JS: And what ended up happening is that as we worked on the book, I think what I realized, what we both realized is that it wasn't a story about DeVos, it in fact wasn't a Federal story after all. It was a story, as Jennifer just alluded to, about what's happening at the local level and the state level across the US, and as we connected the dots we began to realize that it's not only a local and state issue rather than a federal one, but it's also an old one rather than a new one. So the effort to un-make public education really began to take shape in the wake of Barry Goldwater's defeat. In the wake of that, you see all kinds of conservative organizations being built, movements beginning to take shape, and really what we're seeing in DeVos's secretaryship is the tip of the iceberg emerging from above the water, finally this movement is powerful enough that it's beginning to become visible.

0:08:48.1 Chris McNutt: Yeah, and I think it would be interesting to expand on that a little bit further and talk a little more about what it is to... What really literally is the Wolf At The Schoolhouse Door. In the introductory chapter of the book, you have a quote, it says, "The present assault on public education represents a fundamentally new thread, driven by a new kind of pressure group. Put simply, the overarching vision entails unmasking public education as an institution." Could you lay out a little bit of what it means to un-make or unmask public education in this new vision for school reform?

0:09:24.6 JS: I think the story that we tell is ultimately one that I think helps make sense of policy efforts that might otherwise seem unfocused and in some cases contradictory. What on earth do vouchers, or "neo-vouchers" as we refer to them in the book, have to do with virtual schools? What does that have to do with a war on labor or with efforts to de-regulate education? That these efforts can seem arbitrary. And what we began to realize is that there are really four tenets of belief among those who wanna un-make public education: They are first a preference for private values over public, right, the belief that education is an individual good rather than a collective enterprise, something to get for yourself rather than something that we should all invest in, because we all benefit from. Second is a deep and abiding faith in markets, that markets work and government doesn't.

0:10:35.2 JS: Third is a relentless drive to cut costs, and you can begin to see that some of these are overlapping, right? If you have a deep faith in markets, then a part of your thinking there is that markets will, through competition, reduce costs. If you have a deep faith in the private over the public, then why would you favor expensive public efforts like public education, which has an annual price tag if you combine local, state and national spending on it of half a trillion dollars? And then the fourth pillar here is antagonism towards organized labor which, again, relates to the effort to cut costs, right? Teachers salaries account for roughly 80% of costs in public education, relates to faith in markets, because of course, teachers, when they are organized together are a disruptive political force that counters the kind of free market activity that these folks would like to see shaping decision making, and that collectively these tenets of faith lead people who subscribe to them to believe that public education is something that we never should have done in the first place, and that we need to unmake as quickly as possible. So I think Jennifer can take that and run with it better than I can.

0:12:02.0 JB: I thought you did a really good job. I mean, you made a point earlier about how this isn't a new story, it's actually an old story, and in some ways it's really fitting that, Chris and Nick, that you're both coming to us tonight from the Midwest, because in many ways this is a story about conservative Midwestern industrialists who get really mad after the New Deal, and what they're mad about is that they see that the pendulum shifts towards labor, right?

0:12:31.9 JB: The industrialists in Michigan are furious about those auto workers who sit down and basically kick off the organized labor in this country. And so this story is full of these old industrialists with names like DeVos and Bradley in Wisconsin and Uihlein in Illinois, and names that aren't widely recognized outside of the Midwest, and so I think what can be hard for people to wrap their heads around is that a movement that's so focused on public education isn't ultimately about public education, that it's about weakening the collective, and so that's why it's so targeted at unions. Can you think about what unions do, right? They're not only the vehicles by which teachers demand things like higher salary for themselves, but they also demand things like greater investment in schools, and worse yet, they demand things like a more generous safety net for everybody, right?

0:13:34.5 JB: And so if you are somebody who thinks that business should really control... Business should run the show, that the tax burden on the wealthiest should be as little as possible, that government should either get out of the way or tilt the scales in the direction of making the first two things happen, anything that enables a group of people to come together and make a collective demand is your enemy, and you think about what schools do, right? That's, by their very nature, kids go to a school and the teacher is supposed to raise their sights, they're supposed to encourage them to believe that they can be more, right? And so if your goal is to shrink people's expectations, you can see exactly why they would be opposed to schools. The way we fund them is more redistribution-ist than a lot of the other things we do in our culture, even though I'm sure all of us would like to see school funding be far more redistribution-ist. And so I think that so much of this is focused on school policy, but ultimately the goal is to get us to think of ourselves as consumers in a marketplace, ideally an unregulated marketplace, and to function in the most atomized way possible.

0:14:53.3 JB: It's a pretty bleak vision, and what we try to do in the book is to lay out how these sort of specific policies around school relate to this larger vision.

0:15:05.5 NC: It provides the unified theory, to go back to what Jack was even saying there, instead of seeing these as all sort of disparate parts or different attacks on sort of the same issue, it actually gives us a lens to understand the totality of it, and to go from what you were saying there, to kinda see how the shift is from viewing public education as a public good and a public right that we all have to a free and accessible public education as constituents or as citizens to that perspective of us as customers, to be able to sort of pick and choose the educational package that is going to best fit our child in this case, so it really is that fracturing of the public good into all of these different consumerist parts and kinda force us to pick and choose from the pieces.

0:16:07.2 NC: And one of the things that I found the most fascinating in the book, and if you go to our website and read, the review of said book there, which I'm sure we'll put in the link to this, the one thing that I really grabbed onto as being maybe a prime example of this, even though they are legion, was this issue that you framed as "neo vouchers", because it was such a, I don't know, ingenius or sort of infamous kind of way, I think to work around the barriers that we've kept from having that public money flow, particularly to sectarian religious institutions, and just say, "To heck with all of that," like this is a direct back door from those things.

0:16:43.3 NC: So yeah, you described it in the book, or somebody described it, you quote in the book, "As a laundromat for tax dollars", and I think that's what got to me right away, is saying, "Hold up. What's this all about?" So I don't know if there's any uninitiated folks in the chat or listening, but could either of you describe that idea of neo vouchers and the results of their proliferation in states like Arizona and Florida.

0:17:07.2 JS: So yeah, if we flash back to the 19th century, what we can see is that a failed amendment to the Constitution led states, and it's a majority of states, to adopt what are referred to colloquially as "Baby Amendments", named after James Blaine, the congressman who made that his big cause, he was actually considering a run for president, and I think this was a part of it. The Baby Blaine Amendments adopted in these state constitutions forbid public dollars from flowing to sectarian institutions. Now this is a major road block if you are a voucher proponent right, if what you want is to give every kid in your state, or as many kids as possible, a voucher loaded with a per-pupil expenditure on it to take to a private school, then you've got a problem because 90% of kids who are in private schools are in sectarian schools. It's a huge percentage of private schools that are religiously affiliated, and the way around this is, as you said, pretty ingenious. So you don't send the dollars directly from Treasury to these private schools, in most cases religious schools. Instead, you let private donors give their money to scholarships for students who wanna participate and then you reimburse those donors, so for those following along at home, you would draw a box and you would write "Walmart" in it, and then you would have arrows labeled with dollars over those arrows to a scholarship, private school scholarship organization.

0:19:01.0 JS: Then you would have arrows with dollars flowing to individual students who would use those and then carry those dollars right on over to a private religious school. Now, where does treasury come in? Coming in from a different angle, you would have dollars flowing to Walmart from the treasury. So Treasury dollars never actually go to the private school, to the religious school, they reimburse the corporation, and it's usually corporations, that decided to exercise its faith in private education and vouchers by giving its money to these. And right, this is just money laundering, there's no other phrase that is as apt to describe it.

0:19:47.4 JB: Another big part of the reason why they had to come up with this elaborate work around, was that whenever the public is given the chance to vote on whether public dollars should go to religious schools, they vote it down overwhelmingly, including in Arizona just a couple of years ago. This remains a deeply unpopular idea. And so that's like... Call it... Come up with this sort of convoluted system and make it about tax credit scholarships, and suddenly it's a feel-good thing. The other thing that's really happened is that over the past couple decades, the Supreme Court has gotten increasingly friendly to the idea that we don't really need a separation between church and state. So for example, over the summer there was a ruling about school vouchers in Montana, and it's just one of a whole string of court cases that are coming down the pike to keep expanding the terrain on which religious institutions can claim public dollars, but still continue to function as religious institutions.

0:20:53.9 JB: So just before the election the Supreme Court heard a case that really doesn't have anything to do with education per se, but will have profound implications for it, about a Catholic adoption agency, a foster care agency in Philly, that wanted to take public money but wouldn't place foster kids with gay couples, right? And so they're arguing basically that the city is discriminating against them by not allowing them to take the contract, so the court seems very amenable to that view.

0:21:25.6 JB: So you can see how this would play out. Right? So like a school, like the one that Amy Coney Barrett sat on their board in Indiana, it was a school where you couldn't attend if your parents weren't married, right? So that's a school that takes voucher money in Indiana, which is already kind of questionable, but under this argument that the Supreme Court seems really amenable to, it would be discriminatory not to fund that school, right? And so you just... You see how it's this kind of... It's this process of automization. It's leading to a pretty bad place, and I think people really need to pay attention to these court rulings.

0:22:09.2 JS: And of course, it's not just the elevation of private interests over public interest, because you also strip away transparency and oversight here. So one of the examples in our book is out of Florida, where you've got schools blatantly discriminating against LGBTQ students, and there's nothing that you can do about that because you actually have no levers of control over these private organizations.

0:22:39.4 CM: Right, and it has an interesting build into the accountability piece as well, which is being brought up in the chat, like the weaponization of accountability and the ties between these neo-liberal corporate efforts to basically defund public schools and its connection to also setting the rules for standardized testing and high stakes standardized testing. And I wonder if you could speak to a little bit about basically how accountability has now become not a way to necessarily gauge what's going on and do better, but instead a way really to dismantle public institutions. We were just talking right before this, Jack, you were saying, the private schools are still having school despite... Public schools are not... God, I'm gonna say this back, this is why this podcast...

0:23:27.8 JS: I got it, I'll help you out here.

0:23:30.0 CM: Yeah, you help me out, I can't seem [0:23:30.5] ____.

0:23:30.6 JS: My daughter, who attends the local public school, got several emails, to me, to her mother, to her school accountant, and we got two phone calls reminding us that despite the fact that we're about to have a foot of snow dumped on us, nobody should believe that there is going to be a snow day because school is virtual and it will be happening. Meanwhile, private schools in the area, which many of which are in-person right now, do have the ability to move online, but they're telling families, "You deserve a snow day, so go on early into the winter vacation." And I think what this speaks to is the way in which neo-liberal reformers, centrist Democrats, have unwittingly played into the hands of conservatives who seek to un-make public schools. So, Centrist Democrats like Cory Booker aren't trying to do away with public schools, but they have sort of naively cooperated with the hard right on efforts, whether they be these corporate-style efforts to manage schools through performance management systems, testing and accountability being the one that we see in education, or to expose them into the market through charters. The idea here is that what we can do is we can govern schools more effectively if we take this sort of top-down approach.

0:25:06.9 JS: Meanwhile, what you're doing is you're reducing the aims of school, you're narrowing the mission, you're alienating families and young people. I'll tell you, my daughter loved school until third grade, which is the first year that they are tested, and then began asking questions about why the emphasis on ELA and math over every other subject, what happened to art and music and social studies and science, and why are we focusing so much on MCAS, which is the name of our standardized test here in Massachusetts. So the narrowing of the relentless negative rhetoric, the emphasis on choice and exit rather than on voice and democratic politics as a solution to any flaws we see has made public schools really vulnerable to criticism and attack, and that's exactly what those who are intent on unmaking public schools... So, at the federal level, most recently, it was Betsy DeVos, they love that because that's an opportunity to tell a story about how this system has failed and how there's a better alternative that involves simply empowering consumers free market.

0:26:21.0 JB: I think the other thing that Betsy DeVos was really effective at is that she understood that parents really kinda hate that vision of accountability. So the Obama folks and Arne Duncan really doubled down on this really very narrow instrumentalist understanding of what a school is and what a school does. And so a school is a place that raises math and English test scores, and a good school is the school that does the best job of that. And it didn't really matter what kind of school it was, as long as those scores went up, and we were just gonna take that vision and just keep extending it. So a good teacher was a teacher who was the best at raising math and English test scores, and a good teacher prep program could produce a teacher who could do that, etcetera. And Betsy DeVos understood that this really does not resonate with parents, that there are all kinds of reasons that parents consider a school a good fit.

0:27:25.3 JB: And so her definition of a school that was failing was just a school that wasn't a good fit, and I think that actually resonates with people far more than value-added or the data dashboards that were being rolled out. So I think that we see this now with the school re-opening fight around the country that, ironically in some of these very conservative areas where parents have pushed really hard to get their schools open, sometimes without masks, but their definition of what a school is is so much broader than this kind of dessicated definition that we settled on during the Obama-Duncan years. We hear lots of talk about socialization and mental health, about the whole range of the curriculum, we hear a lot about sports too, but you don't hear people saying, "You've got to re-open the schools so that my kids can do better on her math and English standardized test."

0:28:38.9 JS: And of course, that's why my daughter's school will be open on a snow day, to prevent learning loss, because there will be testing this year, we've been told. So the school has an interest in cramming as much content into kids as they can, regardless of the kinds of decisions they might make in a different policy context.

0:29:02.7 NC: It's absolutely heartbreaking too to think about that narrowness of the purpose of education, and of course then the measurements that we've talked about, that the chart's talking about here too. Karen mentions over here like the need for a better broader definition of what effective... Effective schools first, but then successful schools and students. And while you were talking Jennifer, too, I thought back about Jonathan Kozol, and how he sort of plays off these ideas of the dessicated curriculum opportunities are ones that would never fly in the wealthy suburban public schools, but those are the ones that the high accountability regime of what we would consider the liberal era, Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, would have gotten us, the Race to the Top, etcetera, after even, I don't know about SS so much, but in the wake of No Child Left Behind, certainly that's the regime that we ended up getting. So, so many good questions floating around here too.

0:30:04.8 NC: So I think what I wanna maybe shift gears towards is let's kind of live in this, in the unmaking world for a minute and imagine that there are some people listening to us who might be amenable to that notion, or even just questioning why would that be such a bad thing. We talked about how the private school infrastructure can maybe pick and choose students that the public school infrastructure either is required to take, that they're special needs or they might have behavioral problems that would keep them out of private school, sorry, or they can just pick and choose because you have to sign a faith statement to join this Catholic school or this other one. But let's imagine for a second here that we recognize the need for change within our education system and the things that we're talking about kind of speak to that need too: Inequitable outcomes, outmoded curricula, grading and assessment practices, whether we wanna talk about issues of police in schools too, the over-policing of bodies and increasingly of minds through Proctorio and some of those other things too, that we've talked about at HRP.

0:31:18.2 NC: But for our listeners who might be amenable to these ideas of Right Libertarian reformers, vouchers, for-profit schools, mass privatization, etcetera, who look at those things and say that that might not be a bad thing, if we fully arrive at their vision, of educational utopia, if we lived in a DeVos utopian era here, what have we lost, with the loss of the public infrastructure, what has the cost been, who are the winners and losers in that?

0:31:48.0 JB: I'm gonna steal a story that I heard Jack tell, 'cause we now spend so much time in various... In Zoom rooms, and now we're in a different kind of room, so we gave a draft of the manuscript to a colleague of his and the working title originally was The Dismantlers, and his colleague read it and he said, "I don't know where I fit in this, because I'm a dismantler, right? I wanna dismantle structures of oppression, I wanna dismantle police in schools, I wanna dismantle standardized testing." And so we really thought about it, and we thought that he's absolutely right, that our goal in writing this was not to say, you know, "Status quo is fine, just leave it alone," right? It was to say that, "Yes, we absolutely need to dismantle what isn't working and push for equity and all the things we want", but if you embrace an alternative that means treating individual... Treating education as an individual or a private good, you lose the capacity to demand the dismantling of those structures that you wanna change, right? And so you'll hear a lot of people saying right now, "Just give the money to the parents", right? For example, you're in Iowa and that's a state where your Republicans picked up some seats in the most recent election, you're gonna be hearing arguments like this in the coming session, and I think to a lot of people that seems kind of appealing.

0:33:27.1 JB: "Well, if you just gave me the money, I could figure out what to do with it", right? But what they leave out of that is that there are so many other things that we expect a school to do. We in the US expect our schools to function essentially as our only safety net. So what happens to all of those things? And so I think that's what you really have to be focused on, is to... The criticisms are being leveraged in a way to convince people to embrace a solution that makes the actual problems impossible to solve. And now I'm gonna hand it over to Jack, 'cause I feel like I did such a good job that he's not gonna know what to say.

0:34:13.1 JS: That's right, Jennifer, I'm just chiming in to say I'm at a loss, but while I scramble to think of what to say, I'll add that... What's lost here... And to pick up on what Jennifer is saying, her argument, as she retells my story, is that our collective ability to improve public education, to be the dismantlers that my colleague Jim Nearing, a former teacher and school principal, a truly thoughtful educator who was a part of the Coalition for Essential Schools movement, led by Ted Sizer, so he thinks himself as the Sizer disciple... Our ability to collectively engage in the kind of work that he has spent his career engaged in withers if we don't have transparency, oversight, regulation, public governance, right? Not only that, but of course then there's a massive opportunity for fraud and abuse.

0:35:20.5 JS: So I just have very little faith that suddenly our problems are gonna be solved by taking the public education system and essentially dumping it over into the private sector. One of the points I often make to people is, "Sure, let's imagine that the entire public education system has become privatized", because many people... There's this halo of exclusivity around private schools, which largely has to do with the fact that they have a more affluent clientele, a whiter clientele in most cases, a native English-speaking clientele, fewer Special Education students, and of course they turn people away, all of these things... And they charge money, these things make them seem like they're better.

0:36:04.1 JS: But of course, let's expand this system to scale and say, "Well, okay, well it's gonna be all the kids, right, it's the 50 million kids who are in the public education system, and where are the teachers gonna come from? Probably gonna be the three million public educators who are out there, and what's the curriculum gonna be?" Well, private schools tend to not teach that differently, except for the fringy ones, than their public school counterparts, so same teachers, same kids, same curriculum, we're probably gonna leverage the existing infrastructure, same buildings, right? It's just minus the existing transparency, oversight regulation, public governance. The last point that I wanna make is, one of you I think teaches economics, is that right? Teachers an economics class? Okay, right, so...

0:36:50.3 NC: Yes, that's me.

0:36:50.4 JS: Great, great. So then opportunity cost is something that your students will be familiar with, so let's think about what's the opportunity cost here. So as we spend all of this energy, right? All of this time, effort and energy un-making the public system, what are we not spending our time, effort and energy on? So let's imagine we spend tremendous human and economic resources to un-make the system, are we going to be better off than if we had spent those same human and economic sources on strengthening the system? I think the answer is obvious.

0:37:33.0 NC: It seems like the space to really organize and fight back against these policies and to get to a space where we can demand reform that is meaningful is, in one hand, by incorporating more teachers unions, however, there is a perception that teachers unions actually fight back against the progressive changes that you all are talking about, that they are the ones that are holding everything up. And I think that that just kinda goes hand-in-hand with how teachers have been viewed since early this the spring, where you have people like Corey DeAngelis, sort of Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin etcetera, really using this terminology of "take your money, give everybody vouchers, go to the private school, teachers unions are destroying schools", etcetera, etcetera, is... They're like this tension between unionization and education reform and all the things that you're talking about, does that exist, first off, more so now than ever, and why would you attribute to that? But also, would you advocate then for teachers being more prone to joining unions or advocate to start a union in order to get to the place that you would like them to be?

0:38:41.2 JB: I've been thinking about this question a lot, 'cause we're coming off of this period where you had this kind of extraordinary coalition, a bipartisan coalition, where the Democrats were all about weakening teachers unions for the right reasons, that if you constrained their collective bargaining, got rid of things like Last In, First Out, you put in all these evaluation policies, so the idea was that students would be better off. That there would be achievement gains if you intervened at this kind of policy level. So then you have... You go across the partisan divide to the conservatives and, well, they had their eye, frankly, on a bigger prize. And that was to figure out how to constrain collective action, and possibly even democracy.

0:39:36.5 JB: And so you see state after state that implemented what are called right-to-work laws. And these are basically just laws that mean that if you don't wanna join a union... You can't be forced to pay for the benefits that you get through the union contract. And so basically, these are... They weaken unions and they've had a measurable impact on their membership rates. There was a Supreme Court decision, but first we saw this happen at the state level. So we now have 10-plus years of research on whether the policy interventions that I described about things like hiring and evaluation, and... It's at best the most mixed of bags.

0:40:23.4 JB: We could take the sunniest perspective on it, and the best you could say that in certain cases you saw small gains, but where there's really no doubt is that what happened in these states that implemented these really harsh measures aimed at weakening unions, that if you look at what happened in states like Michigan and Iowa, they served their purpose, which is to make it harder to elect Democrats. Voter turnout dropped, it made it harder for people who come from the working class to run for office. And we have to leave the realm of education policy to see this, you have to go to political science where they've been doing quite a nice job documenting this. And so I... On the one hand, the reason that teachers get... Teachers unions get a bad rap among Democrat reformers is because of their resistance to these policy interventions. But I think that the Democrats have been too slow to recognize that the Republicans and the conservatives have their eye on on a bigger price that is delivering measurable results for them.

0:41:36.6 JS: I would agree with everything that Jennifer said, and just add that with the particular example of school closures, I definitely am inconvenienced, personally, that my daughter is virtual, right? And she is inconvenienced. She goes to school on a computer in a closet. That's not what anybody wants. But what's the right thing for our society? I don't think that opening schools right now is something that we could necessarily do safely, given the fact that bars and restaurants have been open, look at spiking numbers across every single state. I would love to live in a world where I could take a firm stand and say, "Schools should be open", but I think if I lived in that world then the unions would also have taken a different position on school closures.

0:42:29.5 JS: And I think one of the reasons the teacher's unions have gotten a bad rap over the past couple decades, is that they are a collectivist enterprise making decisions about what is good for the whole. Now, certainly one can level a criticism about teachers unions, particularly in the 70s and 80s, maybe 90s, being a little bit less focused on what's good for kids and their families, but right now we live in a period when teacher's unions have become one of the strongest advocacy groups for young people, particularly racially minoritized young people, low income young people, and their families, through a strategy commonly referred to as bargaining for the common good", doing a lot there in terms of advancing the kind of aims that would not get advanced if each of us were pursuing our own individual self-interest. If I were pursuing my own individual self-interest, yeah, my kid would be in school right now.

0:43:32.9 JS: And I'm not sure that's good for all of us. I hate to say it. I'm not sure. And I think that that's where we have to come down on some of this stuff is to say, "Maybe what we need is a little bit more conversation and deliberation", which of course is not something that either Centrist Democrats, right, Neo-liberals, or Right Libertarians are particularly engaged in. What they want is for people like teachers to be quiet and follow orders. I'm not sure that's good for education, and I'm not sure that that's good for kids.

0:44:14.6 JB: I would just add one more little piece to that. I wish that the unions had done a better job of making the case about their own safety concerns in kind of a broader pitch that everyone should have the right to a safe workplace. Because they've made the argument in a narrow way, it comes across as self-interested and then it opens the door to what Chris was talking about. And so you'll often... You'll hear people... I see people tweeting stories all day long about Europe, "Look at Europe, they've opened their schools", and what they completely missed is that the reason that Europe is able to keep its schools open is that it has this unbelievable social safety net, thanks to the strength of its unions.

0:45:04.9 JB: So they're closing everything else, paying workers 90% of their wages, including freelancers, to stay home, making sure that their economy is able to re-open when the pandemic is finally over. And so to make the case here that somehow we would be better off without unions seems just extraordinarily kind of dumb.

0:45:31.6 JS: Well, and one last note that I thought of in listening to Jennifer, is that of course in the American context so much of public perception of teachers unions is shaped by the fact that people are exploited in the United States in the workplace, more than they have been in a 100 years. So I think where a lot of people are coming, "Well I didn't have that right. I didn't have the ability to say that." And I think the response is not to say, "Well, shame on the teachers." I think the response is to say, "Actually, what do we need to do to make sure that everybody labors in safe conditions, that everybody has a kind of voice in the way that their work is shaped and managed and controlled, that everybody is adequately compensated for their work?"

0:46:23.2 NC: Amen to that. So, I think that's a perfect place to sort of wrap up the conversation. It's interesting, if we think about the notion of labor solidarity as being a net benefit not just say to teachers, but those brothers and sisters in labor too who might be part of restaurant unions or, gosh, other public and private employee unions too, electrical workers, across the board, and then imagine the attacks over the last... Well, since the Goldwater era or since the 80s on those groups. And then imagine that replicating itself now in public education to say, "Well, we're gonna take that educational solidarity away and fracture, continue to fracture those things out too, and let's take the, say, the wage gains or the wealth gap for the last 30 years, but then apply that to education as well." It's really difficult to imagine that replicating that formula in education would leave us in a better place than it did for labor over the last three decades too, so...

0:47:26.9 NC: Yeah, I think the answer overall is more democracy rather than less. And also interesting to think about the attacks on those democratic institutions are not just a de-legitimization of democracy, but also wanting to put barriers in front of the democratic process. So, here at the same time that we wanna remove the democratic accountability, we want to make it more difficult to have democratic accountability to elected officials, and to your boss or to your working conditions, and all of these other things. So yeah, I am definitely cool if the message at the end of this is solidarity and democracy in the workplace. Is there anything that we had missed that you think we should talk about here at the end before we do a plug and start to wrap things up, Jennifer and Jack?

0:48:22.9 JB: No, I think we really conveyed a sense of what the book is about and why we're worried, but also that just because you're sounding an alarm does not mean you're also saying that everything is great.

0:48:35.8 JS: Yeah, and I'll offer the yin to Jennifer's yang there and say that this is a dark picture that we paint in the book, and that we do so in order to try to spur action. That there are things we can all be doing, as family members of kids in public schools, as educators, as community members, as voters, you may have people listening who are school board members or who are locally elected officials. There is work that we can all be engaged in, but at the end of the day, I think the most important work is actually engaging in conversations that challenge the kinds of assumptions that are so problematic and that undermine the aim of excellent and equitable education for all young people, right? So when people sort of just say, as if it is an unquestionable truth, that the public schools are no good, or if people talk about the fact that teachers are self-interested, I think that these are things that can be met with pointed polite questions. Because as soon as people are questioned on this stuff, you know, "How do you know that the schools are no good? Tell me about the 98,000 public schools in the United States that your kid doesn't go to." I think that's where there's opportunity for growth, when we help people realize that a lot of the things that we take for granted we actually need to begin asking questions about.

0:50:09.7 NC: Well, thank you both very much for this. A reminder, the book is A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door. The podcast is, Have You Heard Podcast. And of course, you can read the review that I wrote for the book on our website, humanrestorationproject.org. Follow us at @humrespro. Of course, thank you Jennifer and Jack for joining us here today. Do you wanna plug a Twitter handle or... For the podcast or for yourselves along the way too?

0:50:38.3 JB: You can find out more, you can subscribe to the podcast anywhere basically that you get podcasts now, and we also have a blog, haveyouheardblog.com, and my Twitter handle is @BisforBerkshire.

0:50:52.2 JS: I'm @Edu_Historian, and the show's Twitter handle is @HaveYouHeardPod.


Review: We Want to Do More Than Survive
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Review: We Want to Do More Than Survive

Love’s approach to teaching invites us to build our pedagogical praxis around civic engagement and intersectional justice so we can move past reformist paradigms and practice educational freedom.

The Dark Underbelly of School Remediation
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The Dark Underbelly of School Remediation

Too often, we hear calls for research-based remediation for struggling schools and students. And too often, these are the students and schools that are in low-income, struggling neighborhoods.

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